Delhi-based psychiatrist Dr Pankaj Kumar says there has been a 15-20% increase in the number of people seeking treatment for gambling addiction after the lockdown. For most people, it starts as entertainment which grows into an addiction. Gamblers are lulled by the false belief that they can leave anytime.
Which is what happened to 17-year-old Ashwini* who started playing some games as a way to redeem reward points. He received some gifts which spurred his interest further. What started as fun and games quickly became a habit. He moved from casual gaming to playing for money, borrowing from friends and pilfering valuables from home, even managing to access his father’s bank account.
He withdrew small amounts over a period of a year, totalling over Rs 2 lakh. When his father confronted him, he denied it. Believing his denial, the father even approached the police. It was only then that the teen confessed to his addiction. The parents paid up the loans and believed his assurances that he would not play again. But the boy resumed soon after and started demanding money from his parents. When his father refused, he turned aggressive and beat him up.
“It was only then that the father realised that his son could even kill him in thisfit of rage,” Dr Kumar says. The teen was brought to the doctor for help earlier this year and is now under psychiatric treatment.
Gambling releases dopamine which is what makes it addictive. Dr Manoj Sharma, professor at NIMHANS Bengaluru’s SHUT (Service for Healthy Use of Technology) clinic that tackles tech de-addiction, says that people were driven by boredom and lack of work to go online during the pandemic.
Discover the stories of your interest
“Players first start with casual gaming and then progress to money games, and then to higher stakes. While every win brings a high, every loss leaves the player with a feeling of guilt, regret but also the hope that they can regain the losses by playing more. When they realise that they can’t compensate for the losses, there’s a sense of guilt, hopelessness, and failure which can drive them to take desperate actions. ”
These risks are even more in the case of minors. Some websites do not conduct know-your-customer (KYC) or other age verification checks. This allows minors easy access to these websites, exposing them to unsuitablecontent and enticing them to engage in illegal activities, says a study on online gaming by tech policy think tank ESYA Centre. It also notes that “gambling is associated with higher financial distress and lower financial inclusion and planning, higher rates of future unemployment and physical disability, and at its most acute, with substantially increased mortality. ”
A Delhi-based cloth merchant took to gambling during the lockdown. “Eventually he started diverting and selling stocks for a loss just to fuel his gambling habit,” says Dr Kumar. In two years, his business was destroyed, he was in debt, and his children had to be withdrawn from a private school and sent to a government one. The family finally reached out for medical help though the trader was in denial. “It took three months, and with a combination of medication, psychotherapy, counselling sessions, his condition improved,” Dr Kumar adds.
But what about the legality?
While betting and gambling are illegal across India (except in some states like Sikkim and Nagaland) under the 1867 Public Gambling Act, the colonial-era law does leave room for an exception by legalising games of skill. Subsequent court orders have recognised rummy, chess and poker as games of skill rather than chance. But concerns related to gambling addiction have prompted the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu to bring in laws banning gambling for money. However, some of these bans have been successfully challenged and overturned with the courts recognising games like rummy and poker to be skill-based and legal. The Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments have challenged this in SC where the matter is currently pending. In fact, the Tamil Nadu governor on Friday approved an ordinance to ban online gambling.
Domestic gaming companies contend that there is no uniformity in laws which differ from state to state. They also argue that while Indian companies are being subjected to taxation laws with a Bengaluru-based online gaming company being charged with the largest indirect showcause notice in history — that of Rs 21,000 crore — companies registered outside the country are exempt from the legislative framework.
Meanwhile, advertisements for such websites continue with disclaimers. For example, in December 2020, advertisements of offshore betting websites were shown during the live-streaming of cricket matches between India and Australia. Many use cricket and Bollywood stars for endorsement. Self-regulatory organisation E-Gaming Federation (EGF) has demanded a central regulation that will protect the interests of players and industry.
“We understand that gaming is an immersive experience and players can go overboard but bans are not the answer. We are seeking a soft touch regulation that will help the legit industry grow and protect players’ interests too,” says EGF CEO Sameer Barde. The federation has already put in place a code of conduct for its members that include age-gating, putting limits on the time and money a player spends and KYC norms so minors do not play money games. In August, the government set up a task force to frame policy for the sector.
Technology and gaming lawyer Jay Sayta says all games should be regulated. “All games — whether skill or chance based — should be regulated and taxed so that there is compliance, otherwise the industry will go underground and continue illegally. ”
* Name changed