The Law Commission has answered a question which has lingered in debate for decades, and found that it would be desirable to open sports to betting, with the caveat that it must be regulated. It has also respected the public will, insisting that this is a political decision for Parliament to thrash out. Indeed, gambling cannot be imposed on a morally sensitive public, and implementation could prove to be difficult. It would be useful to gauge the public mood through its representatives in advance. In this context, it would be useful to heed commission member S Sivakumar, who has filed his dissent, on the ground that the social implications of the move have been insufficiently examined.
The theoretical logic for opening up betting is well-known and has been supported by the commission. It is a common-sense position, and does not really require the support of Narada, Chanakya and Katyayana, who have been invoked. Legalisation would generate jobs and revenues for the government, and regulation would help contain financial crime. Unless betting is legalised, on the other hand, it will persist underground in a completely unregulated form, a fact that the Constituent Assembly was seized of. It will continue to excite the interest of fixers and mafias, will ensure the criminal intimidation of players, and remain a conduit for money of questionable colour.
The commission has rightly suggested the criminalisation of fixing, with significant legal deterrence, and undescored the need for betting to be allowed only under the control of the state. State governments must ensure that illegal betting, which flourishes on street corners and on the phone network, is suppressed.
However, other suggestions for regulation may have to be thought through. The attempt to segregate “proper betting” for high stakes from “small gambling” by the poor may not survive scrutiny. The suggestion is well-intentioned and would protect the economically weaker sections, but disbarring from participation all players who get subsidies or do not pay taxes may violate the principle of equality of access. Persuasion may prove to be a more suitable protector of the vulnerable than such segregation. Bringing betting overground is an economically and socially desirable objective, but as the commission has said, it must be operated strictly within the purview of the law. Putting part of the population beyond its pale would keep a section of the business underground, defeating the purpose of the reform.