Bhavani was a 29-year-old Science graduate and mother of two living in Manali, Chennai. What started as a casual hobby a year-and-a-half ago turned into a compulsive habit, and according to her relative Saravanan, eventually became the primary reason for her to end her life on June 5.
Online rummy, the more common term for online gambling or online games with financial stakes, has claimed the lives of at least six persons in Tamil Nadu since the start of 2022. This is the backdrop in which Tamil Nadu Governor N Ravi on Friday approved an ordinance to ban online rummy and poker games two weeks after the MK Stalin government decided to ban these games, terming them “online games of chance”.
Soon after the death of Bhavani, the state government formed a committee to look into the effects of online games with stakes. The committee, led by K Chandru, former judge of the Madras High Court, on June 27, recommended ban on both the games and their advertisements.
Besides Chandru, the panel comprised Sankararaman, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras; psychiatrist Lakshmi Vijayakumar, who founded SNEHA, a non-profit that works to prevent suicides; and Additional Director General of Police Vinit Dev Wankhede.
Pointing out that 17 deaths have been linked to these online games, the panel in its 71-page report said that players were being made to play with the machine, and there was no skill involved since the “random factor” in the game was picked by an algorithm that included factors predetermined by the companies. The report also explained the psychological ill-effects of the game.
As a previous legislation banning online games with stakes was struck down by the Madras High Court, the panel recommended that the state government come up with a new legislation focusing on the grounds of “public health and public order”.
The Lives Lost
Recent numbers released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) show Tamil Nadu ranked second in the country in terms of the number of suicides reported in 2021. The state recorded 18,925 suicides and was right behind Maharashtra (22,207). Experts, however, have pointed out that better reporting could be a reason for high numbers in Tamil Nadu.
For instance, a 2019 study by the University of Melbourne, published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research, observed that more economically developed states had three to four times higher suicide rates than less economically developed states, but part of this could be attributed to better registration of suicide cases. It also said states with higher levels of male unemployment and higher literacy rates had higher risk of suicide.
A Chennai-based non-profit organization called the Rotary Club of Chennai Infocity, which provides counselling to the loved ones of suicide victims through its Rotary Rainbow Project, said families of two victims revealed debt accumulation was to blame and not addiction to the game itself.
The two victims – Kalimuthu from Coimbatore and Nagarajan from Chennai – were reportedly caught in a debt trap and not online games, their kin confirmed to Sridhar, who is part of the Rotary Rainbow Project. The Rotary Rainbow Project is not to be confused with the Rotary Club of Chennai Rainbow, which confirmed to News18 that it does not conduct any study or work with families of suicide victims as reported by some news outlets.
Sridhar called the wrong attribution of suicides to online rummy a “disservice to the victims and their families”. “To quickly close the case and because of the unnecessary stigmatisation of the issue, a lot of these suicides have been attributed to online gaming,” Sridhar told News18.
The All India Gaming Federation (AIGF) said the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to ban online games is “disappointing because it disregards the six decades of established legal jurisprudence and also the recent judgment of the Madras HC which struck down a similar law”.
The AIGF told News18 that it has been trying to engage with the government to understand its concerns and has also made the authorities aware of the proliferation of offshore gambling websites and apps which flourish when constitutionally protected Indian apps are banned.
“We had provided various consumer protection and other measures which stop short of an outright ban. In such a scenario, this is unfortunate. What is also surprising is that the state government has already appealed the judgment of Madras HC, and the SC had recently issued notices on the same,” the AIGF told News18.
The gaming body said instead of waiting for the Supreme Court judgment, another “unconstitutional” decision has been made which will “eventually only benefit online gambling operators”.
The AIGF suggested that instead of a ban, the state government can work with the Centre, which has the legislative competence to devise a regulatory framework for the sector. “Regulating this sunrise sector can boost investment trends in states, create jobs, and contribute economically,” the apex gaming body told News18.
A Political Hot Potato
In November 2020, the then AIADMK government headed by Edapaddi K Palaniswami had amended a 90-year-old law to ban online gaming, including online rummy.
Palaniswami, who now sits in the Opposition, has been critical of the ruling DMK government for failing to ban online gaming. On August 8, he alleged that the state government had joined hands with online gaming service providers and hence was delaying the imposition of a ban on online rummy.
“The state government has taken a commission to aid online rummy firms to earn Rs 20,000 crore annually. Many have lost their properties and lives playing online rummy. Even common people know that gambling is bad. But CM Stalin doesn’t know this as he seeks to elicit opinion from the public regarding banning online gambling,” he said, speaking in Kangeyam in Tirupur.
Anbumani Ramadoss of the Pattali Makkal Katchi, an ally of the National Democratic Alliance, had also advocated a ban to prevent deaths. He said the government should not hesitate to ban the games since people were ending lives unable to suffer financial losses.
In August 2021, the Madras High Court had overturned the AIADMK government’s decision to ban online rummy after hearing a batch of pleas challenging the move. Subsequently, the Stalin-led DMK government moved the Supreme Court against the HC order, but the case has not come up for hearing.
A panel of state finance ministers on September 5 met to discuss taxation of casinos and online gaming and to seek legal opinion on valuation criteria for all these segments.
The Group of Ministers (GoM) headed by Meghalaya CM Conrad Sangma said: “After taking the opinion of stakeholders and after successive meetings to seek suggestions from all members, we will take legal opinion before submitting the final report.” The final report is expected to be released soon.
The panel in an earlier report had proposed to the GST Council to levy 28% tax on gross sales value as horse racing, online gaming and casinos are akin to betting or gambling.
The AIGF told News18 that the GoM recognising the constitutional and legal difference and nuances of online games is very promising. The gaming body, which shared its views with the GoM, said: “We are very hopeful that the GoM will arrive at a progressive and constitutionally sound recommendation for rate and valuation for our industry.”
Ban a move in the right direction?
A state government notification issued on Friday said the ordinance aimed to “prohibit” online gambling and “regulate online gaming in the state of Tamil Nadu.”
As per the notification, the committee led by Chandru categorized online gaming into two: one with “minimal or negligible randomness factor” and “another having random event or count generators, which are pseudo random and are addictively designed”. The committee recommended to regulate the former and ban the latter.
Sridhar said the ban would not be very helpful as a lot of people who play these games will continue to do so using Virtual Private Networks and other methods.
“It would have been more useful if the state worked on player protection and de-addiction strategies. We have also seen a massive rise in gambling apps and Chinese loan apps proliferating,” Sridhar pointed out.
However, it remains to be seen if the ban on online rummy – now associated with addiction – will have a positive effect in Tamil Nadu, a state that has historically had a high burden of suicides.
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