Avatar: The Way of Indian iGaming

They say that India has 40,000 gods and goddesses, and that each one has four avatars.

At the expense of exaggeration, it could be argued that such complexity lies at the heart of India’s vast, mostly unregulated, often downright illicit, gambling industry, conservatively worth some US$60 billion a year (£49.38bn/€55.85bn).

Here in the UK we are currently awaiting reform of an “antiquated” Gambling Act that was promulgated way back in 2005, well before the nascence of sophisticated Internet-powered iGaming.

Take a deep breath and consider that in India, now the world’s most populous country, betting is still heavily determined by The Public Gambling Act of 1867. Yes, 1867, from the era of British colonial rule.

Across this kaleidoscopic nation of 1.4 billion people, over 100 languages and many religions, Central law prohibits running, or being in charge of, a public gambling house. The penalty for breaking this diktat is imprisonment of up to three months or a fine of INR₹200, a tidy sum in the mid-19th Century, but the equivalent today of only around £2.

India’s Information Technology Act 2000, which regulates cyber activities in the South Asia nation, does not mention the word “gambling” or “betting” per se.

Regulation, such as it is, for gambling has hitherto been loosely delegated to the country’s 28 individual states and eight Union Territories.

For example, in the western state of Maharashtra, home of India’s financial capital, Mumbai, and the nation’s Bollywood entertainment industry, all forms of online gambling are resolutely banned.

Currently, only three states–the former Portuguese colonial enclaves of Goa and Daman, on the west coast, and Sikkim, bordering China-Tibet and Bhutan, in the far north-east–allow real-world casinos, either floating or based in five star hotels.

Elsewhere gambling is casually categorised into “games of chance” or “games of skill”. In some states small wagers on games of chance are tolerated, in others it is games of skill that are allowed.

Throughout the nation iGaming is banned: although, get this: It is not illegal for non-Indian casino companies to have off-shore sites specifically targeting Indian punters — on the proviso that all action is conducted in Indian rupees.

iGaming Revolution

As with most things in India, in an idiosyncratic trait shared with Britain, there are exceptions to almost every rule. For instance in the two central southern states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh all gambling-–be it online, on land, or off-shore–is outlawed.

If you can compute these conflicting complexities then it’s easy to comprehend how the sport of Chess was invented in India over 1,500-years-ago, and why Indians, with their mastery of lateral thinking, make such brilliant software programmers.

And to think that we haven’t even explored the phenomenon of illegal sports betting in India. It’s a multi-billion-dollar obsession that could teach legal international sportsbooks a trick or two about the art of in-play and parlay gambits.

But now, with such vast riches within official grasp and only in need of lawful regulation, India is set to launch an iGaming revolution that will see the country steal a march on its great regional rival and economic competitor, China; beyond raising massive sums for the national and federal exchequers.

The BJP government of prime minister Narendra Modi has just published a new set of rules to regulate iGaming, to establish “self-regulatory” bodies to oversee the online gambling sector.

These groups, formed by online gaming businesses, with the participation of “eminent” personalities and central government-appointed experts, will create rules for online gambling.

They will forge legislation to safeguard punters against harm, addiction and money laundering and feature a full panoply of responsible gambling and child safeguards.

The Next Big Thing

With such massive legal tax revenues at stake; and China reeling anew from a secondary burst of Covid19; India could not have chosen a more opportune moment to seize mastery of the Asian iGaming space.

Online gambling remains illegal in the Communist-controlled Middle Kingdom, and its experiment to “confine” the “gambling bug” to Macau (like India’s Goa, a former Portuguese entrepôt) is coming unstuck — much like its fight against the Covid19 virus.

2022 third-quarter losses for Macau’s six casino concession holders exceeded US$1 billion (£824m/€931m), thanks principally to China’s hardline zero-Covid19 policy, so recently abandoned in the face of growing public anger and protest.

And Macau’s Q4 revenue for the year ended was still only some 15 per cent of pre-Covid 2019 levels.

President Xi Jinping’s mainland Communist junta, the hand that rocks the Macau cradle, is now seriously floating the possibility of its rich gambling baby adopting the Chinese renminbi, and experimental digital renminbi, as the currency of “le jeux d’argent”, superseding the Macanese pataca and Hong Kong dollar, which are currently in use.

Such a financial move, it’s argued, would transform Macau’s moribund casino economy and restore its former lustre.

But while Xi grapples with the thorny issue of how to revive the Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, as Macau is officially termed; and remains resolute that iGaming will never see the legal light of day on the mainland; India has grasped the gambling nettle.

Igaming in India?

This reporter wagers, it’s the Next Big Thing.

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