Karnataka govt rolls the dice: Game over for online betting?

Taking no ‘chances’, the state government is moving to ban all forms of betting in online games.
Last Updated 19 September 2021, 02:01 IST

Taking no ‘chances’, the state government is moving to ban all forms of betting in online games.

The Karnataka Police (Amendment) Bill, tabled in the Assembly on Friday, has sparked a buzz raising concerns about the impact it would have on the online gaming industry while also receiving brickbats for being ambiguous.

If the Bill gets through, Karnataka will join Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala in attempting to either regulate or prohibit this sphere.

While the existing law in Karnataka prohibits gambling on offline games (games of chance), the government has now included online games and has also brought a ban on wagering on games of skill. No person will be allowed to risk money on the unknown result of an event including a game of skill, it says. However, maintaining status quo, horse-race betting is exempted from the Bill.

Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister J C Madhuswamy told DH that the government’s aim is to only crack down on wagering or betting on games, but not on gaming itself. “If someone plays without money or without stakes, it is not an offense,” he says.

He added that the government will soon notify which games will qualify under “skill” and what falls under “chance.”

However, the Bill seems to have neither brought cheer to those demanding a ban on online games nor to those seeking liberalisation of the gaming industry.

S Umesh, senior advocate and president of Five-Year Law Course Advocates’ Association, has been among those demanding a ban on online gaming. “I am not satisfied with this Bill. It is open to multiple interpretations. The government needs to explicitly ban all forms of online gaming,” he says.

Umesh argues that several children are addicted to online games that require them to pay money to play. “This has worsened during the pandemic. Many steal money from their parents to pay for gaming. The government has to act in the welfare of children,” he says. His association would soon file a public interest litigation on this,
he adds.

On the other hand, the gaming industry is also worried because the Bill does not clearly distinguish between games of skills and chance.

Tech policy researcher Shivani Jha, the legal head at eSports Players Welfare Association, puts it thus: “Going by public sources, everything seems ambiguous. Considering that we are looking forward to Asian Games 2022, which includes eSports as a discipline and the fact that Bengaluru is an investment hub for sports tech in India, one can only hope that the state will come up with clarifications on skill-based games.”

According to a recent KPMG report, the online casual gaming in India is expected to grow to Rs 169 billion by 2025, from Rs 60 billion in 2021. The report also highlights how the Covid-19 pandemic period has bolstered the online gaming space.

With the Madras High Court recently striking down a similar law in Tamil Nadu, there are also concerns about the legality of the Bill.

“The Supreme Court has clearly indicated that states can only prohibit betting and gambling on a game of chance and not on games of skill. Also, the court has held that both Rummy and horse-racing are games of skills. However, Karnataka’s legislation allows horse race betting, but not Rummy,” Supreme Court senior advocate Sajan Poovayya points out.

The Bill is vague and merits an expert committee report, he adds. “Also, the law should be clear that it will not restrict fantasy games, which aren’t games of chance.”

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(Published 18 September 2021, 17:36 IST)

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