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Legislating Lotteries


As I grew up in Coimbatore, I used to take a bus everday from home to school and back. At “terminuses” when buses stopped for a while, the bus would soon be full of people trying to make some money. There were the beggars of various hues, the inji maraba peddlers and then the lottery ticket hawkers: Mostly women and kids who were too proud to beg, screaming “Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu – oru rubaiyku oru latcham” (one rupee can buy you a hundred thousand). They made a 20% commission on every ticket sold, and they would plead, coax and cajole everyone in the bus to buy just one ticket. Hard work, yeah, but most of them did it with dignity.

Over the last couple of years or so, state governements have started banning lotteries. It started off in Tamil Nadu, and seems to have spread to neighbouring Kerala now. Why the ban? Because lottery tickets are gambling, and gambling is a vice. And Indian Governments love to legislate vice. True, gambling is a problem. But it is a personal problem, not one that society should try and legislate. We know a priest that lives next door to my grandmother's house. Every single day, he spends at least half of what he earns on buying lottery tickets. Once in a while, he would win a few hundred thousand, and promptly buy expensive “jackpot” tickets with his winnings. Now that lotteries are “banned” in Tamil Nadu, you think he has been mysteriously reformed?

Seedy places where you can play “scratch” lottery have mushroomed throughout the state. With legitimate lotteries, the government at least got a piece of the pie. Meanwhile, I wonder what happened to the old woman that peddled tickets in her shaky voice at Gandhipuram. I took pity on her and tried to buy a ticket once, and she told me “Chinna payanukku idhellam vendam thambi” (A young boy like you shouldn't be buying this stuff).