IPL row casts spotlight on India''s gambling laws

MUMBAI: India should scrap its outdated and confusing laws on gambling, experts and commentators said, after claims of illegal betting during the country''s multi-billion-dollar Twenty20 cricket tournament.

The allegations surrounding the Indian Premier League -- and claims of tax evasion by its organisers -- saw the suspension on Sunday of IPL chief Lalit Modi hours after the tournament''s showpiece final.

As in 2000, when federal investigators unearthed widespread illegal betting and match-fixing by Indian bookmakers and some leading players, the controversy has led to calls for gambling to be legalised.

An online poll for The Times of India newspaper last week suggested 74 percent of respondents favoured gambling being made "a legitimate, regulated tax-paying business".

"It should have been legalised long ago. Banning it has created this problem," Barun Mitra, head of the Liberty Institute, a free-market think-tank in New Delhi, told AFP.

Aftab Ahmed "A.A." Khan, a former top police officer in Mumbai, said decriminalisation would loosen the grip of an underworld that largely controls gambling rackets and create a level playing field for ordinary punters.

"It will make a lot of difference to the common man. A lot of genuine speculators and cricket enthusiasts will welcome it," he added.

Gambling in India is heavily restricted. Only two states -- Goa in the southwest and remote Sikkim in the northeast -- allow gambling in casinos, although a number of other local legislatures now permit lottery gaming.

Betting on horse-racing is allowed but only at the trackside during races.

Overall, India''s gambling market is estimated to be worth billions of dollars a year. But about half of that is estimated to be illegal, mostly on cricket.

On the sporting front, Khan, who made his name battling Mumbai''s gangland kingpins in the 1980s and 90s, said cricket''s authorities should raise their game to curb illegal activities.

Gambling is often a front for money laundering, said the avowed cricket fan, who now runs a private security firm and is involved in the fight against film piracy -- also often linked to organised crime.

"It has reduced over the last five years after all the stringent measures taken by the ICC (International Cricket Council) and BCCI (Board of Cricket Control of India)," he said. "There''s been a lot of improvements."

The ICC, cricket''s world governing body, formed an anti-corruption unit after the match-fixing scandal of 2000. Its officials now man every international match played in the world.

Players are banned from carrying mobile phones into the dressing room and are constantly monitored in the team hotel by the ICC''s anti-corruption officials.

The unit is headed by former London Metropolitan Police chief Paul Condon.

But Khan said more still needed to be done, particularly in Mumbai and the western city of Ahmedabad, which he described as hotbeds of illegal gambling.

Som Mandal, from leading law firm FoxMandal Little in New Delhi, said India''s gambling laws were confusing and outdated, especially given the growing popularity of online betting around the world.

The Public Gaming Act was first introduced nearly 150 years ago in British colonial times and has remained largely unchanged.

"It''s 19th century legislation that''s supposed to be regulating gambling on the Internet," Mandal said.

Lack of clarity about what is allowed and the idiosyncrasy of some states allowing lotteries and casinos while others do not has forced gambling underground, he added.

"A lot of the time it''s a ''wink, wink'' situation. As long you don''t get caught and don''t step on the wrong toes you can continue what you''re doing," said Mandal.

"The moment there''s some sort of political angle to it or you come on the wrong side of the law as perceived by some people then all hell breaks loose.

"This controversy has brought to light what we have been trying to say for at least four or five years: the government needs to come out with a clear and consistent policy, not only on betting but also lottery and gaming in general."