Debt to suicides, as Indians take up online games, gambling fears grow
B. Bhavani assured her father she would quit online card games - a promise she had made several times before as her family in southern India fretted about her mounting debts. A few hours later, the 29-year-old took her own life.
Bhavani, who was married with two young children, had racked up losses that her husband estimated at more than 1 million Indian rupees ($12,255) since she started using online apps to play games like rummy about a year before her death in June.
"It started slowly, with small bets; my wife won a few times and then she wouldn't stop," R. Bhagyaraj told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as his two-year-old son cycled around his in-laws' yard in the city of Chennai.
Across India, rising internet use has seen a surge in online gaming involving money, including games of chance that are considered akin to gambling, which is mostly banned across India.
While most states and platforms ban gambling apps, there is no nationwide mechanism to regulate online real-money games - including games considered skill-based such as some fantasy sports and poker.
But amid growing concern about gambling addiction and gambling-related suicides, the federal government has set up a task force to help draft a new law to replace India's colonial-era Public Gambling Act and ensure a "responsible, transparent and safe" online gaming environment.
Anxious to tackle problem gambling, some Indian states have started to take action of their own. Tamil Nadu - where Bhavani lived - banned online real-money games in October, citing a spate of suicides.
Internet safety campaigners say the country's gambling law, which dates from 1867 and only bans games of chance, is woefully inadequate for governing the fast-growing online gaming industry and protecting vulnerable players such as children and the poor.
"We saw that online gaming and gambling rose during the pandemic, and we have seen the mental health impacts and other effects on vulnerable people, even children," said Unmesh Joshi, co-founder of Responsible Netism, an advocacy group in Mumbai.
"There is definitely a need for regulation, but we also need education of users, rules on advertising, age verification and better monitoring of apps by platforms. An outright ban is not the solution, as bans don't work," he added.
SKILL OR CHANCE
India's mobile gaming industry is forecast to more than triple in worth to $5 billion by 2025. But determining what is legal remains contentious.
India's Supreme Court has said rummy and some fantasy sports are skill-based and legal, but some state courts have classified such games as chance-based, and hence illegal - causing further legal confusion and prompting court challenges.
The All India Gaming Federation (AIGF), a lobby group, has challenged Tamil Nadu's ban - which covers rummy and poker - on the grounds that these are games of skill, and says protecting industry jobs should be a priority.
"A ban on legitimate Indian operators will have an adverse effect, and push more and more people towards illegal offshore websites," said Roland Landers, chief executive of AIGF, which represents about 100 of India's more than 900 gaming companies.
"Any regulation should be light touch, and allow for innovation while safeguarding users and preventing malicious games and companies from operating," Landers said.
The federal government task force had recommended that a regulatory body should classify online games as based on skill or chance, introduce rules to block prohibited formats, and take a stricter view on online gambling.
The prime minister's office is taking a tougher stance, however, favouring regulation of all real-money games, Reuters reported earlier this month.
Meanwhile, Google in September allowed games such as rummy and fantasy sports on its Play Store in India, with the apps listing age limits, the company's registration details, and an notification on responsible gambling.
Earlier this year, a Tamil Nadu state committee that recommended a ban on all online card games said 17 suicides in the state in the past three years were linked to online gaming.
It said gambling addiction had led to domestic violence, mental health issues and household debt problems, adding that children often used fake identities and their parents' credit cards for online gaming.
But rather than a ban, tech policy expert Vivan Sharan called for a more holistic approach including ethical game design that does not encourage reckless behaviour, responsible advertising, treatment facilities for problem gamblers, and monitoring by platforms for vulnerable players.
"By targeting harms and allowing for flexibility in solutions, India can tackle behavioural issues in gaming while fostering the growth of the industry," which could generate more than 1 million jobs by 2030, said Sharan, of the Koan Advisory consulting firm.
In Chennai, however, Bhavani's family see no upside to the industry. She had been working as a customer service executive at a private company, and had taken a loan to start her own salon - but lost even that money to gambling.
"She was a very talented girl, very pretty," said her mother, Lakshmi, holding her daughter's wedding photograph, still wrapped in plastic.
"She bought her children lots of toys, wanted to give them the best, and even mentioned moving abroad. Maybe that's what drove her to gambling - the hope of making big money."