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India's online gaming boom prompts fears of gambling surge

December 28, 2022

India is expecting its multibillion-dollar online gaming industry to more than triple in size over the next four years. Officials and mental health professionals fear addiction and gambling will become more widespread.

A picture showing online gamers in India
Real-money online games and chance games are considered akin to gambling and mostly banned across IndiaImage: Adil Bhat/DW

B. Bhavani, a 29-year-old resident of India's southern city of Chennai, used to sneak out from her bed in the middle of the night to play online card games like rummy. She promised her husband several times she would quit, but she was already hooked.

As her addiction worsened, Bhavani's savings started to disappear and debts began to mount.

She and her husband Bhagyaraj Rajena, parents of two young children, suffered losses of more than 2 million Indian rupees (€22,700/$24,200), as well as gold jewelry Bhavani had borrowed from her sisters.

This past June, Bhavani took her own life.

"Initially, my wife made some gains, which led her to invest more money in the game. After a few wins, she started losing all her money. Despite this, she continued to play, mostly in hiding," Rajena told DW in a phone interview. 

Rajena said 90% of his monthly salary goes into paying off debts left by his late wife, adding that he is struggling to support his family.

Bhavani's death is one of the 17 deaths by suicide due to online gaming reported in the last three years in the state of Tamil Nadu.

In October, the state passed legislation to prohibit online gambling and regulate online games amid a spike in suicides. But as India's multibillion-dollar online gaming industry continues to grow, along with access to the internet, officials fear online gaming addiction is becoming more widespread.

The industry is projected to more than triple in size over the next four years. India already has over 400 online gaming startups and, as of 2020, around 360 million gamers, according to an EY-All India Gaming Federation report.

Children also at risk of online gambling addiction

Responsible Netism, a Mumbai-based nonprofit, has stepped up its anti-addiction programs and counseling sessions for children on their cyber wellness help line.

"We receive hundreds of calls from parents on a daily basis who approach us to counsel their children addicted to online gaming, like rummy. These children play with money, putting out thousands of dollars every day," said Unmesh Joshi, co-founder of Responsible Netism. But few Indian states have started taking initiatives to address the surge in online gambling.

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"There is an urgent need to establish regulations for online gaming. It is regulation and not outright banning that would address the problem…Providing social support to the addicts and imparting tech-related education to children is the need of the hour," Joshi said.

Differentiating between chance and skill games

Although chance-based gaming is already banned in India, determining what is legal remains contentious. Take fantasy sports, for example: India's highest court considers it a skills-based game, making it legal, just like rummy. In state courts, however, these games have been categorized as chance-based.

Real-money online games and chance games are considered akin to gambling and mostly banned across India.

A group of men sitting at a table looking at their mobile phones
Could bans have an unfavorable effect on the gaming industry?Image: Pradeep Gaur/Zuma/IMAGO

The Esports Players Welfare Association, a nonprofit group, has urged the Tamil Nadu government to distinguish skill-based games from gambling, adding that bans can have an adverse impact on the gaming industry.

"Reports indicate there are over 6 million professional online gamers in India. In the past they have suffered when there is a gaming ban as they are classified as criminals. For some, playing online games is a livelihood and they form a big part of the gig economy," said EPWA director Shivani Jha.

"One can hope that this will not be repeated in Tami Nadu state," she added.

New Delhi-based lawyer Aditya Kumar also stresses that the Indian government should clearly distinguish between skill and chance-based games.

"We need to set up an independent commission that certifies what is a game of skill and game of chance. This will help the government deal with betting and gambling more severely," Kumar said, adding that the states and central government need to work together concerning regulations.

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Back in Chennai, Bhavani's husband Rajena supports a complete ban on online gaming in Tamil Nadu. He believes a full ban can save young people and children from online gaming addiction and prevent suicide.

Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum

If you are suffering from serious emotional strain or suicidal thoughts, do not hesitate to seek professional help. You can find information on where to find such help, no matter where you live in the world, at this website: https://www.befrienders.org/

DW Adil Bhat
Adil Bhat TV reporter and correspondent with a special focus on politics, conflict and human-interest stories.