Of dreams and dashed hopes: There are lakhs of others who dutifully sink in hundreds every month hoping for that elusive victory.

Keralas golden goose Inside the gigantic lottery business worth over Rs 7000 crore
Features Business Wednesday, June 14, 2017 - 12:41
At 7 am every morning, Raju leaves his Karamana home to ride 15 minutes down to Fort in Thiruvananthapuram, where he sells lottery tickets at a small roadside stall under a black umbrella. With commuter traffic starting early at Fort, Raju’s workday kicks off bright and early too. Buying 50 tickets from an agent every day, Raju usually sells off his stock much before the 3pm daily draw.

“It is a rare day when I am not able to sell 50 tickets. Some days, I sell off what I have bought and buy more tickets from some other vendors. When I sell 50 tickets, I get Rs 340. When I sell more, my income increases,” Raju says.

For Raju, who was born without his left hand and forearm, the lottery business came as a fortunate alternative when his previous job shut down abruptly.

“I was working as a hotel worker, bringing water for cooking from a nearby well. When the hotel was shut down, I was in a helpless situation not knowing what to do. Then I saw a disabled person like me selling lottery tickets. I asked around about it and then slowly started the business,” says the genial 43-year-old. Raju is just one of the hundreds of men and women of various ages, spread across the state, who make their living selling lottery tickets.

On foot in the midst of traffic, on bicycles, in pavement stalls and small shops, these ticket-sellers push out lakhs of tickets for the seven daily lotteries as well as the seasonal and festival bumper draws.

While neighbouring Tamil Nadu and Karnataka shut down their lottery businesses years ago, the business has flourished in Kerala over decades.

A 50-year-old business 

The government lottery business kicked off in Kerala on November 1, 1967, the day of Kerala Piravi – when the state was born. In November this year, the State Lotteries Department celebrates its 50th anniversary. 

With the motto of Viswasthyam, Sutharyam, Janakeeyam (reliable, transparent and popular), the Lotteries Department rolls out seven weekly lotteries – Pournami, Win Win, Sthree Sakthi, Akshaya, Nirmal, Karunya Plus and Karunya – one for each day of the week.

Four of the biggest festivals  – Onam, Vishu, Christmas and Pooja (Dasara) – also get their own special bumper lotteries. Besides these, there are also two special seasonal lotteries, the Monsoon and Summer bumper lotteries.

While tickets for the daily lotteries are priced at Rs 30, the special bumper tickets are priced between Rs 100 and Rs 200. Prize money, for the daily lotteries, ranges from a modest Rs 100 to an astounding Rs 75 lakh. When it comes to the festival bumper lotteries, jackpot prizes run into crores – last year’s Onam lottery offered a jackpot of Rs 8 crore.

Behind the scenes

Despite the massive jackpot prizes paid out, especially in the bumper lotteries, the lottery business is one of Kerala’s biggest cash cows, drawing thousands of crores to the state exchequer each year. In 2015-16, the Kerala government earned Rs 7,300 crore by selling lottery tickets, of which the profit to the exchequer was Rs 2,200 crore. And this is after a major shortfall from the original target of Rs 10,000 crore.

"Due to the cash crunch caused by demonetisation, we were forced to cancel some tickets and draw lots. Otherwise we could have achieved the target," says Anil Bhaskar, Publicity Officer, Lotteries Department. For comparison, Anil points out that lottery sales in Maharashtra only generate an annual turnover of Rs 50 crore.

All of this revenue – the average daily turnover currently stands at Rs 25 crore – is generated thanks to the massive craze for the lottery in the state. A small state with a population of 34 million people, Kerala sells an average of 90 lakh lottery tickets a day. The bumper lotteries sell an average of 50 lakh tickets each, with last year’s Onam bumper selling 80 lakh tickets.

Of the revenue generated by the sale of tickets, 42% goes towards paying out prize money for each draw, while 32% is paid out as agent commissions, 5% for costs involved in printing and so on, and 20% is retained as profit by the government. 
In a bid to further boost sales, the government increased agent commissions to 48% from June 1, taking a cut in its profit share. 

Supporting thousands of agents and sellers                                                     

Supporting tens of thousands of lives with its revenues, the Lotteries Department has offices in all 14 districts, with another 18 sub-centres opened in the current LDF government’s tenure. While 35,000 agents directly buy tickets from the Department’s offices, they, in turn, sell them to thousands of others.

"It is estimated that lottery-selling is the means of living for around 2.5 lakh people in the state. Of this, 60% of the people are not able to do any other jobs. They are either disabled, blind, aged or unskilled," says Sanjay Kumar, Deputy Director of Sales for the Lottery Department. 

Some of the shine from the business, says Radhakrishnan, who runs a small ticket shop near Attakulangara, has faded in recent times due to a few factors. “I used to sell 1500 tickets a day, but demonetisation has affected my business. Now on average only 300 tickets are being sold a day. The ban on lotteries from other states has also adversely affected the business. Now that the government has reduced the price of lottery tickets, we are expecting a boost in sale,” he says.

Welfare spending

It’s not only the lakhs of people directly employed in the lottery business that benefit from its incredible windfall. The Karunya (mercy) lottery was begun in 2011 to generate funds for patients who are unable to afford critical medical therapies. For this, the Karunya Benevolent Fund was launched in 2012 February – contributing funds for poor patients to receive dialysis, cancer treatments, and for treatment of brain, kidney, and liver diseases and hemophilia. Till date, over Rs 1200 crore has been raised for the Karunya Benevolent Fund from the sale of Karunya lotteries.   

In September 2006, the Lottery Department launched the Nirmal (cleanliness) lottery. Out of the proceeds of this lottery, the Department has decided to contribute Rs 7000 per month for the maintenance of 57 She toilets - which were installed across the state by the Kerala State Women’s Development Corporation, in exchange for advertising at the various toilets.

Not all sunshine and roses

The state lotteries certainly have claim to dozens of ‘rags to riches’ stories of lady luck shining on those desperately in need. In April last year, for instance, Ponnaiyya, a 35-year-old physically challenged beggar who had moved to Kerala in search of greener pastures, hit a jackpot of Rs 65 lakh in the Akshaya lottery. 

And just a month earlier, Mofijul, a migrant worker from West Bengal hit the jackpot of Rs 1 crore in the Karunya lottery. So startled was he by his win that he sought protection in a police station till he could deposit his winnings. With the police’s help, Mofijul was soon on his way home to celebrate, and eventually build a house for his family.

But for every one of these success stories, there are lakhs of others who dutifully sink in hundreds every month hoping for that elusive victory. Deepan (name changed), a resident of Kollam, for instance, buys at least three tickets every day. Having had the habit for several years, he does not care about the thousands he has sunk into the tickets, as he believes that he will win lakhs or crores one day.

It is this habituation, which soon grows into an addiction that many decry about the lottery system in the state. Eminent Malayalam writer C Radhakrishnan says the lottery craze is as dangerous as pervasive alcoholism or drug addiction. “Getting addicted to buying lottery tickets is just like an addiction to alcohol. The only difference is that one’s liver doesn’t get damaged,” he says caustically, adding that it is ironic that a state government so vociferously promotes a large-scale system of gambling.

Writer Paul Zachariah too has similarly criticised the lottery, in an article by Arun Janardhanan in The Indian Express, pointing out that it survives by selling impossible dreams to the poor and comparing the faith in lotteries to the belief in the supernatural ‘miracles’ of godmen.

CP Nair, a former Chief Secretary of the state, however disputes this reading. Pointing out that the Lotteries Department constantly works towards keeping the entire process transparent and entirely legal, he says, “A person is buying a lottery ticket by paying money from his pocket.  Every individual is free to do that, when he wants to do so. It is purely a personal act. The lottery has gone down well with the masses.”

Transparent as the formal mechanisms of the state’s lottery systems might be, they’ve given rise to an entire shadow economy that leeches thousands and lakhs off people on the sidelines of the system.

One of the persistent problems that the Lotteries Department has had to face is that of people being cheated with fraudulent tickets. The Department is now looking to introduce upgraded security measures for all lottery tickets such as micro-printing, Guilloche pattern, void pantograph, opaque text technology, and so on, all of which use unique printing techniques to make copying tickets more difficult.

Much more difficult for the system to handle though, are the many lottery-based gambling rings that crop up around the state. One of the most common ways of gambling on lottery tickets is when gamblers pick just three numbers, which they then try to match with the last three digits of the winning lottery.

The odds are drastically improved in such a scenario, and the betters buy these three-digit tickets for as less as Rs 10. The winning bets get prizes of around Rs 5000, according to one Mathrubhumi report, which said that 46 such cases have been booked in Kannur alone.

Edited by Rakesh Mehar 

Pics: Sreekesh Raveendran Nair