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Monday, October 11, 2010
All talk and no action is key to happiness
At his coronation ceremony two years ago, King Jigme Khesar Wangchuk of Bhutan said, “While I am but king of a small Himalayan kingdom, I may in my time be able to do much to promote the greater wellbeing and happiness of all people in this world.”
Bhutan has been trying to spread cheer in Kerala from the time of his predecessor by holding forth before the people the opportunity to get rich quick through its lottery scheme. In the process, it has ruined many, but one man has reason to be happy: Tamil Nadu-based lottery king Santiago Martin.
Martin’s name has been familiar to Keralites since he donated Rs20 million to Deshabhimani, the official organ of the Communist Party of India-Marxist. Embarrassed by reports of the donation, the party removed EP Jayarajan, a central committee member and confidante of state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, from the post of general manager of the newspaper. He was quietly reinstated within a year.
Martin, who began life as a lottery retailer, started acquiring distributorship of state lotteries after winning a prize of Rs150,000 on an unsold ticket. By adopting a strategy of holding on to unsold tickets, instead of returning them, so as to collect any prizes they may win, he made more money.
Martin’s association with Bhutan lottery began when Sanjay Jayantilal, its promoter, made him sole distributor for Kerala. Three years ago he became its promoter by outbidding others. He is also the promoter of the Sikkim state lottery and sole distributor of several other state lotteries, including West Bengal’s.
Together the Bhutan and Sikkim lotteries siphon off an estimated Rs150 billion each year from Kerala, their biggest market. In 2006, Vigilance chief Siby Mathews, in a report to the state government, said the promoters of these lotteries were acting in gross violation of the provisions of the central lottery law.
Over the past few years Congress leaders have repeatedly pressed for action. Their main concern appears to be Martin’s proximity to the CPI-M leadership rather than his exploitation of the poor by promoting the gambling instinct.
Kerala pioneered state lotteries by launching the country’s first such lottery in 1967. Under private operators, the Bhutan and Sikkim lotteries started holding several draws in a day, providing an easy outlet for gamblers.
The Kerala High Court, while passing orders in a lottery case, recently directed that draws be limited to once a week. There are reports that the order is being flouted and that the official machinery is unable or unwilling to ensure compliance with it.
Martin runs his empire through a chain of companies. The contract with the Bhutan government is in the name of Monica Distributors. The operations in Kerala are under Megha Distributors, owned by his brother, John Kennedy. In West Bengal, he operates under the banners of Bayani Traders and Future Distributors. Almost all his outfits have attracted charges of irregular or illegal activity.
The Kerala sales tax department recently found that Megha Distributors printed Bhutan tickets at a Tamil Nadu facility, which is not a security press, in violation of the law. Other alleged irregularities included sale of fake or expired tickets and operation of single digit lotteries which are banned.
At one time 70 to 80 per cent of all Bhutan and Sikkim tickets were being sold in Tamil Nadu. To save the poor, the former All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government banned all lotteries. The state police have registered several cases for alleged sale of tickets after the ban.
On raiding the Kolkata premises of Future Distributors, which had not been filing returns, Income-tax officials found evidence of large-scale evasion. They slapped a bill of Rs190 million, said to be the largest recovery from any tax evader.
It is natural that Martin has influential friends. A few days ago he embarrassed the state Congress by bringing Abhishek Manu Singhvi, the party’s national spokesman, to argue for him in the High Court. He is said to have financed a film scripted by Tamil Nadu’s DMK Chief Minister, M Karunanidhi. Last week a Bhutan newspaper quoted a Kolkata businessman as saying a lot of ‘big shots’ in West Bengal were behind him.
The public debate in Kerala centres on who must act against the lottery mafia. Congress leaders want the state government to take action. Finance Minister TM Thomas Isaac insists it is for the Centre to act. The debate is all about scoring points. All talk and no action keeps everybody happy.