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The legal gambling of hope

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Lottery ticket agents and salesmen who flocked in front of the Colombo Fort Railway Station on Tuesday were of the opinion that the price hike was unfair, and that it would eventually discourage customers from buying lotteries. On the contrary, many others believed that the price hike was fair as long as the commission they received from the sales also increases.   


However, trusted sources revealed that there were approximately 300,000 street lottery sellers in Sri Lanka. According to what we gathered from the protestors at Fort, this figure included a number of disabled persons whose sole income was from the sale of lottery tickets. Undoubtedly, their courage and will to survive have to be feted and felicitated. But we questioned the perfectly-able individuals who also included a significant number of young able bodied men, as to why they chose the sale of lottery as their means of living.  


 

“Lottery sales, a daunting task”


- Priyantha Obadarachchi, lottery salesman from Hambantota

“The minister has spoken as if a lottery ticket agent could be recruited overnight. This is not a job that could be done with a training of few days. The tickets we sell may be only Rs. 20, but the commitment we take is worth much more. We spend days in a small cubicle space, sun or rain, taking great care of our cash, maintaining our accounts and then convincing people to try their luck. We are only demanding a fair recognition for our toil.”  


 

 

History of the Lottery


Initially, the lottery was set up in Sri Lanka by the government to finance the impoverished health services sector. Accordingly, the Hospital Lotteries Board was established in 1955 according to a proposal by the then Local Government Minister. In 1960s, the government felt the need to widen the scope of activities of organised lottery as the country was in a dire need of funds for development. Hence, the Hospital Lotteries Board was abolished and the NLB set up in 1963. A Benz car was on offer in its first draw the Jathika Lottery in 1965.   


Many years lapsed, lotteries were renamed and televised and daily draws were introduced, signalling the beginning of an obsessive practice for the most hopeful of hopefuls. It has been 46 years since the introduction of the NLB’s Mahajana Sampatha, the country’s most popular lottery ticket. NLB boasts that 16.5% of the turnover is contributed to the Consolidated Fund through this ticket. What does this mean for an island nation obsessed about the idea of winning the jackpot?   


 

“Sale of dreams, set alight by aspirations”


– Prof. Daya Amarasekara, Peradeniya University Sociology Dept. 

 “Impoverished people are in a constant chase of dreams and aspirations. When they feel defeated, a lottery offers them renewed hope. They are in a constant chase of finances, this pursuit comes to a point where individuals are compelled to earn more and more through whatever means they see possible. A lottery offers you that,” Prof. Amarasekara explained.   


 “People think respect and reputation come through money. They are misguided with beliefs that this form of gambling brings a person status and character, so much so that it has now become the norm. The Technology Development helps them in their ideologies to establish these ideas further. To add to this burden, the relationship between generations are weak. So, even for the elderly, a lottery ticket is much more than just a ticket. It offers them a reason and will to momentarily escape alienation and isolation. That is why we come across individuals who have been buying lotteries for over 20 to 30 years. Age is not a barrier for this gamble,” the professor said.

 


 

 

The math of distraction 


Sri Lanka has a plethora of lottery tickets on sale under the banners of the NLB and DLB. In the most popular lottery under the NLB, the Mahajana Sampatha is drawn four times a week. It involves the selection of an alpha-numeric number from a machine comprising seven compartments. Each compartment contains 25 letters or numbers. When the draw takes place, one character of the alphabet except letter “I” and a six-digit number are drawn as the winning combination. But what does this mean for those who buy the lottery ticket with dreams of winning big?   


We approached Mathematician Mithrarathna Kanaththage to do the math for us. According to him, the chances of hitting the jackpot with the Mahajana Sampatha lottery are 1 in 25 million. Mr. Kanaththage broke down the formula in simple terms as following. Given the numerical combinations of 001 to 999, the probable winning numbers amount to 25 million combinations. What is even more mind-boggling is the super prize of Rs. 10 million is only awarded for a winning combination drawn every 7 or 8 draws, meaning that more prize money is allocated every time there is no winner for a draw. According to data available for this calculation, the NLB earns a revenue of around Rs. 50 million each week. Even though the jackpot is not awarded, consolation prizes amounting to Rs. 20-30 million are awarded to respective alpha-numeric combinations. Still, the NLB earns several millions in profits, weekly through this venture.   


As the unity government is keen on cutting down waste and unnecessary expenditure in government departments and statutory bodies, it certainly is not prudent to consolidate the various Lottery organisations in the country. However if the price hikes are introduced to uplift the lives of lottery dealers as the Finance Minister claims, we are forced to ask, at what cost will these measures pay off?   


The lottery optimises its game to draw the most money out of people, and the lottery dealer -- a seller of dreams-- thriving on hope himself. The money is supposed to go to various developments and social services. We doubt if the ordinary buyer of dreams were aware of his or her chances of winning in exactly 25 million possible outcomes, the development and social service oriented lotteries would seem far less dignified and the gamblers increasingly disheartened.  

 

 

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