Since tabling the budget 2017 in Parliament, protests seem to be a daily occurrence in Sri Lanka. Joining the sundry movements and causes this week, lottery agents and salesmen took to the streets against the government’s decision to increase the price of lottery tickets with effect from January 1. Meanwhile, the Finance Minister retaliated with the argument that if the agents failed to sell their tickets, the government would be compelled to recruit new agents. The lottery ticket salesmen, agitated and aggravated by this announcement, are now convinced that the government had pushed its luck too far. In this backdrop, the Dailymirror approached a few lottery ticket agents and salesmen as well as mathematicians and sociologists to uncover the hidden truths of legal gambling.
Lottery dealers lament burdensome price hike
Although a majority lit fire crackers to mark the dawning of the year, Lottery salesmen island-wide remained in deep though, contemplating about the dilemma they are dragged into. Unlike yester years, there was no milk rice cooked on the stoves of their homes. The beginning of 2017 did not give them the feeling of renewal to set up their shops and start anew. The New Year’s dawn did not give them anything other than a surprising 25% Value Added Tax (VAT) increment on their means of survival. The controversial lottery price hike was the government’s New Year gift to the innocent lottery distributors and sellers.
A lottery is a form of legalised gambling that involves the drawing of numbers for a grand prize. It indirectly provides for the government to boost its revenue without further raising taxes. But for the first time in Sri Lankan history, the Finance Ministry levied taxes on lottery tickets. This forced lottery sellers to boycott selling lotteries.
The All Island Lottery Dealers’ Society (AILDS), along with the lottery distributors, united in their battle against the government’s decision to impose the price hike on lotteries.
Island-wide protests opposing the price hike
The Development Lottery Board (DLB) and National Lottery Board (NLB), the two main bodies that sell lotteries, imposed a price increase, raising the minimum price of a lottery ticket from Rs.20 to Rs.30 with effect from January 1, 2017. Two separate circulars that bore the bad news were sent to sales agents last November. Before the massive protest in Pettah, lottery dealers islandwide boycotted sales in Kandy, Dambulla, Kurunegala, Thalawakele, Kalutara, Kahawatte, Badulla, Hatton, Bandarawela and Anuradhapura areas. Several protests were organised while black armbands were worn by those who sold tickets under protest on Sunday. The closure of lottery ticket stalls and the protests caused a significant loss for the government.
The circulars authorised by DLB Chairman/CEO Romesh Jayawardene (dated December 16) and NLB Chairperson Shamila Perera (dated December 23) notified sales agents islandwide that the price of a lottery ticket would soar up to Rs.30.00 according to the budget 2017 adopted in Parliament. However, according to these circulars, the price hike is not applicable for the instant lotteries sold by the DLB.
Furthermore, the circulars note that after deducting all taxes, sales representatives are entitled to a commission of Rs.4.00 per every lottery ticket sold. Lottery agents are protesting this clause, demanding that the commission should be increased to Rs. 5.25 in agreement with the price hike. Moreover, Rs. 5.00 from the revised price will be levied as VAT, while another Rs.2.50 drawn for the fund of the prizes.
Fighting for their livelihood
The circulars only carried a general idea of the imposition of the selling price of the lotto along with the changing of the amount of cash prizes given to the customers.Dealers were in turn forced to question the circulars which, according to them, were refused to be answered by the authorities. Given the two choices, keeping their mouth shut and accepting the commission at the end of the day or fighting for what they deserved without giving the whole cake to the government, they chose the second most difficult option. The Daily Mirror witnessed this struggle of the common man and reported on their arguments. By the end of 2016, it came to our notice that there was a considerable amount of sales boycotts and protests over this issue across the country.
Although the lottery boards generated chunks of revenue, it is now crystal clear that the officials are unaware of the issues faced by their agents and salesmen. They are dependent on this income, while some lottery salesmen are disabled and come from low-income families. Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake recently said the lottery salesmen earned a considerable income. However, following our encounters with a cross-section of lottery salesmen and agents islandwide, we learnt that the daily income of these sellers was below a mere Rs.500.
Distributors risking termination of contracts
In further developments, the Chairpersons of NLB and DLB announced their decision to suspend the agreements of the lottery agents who took part in Tuesday’s protest if they failed to report to work. Addressing a media briefing yesterday, DLB Chairman Romesh Jayawardene said the board had now recruited around 100 new lottery agents.
“We have the authority to suspend those who engaged in the protest, if they have not sold lottery tickets for a period of one month. We have identified the people who were behind this protest. Several property damages have also been reported and we will take legal action against those responsible,” Mr. Jayawardene said.
However, NLB Chairperson Shamila Perera is of the view that the revised lottery price will remain unchanged and that the board will not bow down to the agents’ unfair demands. According to the officials, 17% of the revenue earned is directed to the agents while the boards’ net profit remains at 3%, which amounts to 10.12 cents. Officials of the NLB also took this opportunity to negate claims that the board would be privatised in future. They did not fail to note that agents and sales representatives who will not report to work within 30 days will face the termination of their contracts.