June Issue 2015

By | Society | Published 4 years ago

A first-time visitor to a village in Sindh may be too engrossed absorbing the lush green of the rice fields, or the herds of buffaloes trundling along the road to notice a more sinister side of rural life. But it exists, and it is here and now. Tucked behind a tea stall or huddled in the playground of an abandoned government school, dozens of groups of men can be seen sitting around empty gunny bags spread out on the dirt. Oblivious to their surroundings, they are fully engrossed, shuffling, distributing or putting down playing cards with a flourish of the hand, and exchanging a volley of friendly curse words.

This is the world of rural gambling; an addiction that runs so deep it has taken families across the province to the point of utter ruin. As if the poverty handed down by successive governments that have completely ignored villages wasn’t enough, a large proportion of men living in the rural settlements are creating a brand of impoverishment all their own.

Landless peasants and unemployed, educated youth are obvious victims. But skilled workers like masons and successful traders such as food hawkers have also squandered away their earnings on all forms of gambling and betting. The fallout: women are left struggling to feed their children and seek an education for them through traditional embroidery or rearing livestock.

Men bet on anything they can: common are card games such as rummy and other local versions such as ‘khol sol’ which is based on number cards. Rooster fights, donkey races and even sending little boys to run a race are also routine, as are bets on cricket matches and games of ludo, snooker or carom board.

However, so ingrained is the habit of gambling that chronic gamblers have no shortage of creativity. Sitting at a tea-shop, they’ll bet on which ceiling fan will stop first when the power goes out; how many white cars will pass by and how many flies will sit on their used teacups.

Safdar Ali, a 28-year-old school gatekeeper who earns 5,000 rupees a month, has tried all kinds of bets.

“If I win, I think, tomorrow I will surely win again. So I have another go, but then I lose, both what I play and

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what i won the previous day, ” he says, while celebrating his win of 13,000 rupees in a card game with a treat of  fried chicken for his friends.

“My two-year-old nephew said to me the other day, ‘Your pocket is always full of 1,000 rupee notes, so I’ve decided I won’t go to school. I’ll just gamble like you’,” Safdar says.

Indeed, children across villages, especially those not enrolled in school, often begin playing at an early age: They bet a rupee or two on a game of marbles or play with picture cards (with photographs of Indian film stars) aiming to win the whole set in a bet. Then, they graduate to playing ludo and carom for money and move onward from there.

Ali began his journey in gambling with marbles when he was about five. “I aim to win 200,000 rupees and use those funds to get married. Then I’ll stop,” he says.

Village residents estimate that an average of between 75 and 90 per cent of men participate in some form of regular gambling, winning and losing from 30,000 to 40,000 rupees in one go. They play openly in the village, in fields and even along the roadside. Local police take a cut of the winnings and ignore the illegal activity.

Fayyaz Ahmed started earning a living at the age of seven when he used to sell snacks after school to help his father who worked as a teacher to support a large extended family. Fayyaz quit school after Class 7 and began selling fruit and vegetables. He was diligent and hard-working, and soon set up his own vegetable store, earning a good 50,000 rupees a month. When he used to sit at the tea-shop as a teenager, he saw people as old as his father playing cards openly with no sense of shame. Just sitting there and watching, he soon learned how to play. Eventually the habit grew on him and now he feels hopelessly addicted.

“I have destroyed myself and my family,” says the 55-year-old vegetable hawker. “The women in my home stitchto make sure we have something to eat everyday , but i  can’t even buy them a sewing machine because  I’ve gambled everything away. Otherwise, today I would have had a big house and plenty of money.”

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Sometimes, village elders work with higher authorities in the police to crack down on the scourge. Gamblers are then seen being hauled away in police vans. These efforts usually don’t last more than a few months, and even during the crackdown men simply shift the gambling venue to more secluded places. “If somehow the authorities could force a closure for even six full months, we will break the habit and that way we will at least save the next generation,” says Fayyaz. “The problem is, gambling is so easily accessible everywhere that even when I don’t have the desire, the accessibility just draws me in.”

Fayyaz once played rummy for three days and nights without going home, calling for food and tea at the den where he and his friends were gambling. “When we’re playing, we’re so engrossed, even hunger and thirst don’t bother us. Why do you think most gamblers have serious digestion problems,” he says. “We don’t even think about what our children will be eating at home when we haven’t bought any provisions. It’s a common saying here that if a gambler’s mother dies, he won’t make it to the burial because he’ll be focused on winning the game.”

According to gamblers, the addiction runs deeper than that for drugs or alcohol. And the problem is that it doesn’t just stop here. Fayyaz explains, “When I win thousands of rupees in betting, I spend it carelessly, but when I earn even 10 rupees selling guavas, I am very prudent with how I use it. And when I lose in a card game and my wife asks me to buy some potatoes for dinner and I have nothing in my pocket, I start thinking of stealing, cheating and fraud.”

It is therefore crucial that the local authorities take this issue seriously, before it spirals out of control. As Fayyaz explains, gambling can pave the way for other bigger crimes.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s June 2015 issue.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

The writer is a journalist and founder of the Ali Hasan Mangi Memorial Trust. 

The writer is a journalist and founder of the Ali Hasan Mangi Memorial Trust.