Luck of the draw | Sunday Observer

Luck of the draw

9 July, 2023

Amid the din over the Domestic Debt Restructuring (DDR) program launched by the Government, one other news item almost slipped under the radar, although some MPs did raise the matter in Parliament. Indeed, the doubling of the price of a lottery ticket from Rs.20 to Rs.40 has created quite a stir, at least among those sections of the population who regularly play the lotteries.

Everyone is free to dream and winning the lottery, literally against all odds, is on the top of the list for many people. The lottery is a tempting offer that makes people part with their hard-earned money in the earnest expectation of winning the jackpot or at least a consolation prize.

For Governments, it has become one of the main ways of earning revenue. The history of lotteries goes back to 1569, when the first formal lottery draw was held in England under the aegis of Queen Elizabeth I, though even the Romans are known to have conducted raffles.  Today, Lotteries are conducted daily all over the world, including the National Lottery in the UK, El Gordo (the world’s biggest lottery, literally meaning the Fat One) in Spain and Powerball in the US. The world’s highest lottery payout was a Powerball jackpot of US$ 2 billion (November 2022). However, one person may not get the entire amount as several players may have predicted the same numbers and groups of players, known as a syndicate, sometimes opt for the same set of numbers. In comparison, the highest lottery win in Sri Lanka amounted to Rs.236 million, even which is enough for a lavish lifestyle with round the world travel thrown in.

Lotteries in Sri Lanka started small, with a then massive jackpot of Rs.100,000 from the National Lotteries Board (NLB). Simply known as the National Lottery, the first draw was held at the Independence Square on February 20, 1964. Lotteries became popular overnight thereafter. Even though it is a form of gambling, there is no age limit for playing the lottery and the lottery habit spread quickly among Sri Lankans. The NLB was the sole provider of lottery tickets until the Development Lotteries Board (DLB) was set up in January 1983.

While winning the jackpot is naturally every lottery buyer’s dream and aim, they wittingly or unwittingly contribute to a raft of good causes and the country’s development with every single ticket they buy. For example, the NLB and the DLB contribute to the President’s Fund from the revenue they earn, through which thousands of patients have been assisted to undergo heart and other major surgeries. However, both lotteries boards must be more transparent about the good causes that they contribute to. Their accounts must be published in the press.

For a small country with a population of just 22 million, we have too many lotteries under a plethora of names. This creates confusion in the minds of lottery players and actually reduces the revenue accrued to the Government as people cannot afford to buy all the tickets available in the market.

It will be more advantageous to the Government if these can be consolidated to around 10 types, with a maximum jackpot of Rs.250 million, with more consolation prizes in between. Even under the present economic conditions, Rs.250 million is more than adequate to live like a king. Several “choose your numbers” initiatives where the players themselves can choose the numbers (as done in the US and UK) have failed to take off previously here, but with a proper marketing drive and an attractive prize structure it can become a success. This will need an initial outlay for the machines, but there will be a solid Return on Investment.

Lotteries cannot become a success without lottery sellers, seen in every nook and corner of the country. The two lotteries boards have thus provided a form of self-employment to thousands of Sri Lankans. Although the sellers feared a huge dip in lottery sales after the price increase, this has not apparently happened. The incentives and concessions granted to lottery agents and sellers must be expanded along with the price rise, as they play a critical role in getting revenue for the Government coffers.

The two boards must also explore the possibility of appointing more differently-abled persons as lottery agents and sellers, as it will shine a light on their lives in more ways than one. Recently, one of our reporters in the South observed a blind lottery seller for around one hour and according to him, no buyer cheated the seller. This way, no differently-abled person has to beg on the roadside – he or she has a product to sell and people are happy to help someone to overcome their disability.

Yet, playing the lottery can be surprisingly addictive and if not kept within limits, it can potentially erode one’s earnings in pursuing that elusive jackpot. Just like everything else in life, moderation is the key to playing the lottery.