Why Punjab won’t give up on luck, and the paper lottery
Why is the paper lottery so popular in Punjab, how does it work and what do winners do with the prize
The ramshackle outlet at the corner of the Bathinda bus terminal is among the oldest of the more than 200 paper lottery shops in Punjab. At 8.30 am, 13 buses of Pepsu Road Transport Corporation (PRTC) – the largest bus operator in Punjab – wait for passengers to board as a sweeper cleans the litter-strewn floor.
In the next few hours, hundreds of men of all ages leaving and entering Bathinda will make the customary pitstop at Satpal Lottery, clutching their lottery tickets. Some put on their reading glasses, others mumble prayers as they tally the last four digits of their tickets with the numbers scrawled on a register on the iron counter.
Most of them draw a blank, buy another bunch of tickets and hope for better luck next time. Some become richer by a few lakhs. A tiny number win big – in crores.
Punjab is one of the 12 states in the country where the paper lottery still thrives. The turnover of the lottery business in the state in 2016-17 was more than Rs 55 crore, according to the Directorate of Punjab State Lotteries. It left the state wealthier by Rs 19 crore. A weekly draw ticket worth Rs 20 carries a first prize of Rs 5 lakh. The Rs 1 to 2 crore bumper draws are announced annually on four festive occasions: New Year’s Eve, Baisakhi, Diwali and Rakhi.
COGS IN THE WHEEL
An estimated 1,500 lottery dealers, the majority of whom operate on the phone, form the backbone of this business in Punjab, cashing in on the trust they have built with customers over the years. Others, such as Naresh Kumar, the 58-year-old owner of Satpal Lottery, function from stores or over-the-counter stalls. “You must put this in,” Kumar says. “Don’t mistake lottery for gamble. It is sheer luck; nothing else.”
Framed pictures of 15 winners (all of whom bought tickets from Satpal Lottery), posing with Kumar and holding their tickets, hang on a wall. The oldest of the six pictures have turned pale yellow. “These photos work as advertisements for us. We are into selling dreams,” says Kumar. “Punjabis are a little pompous. They want to have big cars and lavish weddings. Some work hard for it. Others take the lottery route.”
Each win, especially a bumper one, is a catalyst for the business because of the spiraling effects it generates. In the 30 years Kumar has been trading in lottery tickets, he says his profit margin has shrunk from 30 per cent to 15 per cent. But the overall sales in the state have increased more than 50 per cent. This is because every time a khiladi (player, as a regular lottery customer is referred to) becomes a crorepati, the lottery business in the vicinity booms.
“Hundreds of people who criticise the concept of lottery, suddenly become potential buyers,” says Kumar.
For the last five years, Jagjeet Singh, a grocery shop owner, has been cycling 18 km to Kumar’s outlet at least once a week. He has never won. “Sab khaali jaata hai (each time I draw a blank),” he says, adding that he will not give up.
Mukhteyar Singh, a tailor, has been visiting Kumar’s shop for the last 25 years. His hobby turned into a fixation in 1992 after he won a prize worth one lakh.
Any women customers? “No, they don’t come. Women usually don’t want to be seen at a lottery ticket counter,” he says. Then Kumar whispers in my ear. “Although they are the ones who persuade their husbands to play.
THE LOTTERY MOGUL
Kumar gets his supply of the glossy, rectangular paper tickets from Rattan Lottery Agency, the distributor with perhaps the widest reach in Bathinda. “Agents in cities as far as 200 km know me. They sell tickets with my stamp as a hallmark of trust,” says Rattan Lal Garg , who entered the business in 1982. Back then, the Punjab government did not hold a lottery, and Garg was trading in lotteries conducted by other states, including Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, and Andhra Pradesh.
In 1997, the Punjab government introduced weekly and bumper draws. Twenty lakh tickets of each bumper draw are printed, out of which six to 12 lakh are sold. To encourage people to buy tickets, the government announced that winning tickets would only be drawn from sold ones.
Garg had the first mover advantage. His business spiked. From a small-time agent, he was soon a well-known distributor, selling tickets in bulk to 200 agents, including Naresh Kumar of Satpal Lottery, as well as to customers across the country by post.
Garg’s two sons, Umesh and Mukesh, now run the agency with a staff of eight. “You can say that I am Punjab state lottery’s brand ambassador of sort,” smiles Garg. He knows all kinds of lottery players – addicts, reluctant buyers, beginners, minors, even women. He says three things to all of them: “Play according to your pocket. Treat it as entertainment. Don’t make it your priority.”
He has seen, up close, what a win can do a player. He remembers a vegetable vendor not very far from his house who won one lakh. “That draw finished him. He started buying tickets in thousands, and got ruined,” Garg says.
The lesson? Not everyone can digest easy money.
HOW TO ‘MANAGE’ A WIN
Makkhan Singh, the 58-year-old hefty, bespectacled, turbaned PRTC bus driver, certainly can.
It was October 2011. One of more than one lakh Diwali bumper lottery tickets at Garg’s agency travelled to Singh via Satnam Lottery at Bathinda bus stop. That evening, Singh was driving his rickety bus when his mobile phone rang. “You have won the one crore bumper draw,” one of Singh’s close friends screamed from the other side. Singh hung up, thinking the friend was playing a prank on him. After two hours, a reporter from a regional newspaper phoned Singh to enquire how he planned to use the money.
Singh had arrived.
Ticking his purchases off on his fingers, he says, “I bought one 18 wheeler trolla-truck, two plots of land, sent my elder son to Canada, got my two nieces married.”
A month away from his retirement, Singh plans to divide his time between Canada and Bhagta Bhaika, his hometown in Bathinda. “My family was dependent on my driving job. My win changed everything. Vaahe Guru di meher hai (it is all because of God’s blessings),” he says.
In the five months it took Singh to get the money transferred to his account, he was bombarded with suggestions about what he should do with the booty. They ranged from opening a poultry farm to investing in a biscuit company to lending the money on interest. “I listened to everyone with a smile. Deep within, I knew what to do; I was planning long-term,” Singh says.
Hordes of people, known and unknown to Singh, showed up to get their pictures taken with him. They gifted him shawls, garlands, sweets, fruits, and ghee. Many waited to meet Singh in private to ask if the draw was ‘managed.’
Singh says he had a good time with his friends but did not throw a party for relatives. “They point out minor things like the dessert was too sweet or the food was very spicy. I cannot take all that.”
Within a week of him winning the draw, a grocery store owner in Singh’s town started a lottery business to cater to the new buyers the win threw up.
Around an hour’s drive from Bathinda city lies Lehra Khana village, home to Bhajan Singh, the 55-year-old small farmer who won the Diwali bumper draw the following year.
He’d been looking for ways to pay back his debts when Sanjeev Kumar, a lottery agent, phoned him to ask if he was interested in buying one of the three tickets left with him. Singh had given up on the lottery after trying his luck for a decade. He refused Sanjeev’s offer only to turn up at his counter that night. In that sense, Kumar feels that Singh owes the win to him. “Just ask him how reluctant he was as if I was asking for some personal favour. See, it did wonders to him,” says Kumar, who has a white Maruti 800 which he uses to teach driving and to sell lottery tickets.
After winning, Singh hosted over 1,000 people. Celebrations continued for a week. He used the money to get his three girls and a son married; bought a tractor and some agricultural land. He says he prays to the almighty that all lottery enthusiasts should win like him.
Meanwhile at the Bathinda bus stop, Naresh Kumar keeps a set of tickets for himself. “I have been part of so many success stories but I have never won myself. I am waiting for my turn,” says Kumar.