New Delhi: What is triggering unsubstantiated reports of linking suicides in South India to cashlessness and frustration emerging out of online gaming?
No one, actually, has an answer. But the rumours are floating high.
Repeated misreporting has eventually turned those suicides into a political hot potato in Tamil Nadu with political parties and social activists urging the government to ban online rummy.
So what is the real story?
A spate of unnatural deaths in Tamil Nadu – with a dubious track record of highest number of suicides – has erroneously blamed online gaming to those deaths though repeated studies have definitively blamed the deaths to debt traps.
As many as 20 cases of suicides have surfaced in Tamil Nadu.
Many are wondering what prompted this series of misreporting, each report blaming online rummy as the reason for the suicides. A deeper look into the subject reveals that rivals of online gaming have repeatedly linked the Tamil Nadu suicides to online gaming.
No one realised that various studies have categorically rejected such linkages between deaths and online rummy.
Consider the case of a humanitarian project to support suicide victims in Tamil Nadu that has found instances of misreporting of the cause of suicide, leading to erroneous reports that online rummy as a reason for suicide.
The sensational suicides of Kalimuthu, a constable of the Coimbatore armed city force, and Nagarajan, a painting contractor in Chennai, attributed to online rummy has been found by the Rotary Rainbow project to be linked to debt trap.
Family members of Kalimuthu are on record stating to the Rotary Rainbow Project that the burden of debt trap was the real reason for the suicide and not playing online rummy or online games. Similarly, Nagarajan – as per his family members – committed suicide because he was caught in a debt trap, and that his death had nothing to do with online rummy.
Yet, why was online rummy blamed for the deaths? There is a deathly silence in the coastal state.
The Rotary Rainbow Project of Rotary International is an initiative to support the kin of suicide victims in Tamil Nadu. Members of the project work closely with families of suicide victims.
What is interesting is that the findings of the Rotary Rainbow resonates with the report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) 2021 which lists bankruptcy among the top reasons for suicide along with addiction, marriage and love related issues and unemployment.
“Giving all suicide a singular misleading label will do a great disservice to humanity and to the victim’s families,” said PP Sridhar of the Rotary Club of Chennai Infocity.
There is more.
A leading psychiatrist has told the Tamil Nadu government that there is no direct relation between suicide and online gaming as reported by a section of the media.
In a detailed presentation, Dr Sandip H. Shah, Professor of Psychiatry and Dean, Government Medical College, Panchmahals, Godhra, Shri Govind Guru University, conducted an independent research on Suicide and Online Gaming, which says suicide is a complex issue with many reasons for suicidal ideation. And that online blaming should not be blamed for it because there is no correlation.
What is interesting is that the study has been peer-reviewed by Dr. Ajay Chauhan, MD, Hospital for Mental Health, Ahmedabad. And he has certified the same. The research says coincidence and even some correlations are not equal to causation.
The research led by Dr. Shah was carried out in the public interest and is meant to advise governments against harsh legislation based on misinformation. The research suggests that there is insufficient data within the public domain to conclude that a suicide has been caused by online gaming. It calls for a ‘rational’ regulation that is based on further studies from the medical and scientific communities. “There isn’t sufficient data available both before and after online gaming was legalised to correlate suicide with online gaming,” the research concludes.
According to the research, there are unintended consequences of strict regulation, which may push online gaming underground, leading to individuals facing potential stress and physical harm/threats, causing possible suicidal ideation from desperate situations. Further, questionable debt-collection practices prevalent in underground gaming worsen the situation. The research recommended a collaborative effort between regulators, private companies providing online gaming services, and the medical and scientific communities to rationalise regulation.
Consider this one. The research extensively covered key aspects, such as how suicide is a complex issue caused by multiple factors. The research included statistics on suicides, suicide prevention policies and strategies, specific cases reported in the media, online financial frauds, and the need to involve all stakeholders, and the infrastructure support and intervention required to prevent suicides in India.
So, time and again, the study negated the alleged link between the suicides and online rummy.
The Tamil Nadu government, in order to introduce a fresh legislation to regulate online gaming, had formed a committee and invited inputs from all stakeholders.
Unlike betting, online gaming, when operated by legalised and responsible operators, offers users the thrill of playing a game, and also strengthens cognitive abilities of players.
The Esports Players Welfare Association (EPWA) has raised the issue with the state government to not criminalise online skill-based gamers.
During its representation to Tamil Nadu’s Department of Home, Prohibition, and Excise Department on August 11, EPWA recommended that online skill-based players should not be branded as gamblers, the non-profit said in a press release.
“Multiple legislations and putting skill based games in the same bucket as gambling is leading to criminalisation of skill-based players,” said EPWA Director Shivani Jha. “While India is participating in international tournaments and developers are making new games, it is imperative for the state to regulate online skill-based gaming.”
EPWA requested the Tamil Nadu government to provide a safe harbour for professional, amateur, and casual online skill games “as exemption from the ambit of any state-related gambling or gaming legislations”.
Instead of blaming online gaming companies, it is important – says the study – to take mental health seriously. It does not happen in India. In India, people with severe mental illnesses often turn to temples and shrines first, and not to doctors. The foremost reason for individuals in India to lose their mental health is the lack of awareness and sensitivity about the issue. Furthermore, there is a considerable stigma around people suffering from any kind of mental health issue. Therefore, it should be noted that correlation is not equal to causation in the context of suicide. Suicide is a complex, issue with many reasons and causes for suicidal ideations.
According to the Million Death Study (MDS), one out of 77 Indians above the age of 15 years is at risk of dying of suicide by the age of 80 years. The risk is higher in men (one out of 59) than in women (one out of 100).
The risk is especially high in South India (one out of 29 men and one out of 56 women) compared to other parts of India. A disproportionately high 42 percent of suicides in men and 40 percent of suicides in women occur in four southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu which together constitute 22 percent of India’s population.
The finding is consistent with observations in other parts of the world that increasing modernisation, possibly leading to greater isolation and the breakdown of family support systems, is associated with high suicide rates while traditional societies have lower suicide rates.
The study further notes: “The available data from Tamil Nadu may not be enough to conclude that online games are responsible for pushing the youth toward a suicide epidemic. An insight in this complex issue can be gained by conducting more in-depth research with a larger sample, and a relevant, robust, and validated study design to try and identify the root causes for such suicides instead of merely relying on the hyped reports that may be misleading.”