Inventive ‘house-for-sale’ COVID survival lottery program falls on the dark side of the law


In the aftermath of the pandemic, it seemed suicide was the only option left for families under unbearable financial stress. At the height of the second wave, between June and July 2021 alone, 17 people in Kerala had chosen death over the pain of brutal economic loss.

Not Ajo and Ann, a young couple hit hard by the pandemic. They had come up with an inventive survival strategy: a lottery-like raffle to sell their dream home that is barely three years old. They printed 3,700 tickets, each with a unique number as in the case of lotteries, and sold them to anyone interested. Each ticket costs Rs 2,000.

A raffle was to be held on October 17 of this year, and the day the two-story 1,500 square foot home was to be handed over to the winner. The Hall of Christ the King Church at Moonnammoodu near Vattiyoorkavu in Thiruvananthapuram has been reserved for the draw.

The “lottery house” system was all over the mainstream and new media. Activity was as buoyant as that of the Onam Bumper lotteries in the state of Kerala. “We were inundated with calls, about 100 to 200 calls a day,” Ann said. But by the time they had sold around 250 tickets, their luck was in place.

The Kerala State Lottery Department sent the police to Ann and Ajo’s doorstep to inform them that the scheme was illegal. “We learned about the scheme through news reports,” a senior Kerala State Lottery Authority official told Onmanorama.

Sreevaraham native Prakash selling lottery tickets, to support his family, in Thiruvananthapuram during the COVID lockdown in June 2021.

“As per the Kerala Lottery rules, only the state government can run lotteries. It is also punishable under Section 294 (A) of the Indian Penal Code,” the official said. Under this IPC section, anyone running a lottery business that is not licensed by the state government could be fined and imprisoned for up to six months.

“We told the couple not to go ahead with the scheme. We informed them of the law, which they did not know. It’s as illegal as someone buying bottles of liquor at BEVCO outlets and selling them outside. As in the case of alcohol, lotteries are also the exclusive domain of the state government,” the official said.

Since she only had information from the police, Ann went to the Lottery Branch and met with senior officials. She said officials understood her plight. “They told me about the legal issues involved. They said if someone raised a complaint at a later stage, the Department and we would be in trouble,” Ann said. She quickly canceled the reservation of the room where the draw was to take place.

The couple are now refunding, through the Google Pay app, the ticket money they have already collected. “We hope to complete the refund in two days,” Ann said.

They embarked on the “lottery” system after exhausting all attempts to sell their home the traditional way. “Knowing that we are in serious financial difficulty, buyers have kept costs very low. No one was willing to pay more than Rs 35 lakh,” Ann said. The two-storey house, dubbed “Bethlehem”, is built in a modern, simple style with a wide facade and windows protected by tiled concrete brackets.

Selling the house was the last resort, almost like suicide. “I bought this house three years ago when it was under construction. It was before my marriage and then we shaped the house according to our needs. It was our dream,” Ann said. But with debt piling up and failing to find ways to make money, the couple had no choice.

Both had lost their jobs and were unable to find new ones. Ajo was in Singapore and Ann in Hong Kong. Ajo even developed a severe eye disease that induced blindness; he has now lost complete sight in one eye and only has 30% sight in the other. Attempts to find a job for Ajo within the disability quota also failed.

Their debt stood at Rs 32 lakh and their bank refused to offer them more grace period. The bank says it waited for more than a year. It was then that the couple discovered the lottery-like survival strategy. They heard another couple wrecked by the pandemic were trying to do the same with their farmland.

This scheme, announced much earlier, was not on the Lotteries Directorate’s radar, until the Ajo-Ann scheme came to light. “We had asked all district police chiefs to keep an eye out for such schemes. We now have information on 16 of these programs. We will contact each of them and explain to them why they should withdraw their plans. If they don’t, we will have to file a complaint against them,” the lottery manager said.

A fleeting sense of deliverance that many would have felt has now been deflated. But Ann and others like her still have to pay off their debts. At least for Ann and Ajo, suicide is not an option. “I don’t know what to do,” she said. “But I got several calls from Malayalis especially in the Gulf. They tell me to fly there and sell the coupons. Many of them said they are ready to buy tickets in bulk,” she said.

Ann is now considering the legal implications of such a decision. “We know that what we did was not bad. Among those who had taken tickets from us, there were people from the petty bourgeoisie. What if one of them had won the lottery? They would have gotten their family a house they couldn’t even dream of for just Rs 2000. As for us, we could have started over without the burden of debt,” Ann said. “But we also have to obey the law.” , she said.


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