The curious case of Indian Volleyball and the Federation which runs it

Volleyball has gained quite a lot of ground in India as a regional sport, particularly dominating the Southern part of the country as one of its most popular fields of play. In fact, in the state of Kerala, such is the popularity of the sport that it is akin to what cricket is to the rest of India. To put it another way, a cricketer from a state like Kerala is often celebrated as one successfully breaking stereotypes.

Consequently, it comes as no surprise that over the years, the Southern part of the country had contributed most to the National teams even when they were at their pinnacle.

It is but human nature to romanticise the past – to keep looking back at the condition of something only to compare it with the present. Sport, as a very vital sphere of life, is not exempt from this scrutiny – especially when it comes to a game like Volleyball which has seen a significant decline over the past few years.

The history of Volleyball in India is entirely a short one. Its onset in the subcontinent comes at the same time as its independence, and this makes the sport another hand-me-down from the colonisers. And despite having some semblance of a national structure in its initial stages in India, Volleyball has become strangely restricted when one looks at contemporary times. State level tournaments are more popular and given more importance with Kerala and Karnataka forming the epicentres of some regular action.

Sadly, the glory days of Indian volleyball are behind us and now, the progress that the sport had shown itself capable of, remains unfulfilled. The reason, however, is nothing new. It teeters upon the age-old narrative that has plagued most Indian sports for the longest time- ugly skeletons in the closet of the governing body of the game.

India’s standing in the sport received a massive continental boost when its President of the VFI was named the Executive Vice-President of Asian Volleyball Confederation in the 21st AVC General Assembly Meeting held in November 2015.

So far, so good.

Barely a year later, however, things started to go downhill.

Back in December 2016, the expansion of Volleyball in India was handed a major setback by the International governing body for Volleyball.

As is the story with most sporting federations in this country, bureaucracy and potential red tape-ism were found to be rampant. Personal ego clashes were being given precedence over actual work being done towards the development of volleyball and two warring factions within the administrative body threatened the onset of chaos.

The drama that then unfolded was something most Indian sports enthusiasts could relate with. It was a story that had happened several times over- the bifurcation of interests resulting from the inability of authorities to see eye to eye on matters.

Two men at the helm, the then President of VFI Chaudhury Avadhesh Kumar along with the former secretary-general Ramavtar Singh Jakhar, were notoriously at loggerheads when it came to reaching a consensus about anything.

As the secretary general, Jakhar, himself a former Volleyball player made announcements regarding two particular leagues which were on the VFI’s itinerary- the Indian Volleyball League and the Indian Beach Volleyball League. He appointed sports marketing firm Baseline to market the leagues. Two days later, Kumar, the President with no known background in the sport,  launched the same leagues with another sports marketing firm Sportzlive as the partner.

The Volleyball Federation of India, the organisation at the helm of Indian volleyball, was handed a provisional ban by its parent body on the grounds of procedural incompetence. Following that, an ad-hoc President was announced before fresh elections for the top brass could be organised. But even that failed to go as planned.

In April, earlier this year, a petition moved by senior advocate Rahul Mehra sought to speed up the process of elections in the Volleyball Federation of India citing the organisation’s derecognition by its parent world body as a significant cause for concern. The fresh election would have gone a long way in the revocation of the current order by the FIVB which would have made it possible for the country to send a team to the Asian Games after the due process of selecting and training its athletes. But probably, that is not to be

In December 2017, it was announced that 2017 -18 National Volleyball Championship at Hyderabad stood postponed.

This announcement by the VFI predictably sent shockwaves through the community. It was like seeing the dream of the Asian Games being systematically dismantled right in front of one’s eyes. The tournament eventually took place in February but far from corrective measures being taken, fresh fractions have now been uncovered within the organisation and, this time, it is a question of finances. Consider these two cases:

Case 1:

In the updated list of current recognised Sporting Federations, Volleyball as a sport is placed under a “priority” category. Still, since its reinstatement, VFI remains without a President at its highest position.

A circular dated September 2017 similarly states the above anomaly by saying “Further, FIVB specifically mentioned that since July 2017 the position of President is vacant in VFI.

Therefore any person claiming to act as President or sending authority letters etc. is misleading the public and Volleyball fraternity.”

Jakhar seems to have regained favour with the administration as he has retained his former position as the Secretary-General of VFI. That might be due to his ongoing crusade against the corruption which is present within India’s Volleyball circuit. The recent target of Jakhar’s ire was the controversial Mayor’s Cup, a tournament which began in 2017 itself with no prior editions, which was underway in Bangalore earlier this year.

A circular was issued by the VFI in July stating that the said tournament was illegal. It requested national level players “to not participate in the illicit competition being organised in an unauthorised manner without obtaining permission from the federation.’

The Mayor’s Cup was held by the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), and a reported amount of Rs 1 crore was spent on it.

In a country where politics reigns supreme, this issue too quickly turned into a typical case of ideological clashes, and regular instances of mudslinging and allegations followed it. The most vocal presence against the Mayor’s Cup was Padmanabha Reddy, Opposition Leader in the BBMP council who was very quick to term the event as one sponsored by his corrupt political adversaries.

Once the newly efficient VFI made its stand clear on the matter, it was a given that no player with any aspirations to turn Volleyball into a full-time profession would dare associate themselves with a tournament that the organisation in charge had itself deemed illegal. Ramavatar Jakhar’s reputation as a revolutionary of Indian volleyball seemed safe.

But here is where it gets murkier when one starts to dig deeper. In an article carried by a local newspaper, there is a blatant allegation of corruption within the Rajasthan State Volleyball Association too. The report spoke of accusations of tyranny, lousy behaviour and mismanagement within the State Volleyball Association. This, in turn, prompted action from a rebel faction headlined by Arjuna Awardee Suresh Mishra, who also goes by the moniker ‘The Tiger of Indian Volleyball’- a reference to his impressive national career. According to the players of the state, winners of state-level competitions were often not paid their deserved prize money. Additionally, they were also wrongly asked for money when it came to verifying documents.

As such, this step by Suresh Mishra is being considered as monumental and, in some ways, pathbreaking for Volleyball in the state. He is joined by the Secretary of Karnataka State Volleyball Association Nanda Kumar and fellow Arjuna Awardee Ravikant Reddy in his efforts. The Karnataka State Volleyball Association did not take the snub about the Mayor’s Cup lightly as Nanda Kumar’s support of Mishra proves. This faction of the Rajasthan Volleyball Association had 16 dignitaries present in the meeting where they declared themselves independent of the current official body. Here, it is to be pointed out that Ramavatar Jakhar began his administrative career as the Secretary-General of the Rajasthan Volleyball Association.

Theoretically speaking, Volleyball is quite an essential cog in the wheel of Indian sports. At least that is what the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports tries to portray on paper.

Despite anything the FIVB might say, the preparations for the Nationals have already begun in full swing if official statements from the VFI are to be believed. A total of INR 7 lakh in royalties has previously been announced for the upcoming trials in a circular issued in July earlier this year.

What this does not explain, however, is the unaccounted money which is persistently flowing into the VFI coffers. Interestingly enough, grants from the MYAS did not stop even in the period that VFI was derecognised as an official Volleyball body. While this derecognition implied that Indian Volleyball players could not officially participate in international tournaments, one wonders where this allocated money was put to use.

In all fairness, the amount of money allocated to the VFI has been fluctuating over the years.

According to the most recent data available on the MYAS website, the calendar year 2013-14 saw an amount of INR 310.65 lakhs for the year- so close to an Olympic year, one would assume the money went into building the right and necessary infrastructure required to train a team worthy of the international stage.

2014-15 saw a steep drop in the number of funds allocated for Volleyball. From INR 310.65 lakhs the previous year, 2014-15 saw an influx only of INR 125.92 lakhs. It was the year of Olympic Qualifications which took place over September. Where did that money go?

Why was there such a steep rise in funds for the calendar year 2014-15? Was it required for the team’s participation in several international events?

Did the teams from India win enough in proportion to the amount of money that has officially been spent on them?

One look at the concise list of the Indian team’s performances in the international arena is incredibly heartbreaking.

There was a point when India consistently participated in the significant World and continental tournaments. Twice India has been involved in the World Championships throughout the history of the team’s existence- once in 1952, a year after the VFI officially came into existence, and once in Paris in 1956. They ended up with the eighth and the twenty-first position respectively.

Their highest finish at the Asian Championships has been fifth- in the following editions of 1983 and 1987. Their most recent participation in the Asians has come in 2002 which saw them finish 7th- something that is wholly unremarkable and bland if one looks at it objectively.

Just before the administrative body was derecognised, it received compensation to the tune of INR 75.96 lakhs. At a time when all hope of qualification to the most prominent international tournament was lost, and the people of highest authorities within the federation were involved in public disputes, the question of accountability still looms large.

It is quite problematic to hold the National Sports Federations accountable for mismanagement of the particular sport for which they are responsible. It becomes all the more difficult when one realises that they are under zero obligation to reveal their expenditure to the general masses. No official sports federation is covered under the RTI act and, as is the case with VFI, they can get away without putting up official audit reports on their website.

What is now required from Jakhar and current CEO K Murugan is accountability and transparency. Already, the VFI is swimming in murky waters when it comes to allegations of monetary misappropriation and the obscurity with which the organisation is functioning does not help matters much. With the team operating in anonymity, higher and more profound insight is hard to find. This is the tragedy of the condition of Volleyball in India.


Case 2:

In a letter dated May 9, 2018, Ramavatar Singh Jakhar, the Secretary-General of the VFI and a man who comes with his baggage of controversies wrote to Shri AK Patro, the Under Secretary at the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. The subject of the letter was to highlight the discrepancies in the quoted grants amounts by the Ministry in its Annual Report and the ones cited by the Volleyball Federation of India in their audited balance sheets.

To provide some context here, it must be prudent to mention here that Ramavatar Singh Jakhar himself is quite an unpopular figure in the circles that deal with the sport. His resignation from the administrative body has been quite sought after by rival factions and former players alike. Most recently, it was K Nandakumar who recently put up this plea and demand for Jakhar’s immediate resignation following when he filed a petition to request the Central Bureau of Investigation to probe into allegations of corruption and misuse of funds within the VFI.

The appeal by Nandakumar proved to be successful. Following his petition, the Madras High Court ordered the CBI to quicken its investigations. “Documents relating to the inquiry have been sought for from the third respondent (Secretary, Sports-cum-Director General, Sports Authority of India). It is also represented by the third respondent, as per the request of CBI, that the documents sought for an inquiry by CBI have already been submitted,” the judge said. Hence, disposing of the petition, the judge ordered the Superintendent of Police, Head of Branch – ACB, CBI, to “expedite the inquiry and complete the same within a reasonable time without much delay and dispose of the complaint as expeditiously as possible,” Nandakumar had been quoted as saying.

Coming to the matter at hand, former Volleyball player Sebastian George has an infamously high number of RTIs that he had filed regarding the usage of certain funds by the VFI. For instance, the VFI has four registered bank accounts and, out of those, the information of just one had been made public. It was only in January this year that the RTI bore some fruit albeit incomplete. The RTI also sought information about the specific uses of the Rs 47 lakh that had been allocated to VFI by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports for ‘certificate cases’. Furthermore, the whereabouts for the funds of the IVL Tournament, which was since cancelled, remained unknown.

A couple of questions for Mr Jakhar here.

Why has your letter come after the directive of the Madras High Court ordering the CBI to launch an investigation into the organisation? While amount from 2012-2016 have been quoted, aren’t these questions asking for an explanation into the matters of the Sports Ministry and the VFI quite late?

Secondly, why is there such a discrepancy in the accounts maintained by a National Sports Federation and the Sports Ministry? Whose fault is it? The Ministry’s? Is there bigger collusion here? Where has the remaining money been put to use?

“Interestingly enough, grants from the MYAS did not stop even in the period that VFI was derecognised as an official Volleyball body. While this derecognition implied that Indian Volleyball players could not officially participate in international tournaments, one wonders where this allocated money was put to use.”

Thirdly, why does it take so long to reply to RTIs filed by Sebastian George to receive replies? In the quoted letter, this step by Jakhar comes after he was required by law to respond to the RTIs submitted by Mr George. Can we consider this a victory? A sign that the scams which are allegedly being carried out with the VFI as a front might, at last, be brought to light and the perpetrators punished?

It might be remembered here that this internal feuding within the Federation has caused long drawn out problems in the path of progress of the game of Volleyball. The most recent example of this might be the Pro Volleyball League whose debut was delayed by roughly two years due to irreconcilable differences within the VFI. The current financial partnership between the Federation and Baseline Ventures, however, has opened the doors for the tournament to take shape finally.

With so much going on in the Volleyball Federation of India, it is little wonder that the sport has stagnated.

It lies forgotten, abandoned and entirely in shambles. There is not a single remarkable player from India who has managed to make a dent in the international scheme. A lot of attention is paid to State Level Volleyball, with continuous tournaments being held throughout the year, especially in the Southern States but where do the players go after that?

Now with the Asian Games around the corner, the Volleyball teams have been cleared to participate in the competition in Jakarta. Even that clearance is riddled with controversy with former players also stating that the teams do not deserve to go. Why has it come to this?

As well-wishers of the condition of sports, one has a right to know of the point of the existence of these seemingly redundant sports federations.