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Managing the medals: A peek into India’s Paralympic World

Managing the medals: A peek into India’s Paralympic World

Padmini Chennapragada

Published: 15 Oct 2019 1:24 PM GMT

“You see, what you promise for the future, is strengthened by what you have done in the past. You have done nothing in the past, and promise everything in the future, your credibility suffers!”

India’s former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao said this in response to Shekar Gupta’s question about why discussions about India’s political past and history take centre stage within our country’s political discourse. Continuing to explain his response Mr. Rao said, “We have more in the past, much more in the past, in our past, than in the past of the other country people you were referring to.” This point of view is pertinent to India’s Paralympic world also. For us to not lose sight of the Paralympic big picture in India, we must pay attention to how Indian Paralympics has arrived at where it is today. With very little public information available within India about its Paralympic movement, we have no choice but to rely on anecdotal information and document analysis as our data sources.

Today India has a fairly impressive presence at global para-sports events. The medal counts are growing. India’s participation in global events is on the rise. Para athletes in multiple sports are able to tap into corporate social responsibility (CSR) monies and government funding mechanisms for sports participation. If you view India’s Paralympic world from the medals and awards angle, we are on the rise. We will continue to rise.

But is that enough to equitably serve the growing number of para-athletes in India who are rapidly taking up sports with a desire that it will help them improve their lives?

My answer is a no. Having understood that disability rights are centric to any disability sport movement, I see the relevance of its application more required for the Indian context than anywhere else.

In ‘The Indian Paralympic Story Comes of Age,’ the authors detail how Paralympics gained momentum to reach its present-day grandeur in India. While they discuss elaborately the accomplishments of the Rio athletes, before and beyond, the narrative is carefully constructed to not call out the major challenges (including a highly dysfunctional sports federation) that plague the system inside India.

As a country, even today India is being force-fed post-event sports reporting that often focuses only on Indian para-athletes’ achievements. Indian sports journalists writing for mainstream media outlets are not yet reporting on the selection procedures or state and national level activities of the one federation that continues to enjoy unrestricted access to the power corridors of India’s sports ministry — Paralympic Committee of India (PCI).

Does India’s National Paralympic Committee comply with the NSDCI, 2011?

Paralympic Committee of India is one of the three annually recognized National Sports Federations (NSFs) for disability sport in India. As an NSF, PCI must annually fulfil all the eligibility criteria set forth by the Ministry of Youth Affairs (MYAS) through its National Sports Development Code of India (NSDCI), 2011. MYAS is solely responsible to ensure that PCI meets the eligibility criteria annually, before it continues to support the NSF’s activities. Section 6.1(b) of the NSDCI (2011) clearly mentions that NSFs are fully responsible for a multitude of activities that pertain to sports administration.

The purpose of the annual recognition to NSFs is explained as a necessary process to ensure “NSFs maintain certain basic standards, norms and procedures with regard to their internal functioning, which conform to the high principles and objectives laid down by the concerned International Federation, and which are also in complete consonance with the principles laid down in the Olympic Charter or in the constitution of the Indian Olympic Association while being compliant with Government guidelines applicable to NSFs.”

Section 8.3 of the NSDCI (2011) provides an exhaustive list of guidelines (Annexure-II) that guide MYAS to award annual recognition to NSFs. The important question for us to ask here is,

“Does PCI fulfill all the criteria to be awarded an annual recognition every year?”

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No. PCI to this date has failed to comply with many aspects of the NSDCI (2011). Historically ignored by sport journalistic reporting and buried under volumes of ‘inspiration porn’ that continues to dominate India’s para-sports news, PCI has constantly skirted its way out of being accountable to the law of this land. As of today, MYAS does not have an efficient mechanism in place that can hold PCI accountable for its poor administrative practices. This is evident in the form of how MYAS does not have information pertaining to PCI that details recent national championships or state-level activities (I received an RTI response from MYAS saying that all the requested information remains with NSFs).

While it might seem unrealistic to some that I expect MYAS to have all information about an NSF, one must remember that the very same NSF receives major funding from a component of the MYAS — Sports Authority of India (SAI). And in today’s digital India, some structured record-keeping in this context is not an unrealistic ask.

Well until the early part of 2019, PCI never disclosed the details of all their state units and associate sports federations on their website which was mandated by the NSDCI, 2011. After I made repeated RTI requests and wrote emails to MYAS officials raising concerns on the lack the information, on June 17, 2019, PCI updated their website. If one can keenly scan through the section, it will be interesting to note that PCI requires its state and union territory para-sports associations in India to reach out to grassroots level for continuing their recognition as a member of PCI. However, in an RTI response I received from PCI on 12 July, 2019, I was informed that PCI had no records of any para-sports work carried out by Mr. Madasu Srinivasa Rao who runs the Para Sports Association – Andhra Pradesh (Telangana). I was provided his contact details to seek the information from him directly (Two years ago, an attempt I made to inquire about state-level activities from Srinivasa Rao was met with hostility and verbal abuse before he hung up the call on me). So I know contacting him again is futile.

PCI’s response to my RTI question seeking access to archival data clearly violates some of the requirements for NSFs to keep their annual recognition. Despite the violations, PCI enjoys the much-privileged NSF status that in turn allows it unrestricted access to corridors of SAI also. Despite lofty claims made by PCI, it is evident that the NSF has no dependable functioning system in place at the state and district levels. In words of a Rio 2016 para-athlete, many state units have no structure or annual events. Still, they come up with a list of athletes for the nationals conducted by PCI. This is another violation of the NSDCI (2011) which requires NSFs seeking annual recognition to annually conduct district and state-level events to name national teams that can represent India. Yet, annual recognition continues to be awarded to PCI and the SAI funding continues.

No Functional District Level and State Level Units to Send Athletes to Nationals

Without an effective feeder mechanism that can connect the grassroots level with para-athletes’ access to place on international teams, PCI continues to leave the system open for corruption, power play and lobbying based limited access of the top for a select few athletes. If our para-athletics goal as a country is to count the medals won by a carefully curated group of athletes with disabilities, we can be rest assured that we have the worst corrupt system in place through PCI.

Purposive sampling of athletes based on limited access to lobbyists who can work their way through the broken government machinery is a clear violation of the ‘Basic Universal Principles of Good Governance of the Olympic and Sports Movement’ that is mandated by the NSDCI, 2011 (Section 9.3 – Conditions of eligibility). And PCI is full of multiple groups headed by a local leader who has a direct contact in the board. Any para athlete from India can roll out the names on inquiries. If you are not in close proximity with the groups, you have no open access to what the system is.

As someone who has interacted with some major power players inside PCI, I am boldly writing here what many stakeholders inside India’s Paralympic world complain about. If MYAS is serious about fixing the problems that are complicating the Paralympic ecosystem in India, it must be willing to revamp PCI’s internal functioning. MYAS must bring in Indian youth with sport management degrees and physical education or sports degrees to become a part of PCI’s system.

The Paperless Corruption of India’s National Paralympic Committee

Satyanarayana, PCI’s high jump coach unofficially runs the NSF’s Bangalore office (In response to an RTI question, PCI wrote to me that he is a volunteer coach. However, anyone in India’s Paralympic world knows that Satyanarayana is almost always present in PCI’s Bangalore office and is a standard presence even in meetings chaired by the President during the Annual General Body Meetings. In the US, I personally witnessed how he unofficially got things done for PCI). When I met him at Desert Challenge, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona, he confidently detailed to me how his strong presence inside PCI and his power play of controlling the entire Paralympic system inside India is paperless and how nothing can ever be traced back to him on paper.

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As a Railways employee, Satyanarayana shamelessly explained to me how the Government job he has occupied for over two decades will award him a heavy pension despite him barely ever making it to his official duties. He went on to add details of how he managed to float a company that imports para-sports equipment into India. And that he gets all his work done with the foreign vendors when he travels out with the PCI teams. Interestingly the company is owed lakhs of rupees by PCI (refer to PCI’s audit statements available on their website and look up a name ‘Hight International Sports Management: 29BMYPS7202P1ZU’).

Conflict of interest is a non-existential concept within PCI. MYAS’s RTI response to my questions about Satyanarayana’s role inside PCI directed me to PCI. PCI in its response said he was a volunteer coach. If he is a volunteer coach, how has he continued to make major administrative decisions inside PCI? (I personally know an athlete who paid their way into an Asian Para Games team by bribing Satyanarayana through another coach in South India). Any random person picked out of India’s Paralympic movement will tell you to what extent Satyanarayana controls the NSF’s functioning in Bangalore. I literally watched him from two feet away when he boldly talked about circumventing MYAS’s broken system to ‘feed’ athletes that approached him for entry into the national scene.

With the absence of robust district and state-level mechanisms in the country for para-sports, is this an equitable process for all athletes who want to try and represent their country internationally? So last year when I opposed his fight for a Dronacharya, I had a solid rationale behind it. By merely poaching a raw talent like Mariyappan Thangavelu, does one deserve a Dronacharya? Within India’s corrupt Paralympic world, Satyanarayana is one of the key players who must not be forgotten. To not forget one must physically witness how he treats his poached athletes with disabilities. If one can look at the scenario from a disability rights angle, it will make sense. Disenfranchised athletes with disabilities who know there are only two aisles in this journey and one aisle are the power players’ territory and the other is a lonely struggle with a broken system in which, one must be incredibly lucky to make it to the top.

Mariyappans and Medals of India’s Paralympic World

During the same time I met Satyanarayana, I quizzed Mariyappan about his coach. As Satyanarayana went out to tour and sightsee in and around Phoenix after the high jump event, Mariyappan stayed in the hotel room as always is apparently the case. I had the chance to strike a conversation with Mariyappan as I drove him to an Indian restaurant for his first real meal of the day. His answer was simple and not shocking to me.

“Akka [sister in Tamil], for London 2012, I couldn’t make the team because I didn’t know how to navigate the politics that were heavily dominated by people from North. So when my turn came for 2016, I took his [Satyanarayana’s] side so that I could move ahead in the process.” For months after our conversation, I tried communicating with Mariyappan about the importance of his position within the ecosystem and how he can create a positive influence. You won’t be surprised to know that he slowly avoided conversations with me since then. If you spend the two days I spent observing him closely, you will understand how Indian athletes with disabilities are treated within this system. In some parts of the world, it is called human rights violation.

I am not questioning Mariyappan’s accomplishment in Rio 2016. I am questioning the way he got there. How many more Mariyappans have we left behind as a country in our mad rush to count the medals? And in poaching people with disabilities like Mariyappan, let us not forget that through a person like Satyanarayana, we continue to keep the corrupt system well fed. Satyanarayana is just one of the many lynchpins of India’s corrupt Paralympic system. There are many more and I will continue to write about them instead of complaining about them in private conversations.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author's and not of The Bridge's. The article was first published on the author's personal blog.

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