The tragedy of Indian Volleyball

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 to 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 quite 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.

So, is it fair to say that the grassroots are strong when it comes to Indian Volleyball?

Probably no.

Although, 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. 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.

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 a 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.

And then, of course, came the comical events which simultaneously unfolded in Nagpur and Chennai in March 2016, back before FIVB even found the need to intervene.

In two separate Emergent General Body Meetings, which were convened by Kumar and Jakhar respectively, both of them decided to terminate each other from their then positions at the association.

VFI vice-president Vijay Dangre, at that point, made his intentions and affiliations evident as he declared the meeting chaired by Jakhar as null and contradictory to the norms specified by the VFI constitution.

Two factions – both of which were supposedly united by the singular goal of promoting Volleyball in India, ultimately caught international attention over their complete inability to refrain from washing their dirty linen in a very public way.

Needless to say, FIVB’s decision to disbar VFI was one which brought embarrassment to the country’s sporting ecosystem.

Consequently, an ad-hoc committee was then formed to resolve ongoing issues- issues which can only be classified as personal and selfish as they distinctly harmed the Indian culture of Volleyball in the process. However, what happened after the dissolution of the VFI is an even more baffling story.

A look at the very rudimentary VFI website confirms that there is no accountability whatsoever when it comes to fact-checking the utilisation of allocated funds to the organisation.

The absence of a proper audit report within the website attributes itself raises quite a lot of questions about a sporting body which has, since July 2017, been reinstated as a National Sports Federation of India.  

In fact, 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 just be due to his ongoing crusade against the corruption which is apparently 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 illegal 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 typical 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 important 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 already 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 amount of money 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 the month of 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 major 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 quite unremarkable and bland if one looks at it objectively.

The youth teams have produced equally disappointing performances with the Junior Men managing a less than an ordinary finish of ninth in 2000, their last recorded participation at the Asian Junior Men Championships.

The younger girls team has been neglected, and this is evident in the fact they have only participated in the Asian Youth Girl’s Championship only once, in 2000, and they finished ninth. The fact that women were not allowed to be a part of the Interstate Volleyball Championship from 1936-1950 also stands out to a keen observer of the sport.

Lastly, 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 biggest international tournament was lost, and the people of highest authorities within the federation were involved in public squabbles, the question of accountability still looms large.

It is quite problematic to hold the National Sports Federations accountable for mismanagement of the particular sport they are responsible for. 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. Selection sheets for the upcoming Nationals have already been uploaded by the website. But with the team operating in anonymity, a greater and deeper insight is hard to find. This is the tragedy of the condition of Volleyball in India.

Underperforming teams are often made to feel guilty for their overseas performances, but the fact remains that Federations shirk responsibility and, eventually, succeed in moving away scot-free from the ramifications that a lack of laurels bring.

When a sport is neglected, care is taken to ensure that details of the neglect are never revealed. Mishandling and unaccountability of funds and a lot more factors go a long way in benefiting the officials of the sport rather than the sport itself. Volleyball in India seems to be a victim of this trend.

It lies forgotten, abandoned and completely 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?

Are Nationals as far as Volleyball players in India can go? If yes, then what is the point of an internationally recognised governing body for Volleyball? Probably none.

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

Note: On November 7, 2017, the Volleyball Federation of India (VFI) named Rathin Roy Choudary as their ad hoc president at an Annual General Body Meeting. He is expected to hold that position until at least February 15th. That is the date when the Delhi High Court is slated to announce whether or not the VFI general body elections held on April 11th, 2017 confirmed to norms or not. This adds yet another chapter to the mess that the VFI has been associated with for a long time.