On 16 August 2019, Shivraj Singh Chouhan shared the video of a young Indian, barefoot sprinting on a blacktop road in India. Tagging India’s Sports Minister, Kiren Rijiju, he said, “India is blessed with talented individuals. Provided with the right opportunity & right platform, they will come out with flying colours to create history!” This is very much true to India. However, between addressing the sporting needs of highly diverse Indian communities, and conforming to the international sport governance standards, as a country, we are lost.
India is blessed with talented individuals. Provided with right opportunity & right platform, they'll come out with flying colours to create history!
— Shivraj Singh Chouhan (@ChouhanShivraj) August 16, 2019
Today’s India is lost and denies equitable opportunities to ‘talented individuals’ who often reside in the deepest corners of the country. Indian athletes from the grassroots level to the national level competitions are heavily dependent on the National Sports Federations (NSFs) that are annually recognised by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (MYAS). In turn, the Indian NSFs are like the power brokers who lobby the halls of Shastri Bhavan getting files moved depending on the urgency that surrounds an athlete’s immediate travel or competition needs.
I am a disability sport researcher who is trained outside India to use research as a tool for informing sport policy. Having researched disability sport NSFs in India, I can confidently say dysfunctional NSFs are an evident fact of India’s sporting world. They are like the open sewers that stink and make India look bad. But every single day, every Indian crosses over them and goes on with their life. This is how athletes in India make it to the top and eventually qualify for the international events where they get to represent their country and win medals proudly. Journalistic reporting from India is replete with these stories. The likes of Dipa Karmakar and Abhinav Bindra have not been left out of these experiences. However, life goes on for us.
Does Deepa Malik deserve the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna?
Deepa Malik is India’s first woman Paralympian to win an individual medal (F53 category for shot put). On Saturday, MYAS announced that she would be awarded the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award in Sports and Games (Paralympics). Having tracked the Paralympic Committee of India’s (PCI) organisational behaviour since Rio 2016 and having delved into how Deepa Malik facilitates her way through the system, I question if Deepa deserves a spot among the coveted few sportspersons who have worked hard to be awarded the highest sporting honour of India in the past.
Inside the PCI that is disorganised and riddled with murky political in fighting for leadership, Deepa is the only athlete in India who always found herself in sync with the anarchic functioning of the NSF. After her event was scrapped off from Tokyo 2020, Deepa announced that she would try swimming as a competition category. Despite being on PCI’s Athlete’s Council, there are no records of Deepa ever engaging with any other members of the Paralympic community inside India to grow the movement. Same is the case with Devendra Jhajharia. Sometime after Rio 2016, PCI needed an athlete’s council on the paper to mimic the international governing body’s framework. So they created one. There have been instances of para-athletes questioning Deepa’s eligibility to have made it into international teams put together by PCI’s leadership.
Murky backdoor deals in PCI
Interestingly, in 2015, the Indian government assured the International Paralympic Committee that the Government would ensure PCI’s functioning to meet global sport administration standards. Not much has changed within PCI since then, except that the leadership for the NSF went from the hands of a Central Minister into the hands of a new interim-president who himself has been a major power broker with staff from MYAS. For example, over a month ago, I received a call from a contract employee within MYAS who proudly spoke about how he is employed within the Ministry (National Sport Development Fund), but his potential as a sports management professional is barely utilised. In his understanding, backdoor deals made with PCI’s leadership have helped him ‘make a difference’ in India. He was referring to a curricular level reform he was able to bring by sitting down with Gursharan Singh the interim-president of PCI.
On 7 August 2019, an update was published on PCI’s website about the same. It is publicly known within India’s Paralympic community that, the contract employees within MYAS who are under utilised, use their positions to make backdoor deals with NSF leaderships to get their work going. PCI has never functioned while meeting the standards set by MYAS’s National Sport Development Code of India (NSDCI, 2011). After years of not having information on how PCI functions at state levels, I started making Right to Information (RTI), 2005 requests for information about PCI. A few weeks post my RTI requests and continued complaints to Sport Ministry’s email addresses, I was made aware of a show cause notice that PCI received from MYAS’s Under Secretary Arun Kumar Singh (No. 94-3/2015-SP. III).
On 16 June 2019, PCI updated their website to meet NSDCI, 2011’s information disclosure guidelines. In response to an RTI request I made to PCI (dated June 10, 2019), I received this statement as a common response to multiple questions that sought information about national championships conducted so far, selection trials, location of past events, among others. “The requested information is over the stipulated duration and PCI does not have the resources or the infrastructure to store the data for such a long period.” For an NSF that cannot maintain archival records of its functioning, for an NSF that violated election guidelines set by the NSDCI, 2011, for an NSF that to this date does not have an all India presence, PCI continues to enjoy unmonitored functioning in India.
No dialogues on disability rights
A style of functioning that enables a few articulate and privileged persons with disabilities like Deepa Malik to have unprecedented access to the system. As a disability sports professional, I am not criticising Deepa’s athletic accomplishment. But being well aware of the philosophy behind the Paralympic movement, I criticise her smart manner of politically navigating the broken system while rigging it up along the way to prevent further competition for her till she meets her personal goals. At the centre of any disability sport, are disability rights. And in our country, disability rights are not a part of the dialogue anywhere within the Paralympic world. If all that we care about as a country is that — we win the Paralympic medals and don’t care about equitable access of para-sport for all citizens with disabilities, we are all set. We will continue to have many more Khel Ratnas. But within the Paralympic world, these Ratnas will always be in the hands of a few who will side with the broken and negative political system.