PT Usha, Anju Bobby George among those asked to step down as National Observers

The term “conflict of interest” is one which has been thrown around quite often when it comes to sports administration in India. In a recent circular by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, which The Bridge has access to, the speculation around this term seems to have begun once again as 5 Olympians have been asked to submit their resignations from the post of National Observers from their respective sports.

On December 22, 2017, Abhinav Bindra scripted the beginning of this saga when he announced, “(I) will be resigning public posts of Govt Observer shooting and Chairman TOP Scheme Athlete Identification Committee with immediate effect.”

With 2017 almost set to come to an end, it seemed like the controversies in Indian sport were far from over when Abhinav Bindra made his big announcement to simultaneously resign from two Government posts citing “potential conflict of interest”. His resignation and transparency were widely lauded for the simple reason that it shone as a glimmer of hope in an otherwise murky territory.

The appointment of the 12 Olympians

Looking back at March 2017, we see that the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sport had released the names of 12 Olympians who would be serving as National Observers to contribute to the betterment of sports in the country with the ultimate target in mind- the upcoming 2020 Olympics. As per the latest guidelines issued, the function of this National Observer would be predominantly to assist in the selection of athletes eligible for support under the Target Olympic Podium Scheme and National Sports Development Fund.

However, the guidelines for the appointment were repeatedly revised during the period of Feb14 2017- March 11, 2017. All circulars issued had one guideline in common. They all said that a National Observer who is associated with any sort of academy outside the Sports Authority of India and Government jurisdiction “would not be dis-entitled/ineligible” for the post in question.

The reason given was that the National Observer had no direct part to play in the selection of a National Team. According to the Job Description finalised by the Ministry, their predominant responsibility would be to “assist the Government, Sports Authority of India, and National Sports Federations (NSFs) concerned including Indian Olympic Association in the preparation and implementation of the long term development plan”– the keyword here being “assist”.

An additional clause added that when the proceedings for a particular athletes association with any of these private academies would be in place, said National Observer would recuse himself/herself from providing any insights.

This is definitely not a watertight scenario.

Present mandate to avoid “conflict of interest”

Perhaps this is why, the MYAS’s most recent circular, of which The Bridge has a copy, seems to make sense. In a letter which has since been forwarded to the Director General, Deputy Director General and the Executive Director of the Sports Authority of India, 5 out of the remaining Olympians still serving in the post of National Observer for their respective sports have been asked to step down.

The 5 names are PT Usha (Athletics), Anju Bobby George (Athletics), Abhinav Bindra (Shooting), Karnam Malleshwari (Weightlifting) and Kamlesh Mehta (Table Tennis).

 

The immediate striking factor in this list is the inclusion of Abhinav Bindra since he has clearly resigned from his post. Since then, Ronak Pandit has been appointed with his nomination bringing with it, its own set of speculation. It must be remembered that Ronak Pandit himself is associated with a Shooting Academy while, at the same time, being married to Olympic shooter Heena Sidhu- a scenario where the possibility of conflict of interest is even higher and which does nothing to solve the reasons Abhinav Bindra resigned for.

Upon pondering, the bigger question here still remains as to why the Government did not see the importance of a “conflict-like” situation when it came to appointing these 5 National Observers for their various disciplines in the first place. Why has this issue been brought up now and why aren’t other names like Ronak Pandit included in the list too?

Why isn’t more being done?

There are several other loopholes in the government appointments which need to be addressed as soon as possible, the biggest of them being that the mandate clearly stated that the position should be occupied by athletes who are “non-active sportspersons” and who have retired for active competition for at least 5 years. In light of that, the initial appointment of names like Sushil Kumar and Mary Kom immediately stuck out like a sore thumb.

While both the above names have since resigned, former Commonwealth Games Gold medalist Akhil Kumar still continues in this position.

Scrutinizing the latest circular

Needless to say, the latest circular has sparked off a controversy which had died down. The text of the circular says, “Consequent to your appointment as National Observers, it has since been brought to the notice of this Ministry that you are either running academies/training centers or associated with such centers.”

The tone of ignorance in this sentence is laughable and worth a closer look. This suggests that the Ministry, previously, had no idea about the academies which these esteemed sportspeople had been associated with. How does one, then, explain the consistent amounts of money which have been allocated to some of these schools and which find a very prominent mention in the Financial Outlays of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports.

Take the first name on the list. PT Usha has been associated with the Usha School of Athletics for quite some time now, since 2002. Although it was initially started with a nominal grant by the Kerala Government, the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports has been a major benefactor to the school. In the fiscal year between 2011-12, the Usha School of Athletics (Through Sports Authority of India) received and amount of Rs 4,92,00,000/- for the first installment of a 400m running tract and allied facilities.

In the fiscal year spanning 2014-15, the school received another government sanctioned grant to the tune of Rs 78,00,000/– for the second installment of the 400m running track and allied facilities. Similarly, the NSDF assistance in 2015-16 saw an amount of Rs 12,870,000/- made to the school for the “Laying of 8 Lane synthetic track of international standard with supporting facilities-Payment 4th installment.”

Also read: The tragedy of Indian Volleyball

The purpose to rant off figures is this- there is absolutely no way that the Ministry can claim ignorance about these athletes being associated with their respective academies when funds had clearly been allayed to these very academies in the past.

Right now, the situation, as it stands, remains this. Out of the 12 original Olympians assigned for the posts of National Observers, it so happens that a major chunk of the names have either resigned or been asked to step down. The question as to their replacements still loom large because, as was the case with the appointment of Ronak Pandit, it does not seem like the resignation of one Observer ensures a more transparent successor.

With a little over 2 years left for the Tokyo Olympics, it is sincerely hoped that this mess is rectified. Otherwise, we may end up remaining a two-medal nation or worse if nepotism and red-tapeism rear their ugly heads in Indian sports administration.