Marching beyond medals, India has to secure its Paralympics future
With a new sports minister at the helm, India's sporting ecosystem can receive a great boost if National Sports Federations are monitored closely to become more accountable and transparent. Coaches with international credentials, physical medicine and rehabilitation experts, and disability sport coaches must be made mandatory members of the organisations to sustain the current success from the Tokyo Paralympics.
Writing for the National Post, Scott Stinson says that athletes are classed by their degree of disability. However, someone could ratchet down their performance to be placed in a lower class. This, in his opinion, is the Paralympic version of doping.
India's Paralympians have given the country something to celebrate with their largest medal haul of 19 at a single mega-event at the Tokyo Paralympics. Over the past fortnight, social media is abuzz with political leaders, film stars, and elite athletes posting congratulatory messages. Little media coverage, however, has focused on developments in the governance front.
As a nation on the move to the next mega-event, there are aspects of the current system that cannot be ignored if India wants to treat all its citizens with disabilities with equity. In 2019, the National Sports Federation, Paralympic Committee of India (PCI) was suspended.
At the Tokyo Paralympics, Vinod Kumar was denied a medal after a classification incident. Aruna Tanwar, a young para-taekwondo athlete, retired from her event due to a suspect fracture. Kumar and Tanwar are receiving scant media attention in comparison to their medalled compatriots.
Beyond personal communication from PCI president Deepa Malik on her social media, there is minimal communication for Indians to understand what transpired in both cases. In Kumar's case, an official statement released by the Tokyo Games Organizing Committee was paraphrased by multiple media outlets. No one wrote his story by asking him to document his voice.
In Tanwar's case also, media houses did not take time to write about her injuries or how those injuries would impact her future competitions. To report stories like these, there is an investment of time and resources required. And despite a double-digit medal win, Indian athletes with disabilities were not considered worthy of that investment.
As a researcher, it is difficult to explain to readers what went wrong. The system is not transparent enough to collect data and provide information. Celebrating medalists is imperative. However, we must not forget the accountability towards citizens with disabilities who got left behind in their race to the podium.
Dissimilar to sports involving persons without disabilities, within the para-sport spaces, there is more at stake. Para athletes in India arrive at the international stage surviving through an unclear system that does not allow everyone to pass through it.
Citizens from rural and semi-urban areas have been entering sports for over a decade now. They experience financial hardships, lack of access to basic education, and discrimination within their own communities. These athletes do not have high-performance coaches. They learn to adapt their own bodies to their best functional abilities.
This is when PCI steps in. They scout young Indians with disabilities that do not place demands for accessible spaces or equitable treatment alongside their non-disabled peers.
By choosing para-athletes that are easy to manage or almost self-manage their needs without much expenditure to PCI, the organisation has been creating its own system of classification inside the country that is promoting discriminatory practices.
Ever wondered why India does not have a high performing team of Boccia athletes who are competing at the international level? Have you ever witnessed a quadriplegic wheelchair tennis player representing India internationally?
Indians with multiple disabilities who have higher accessibility needs are often absent from PCI's ecosystem. Selected athletes mostly hail from specific geographic regions in the country. These include Delhi-NCR, Punjab, Rajasthan, and Haryana.
Para athletes from other states have been unable to make it to compete internationally in equal proportions. In conversations with para-athletes from multiple states, I understood that this is happening largely because of PCI's unorganised and dysfunctional state unit system.
This particularly hurts opportunities for athletes from other marginalised communities who have to face mounting barriers for their sport participation.
Representation of women in leadership and coaching
To this date, besides Deepa Malik, PCI's leadership is largely devoid of any female leadership. Except for Mrs. Saroj Dabbas, wife of Dr. V K Dabbas, (he is considered to be the point person for para-swimming in India), there are no records of any other women engaging in PCI's leadership.
Avani Lekhara's coach Suma Shirur was a visible presence at the Tokyo Paralympics. However, prior to these games, her visibility in India's Paralympic ecosystem was virtually non-existent. In 2019, Deepa Malik was recognized by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) for inspiring women all around the world through her work that embodied the Paralympic values.
Ironically, since the Rio Paralympics, PCI has not been able to engage any women coaches to secure increased participation of women at the state and national level. Civil society organizations led by women with disabilities that have been working to advance disability rights in India say they have had zero communications from PCI's leadership at their state levels.
If women with disabilities at the grassroots are unable to see women leadership that is visible, articulate and speaks a rights-based language, how can they trust the system to enter it?
While PCI's website provides an impressive list of women para-athletes in India, there is no clarity on how these women are ranked at their state levels or if they are actively pursuing athletics. As a part of my doctoral research, I discovered that women are not able to continue competing inside the Indian Paralympic movement because they have no clarity on what the exact system is.
State unit offices inside PCI are largely inactive and do not have staff that can stay communicative with para-athletes through emails. Over the last four years, PCI's leadership under Deepa Malik has not considered societal and systemic barriers that women with disabilities have to face to participate in sport events.
Very little time was allowed between the announcements and events that required the physical presence of female athletes.
With physical travel and accessibility barriers looming onto their lives, women with disabilities are further burdened by the unsupportiveness of their families who see no financial benefit for staying active in the PCI system.
Without systemic support at the district levels in all their state units, PCI is proving its inability to function as a recognized national sport federation that is interested in improving women's representation in India's Paralympic movement.
Getting Classified for India
To be able to compete in any international event that can potentially qualify an Indian to represent India at the quadrennial games, every para-athlete must first obtain a sport class for the event they want to compete in.
Despite securing crores of rupees in funding from the Indian government for several years in a row, PCI has been unable to establish a robust education system that prepares international classifiers from India.
The absence of international level classifiers leaves Indian para-athletes dependent on PCI's approval to permit their participation in IPC-approved events abroad. Para athletes from the grassroots explain how the system is not open for all as PCI or all its state units do not regularly conduct annual events as mandated by the government.
Once a year, a national event is organised to which para-athletes from all over the country make a trip. Even at these annual events, PCI has never attempted to arrange expert classification panels that could provide hundreds of Indians with a sports class that would be valid internationally.
Para athletes are often made to believe that only a foreign classification panel can assign a valid sport class to them. PCI continues to conceal the fact that it has never invested in creating international-level technical staff in India.
With a lack of information from PCI about classification, para-athletes often rely on information from veteran players who secured their class statuses by surviving the system to go abroad. For women with disabilities, this burden to travel abroad for classification is a huge deterrent for their participation in the Paralympic movement.
Unless they have supportive families that are able to mobilise the required financial support, Indian women with disabilities do not stand a chance to compete internationally. This can particularly be evidenced from Avani Lekhara and Bhavina Patel's stories.
Media reports show how much financial backing was required for Lekhara and Patel to continue training during the COVID-19 lockdown phase.
With IPC's commitment towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and WeThe15 movement, can we really call PCI's leadership and vision for women with disabilities in India as well-aligned with its international parent body's vision for the movement?
Situating disability rights and politics inside India's Paralympic movement
At this turn of the century, when improved technology is increasing public engagement for political leaders and celebrities alike, it is important to ask how many Indians with disabilities from our country's Paralympic movement are able to equitably experience the same. For example, PCI's website is not fully accessible for blind users who often use mobile-based screen reader technologies to visit websites.
Blind citizens in India are one of the most empowered individuals within the education context when compared to their peers who have other disabilities. Yet, to this date, we do not have a strong group of blind athletes who have been able to make it to international-level sport competitions.
Discussions with stakeholders pointed out that the website continues to remain inaccessible and without sufficient clarity, blind Indians do not see it worth their time and investment to pursue a career that would be misguided by PCI's current leadership.
Earlier this year, the last-minute venue changes and trouble that para-athletes were put through for the National Para athletics championships were all trivialised by PCI leadership.
While efforts were made to silence the news that focused on why the event was so poorly planned, led by Deepa Malik, PCI pushed for media reports that constantly praised the support from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders in Karnataka state after the state of Tamil Nadu refused to let the event be conducted during a pandemic situation.
During the Tokyo Paralympics, every communication made by Deepa Malik (an active party member of the BJP) contained words of praise for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. While I have not denied the positive impact of his 'Mann Ki Baat' addresses to the nation about sports, fitness and yoga, the researcher in me cannot stop wondering --
If Deepa Malik wants to name PM Modi as the major contributor for every success attained by the Tokyo Paralympians from India, will she also include his contribution for allowing the system to stay broken inside the country? Will she also include his contribution for not clearing the prize money dues that coaches and athletes are owed by the government so far?
While Indians with disabilities are celebrating the medals from Tokyo, at the grassroots, there is also opposition and dislike being expressed for Deepa Malik's posts to appease the BJP's leadership.
By pushing public communications within India's Paralympic movement that are constantly praising a ruling party leadership, she is taking democracy away from the system and signing up every para-athlete she represents as a President to be supportive of the ruling party.
Internationally, there is no evidence of a single Paralympian who has used their position to disappear disability rights while replacing them with a political agenda for a ruling party.
Despite major opposition from several civil society organizations that work in the disability rights sector, over the years, Malik has pushed for regular usage of the word Divyangjan which literally translates to people with divine abilities. In the words of a national-level para-athlete from South India,
What is divine about my ability when I am struggling to use inaccessible public transport? What is divine about my ability to fight for prize money that is still being denied to me because I refuse to pay a bribe? What divine abilities is Deepa ma'am talking about? She triggers me every time she uses that word to appease the political leaders!
There is an urgent need for the government to keenly look into the functioning of organizations like PCI who are directly impacting the lives of persons with disabilities in India. These organizations, while ignoring a rights-based approach, through their own methods are placing India's Paralympic movement under a sale for any political party or political aspirant to use the disabled vote.
By not investing in creating internationally competent technical officials and keeping the grassroots State units dysfunctional, PCI continues to violate many provisions and mandates of both the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016.
With a new sports minister at the helm, India's sporting ecosystem can receive a great boost if national sport federations are monitored closely to become more accountable and transparent.
Coaches with international credentials, physical medicine and rehabilitation experts, and experts in disability sport must be made mandatory members of the organizations to sustain the current success of the Tokyo Paralympics.
As we move from the Paralympic Games towards the days of no mega-events and the everyday Indian reality of inaccessible communities, websites and media, we must ask – where are we headed as a country? Towards an empowering future for all citizens with disabilities, or a future where only the medal winners will matter?
About the author
- The views and perspectives in this article are of the author.