The failed state of disability rights inside the Indian Paralympic movement
If India's success at the Paralympics is estimated on the basis of its gradually increasing medal count, unquestionably we are a growing power in the Global South. But when we begin to view India from a systems perspective, we have treacherous mountains to climb.
For a long time, India will not see a Paralympian like Devendra Jhajharia. His perseverance to navigate the World Para Athletics scene well before India acknowledged the presence of athletes with disabilities demands the highest applause. Akin to Paralympians like Muralikant Petkar who was unknown to India until the late 2010s, India is home to other athletes with disabilities like Shernaz Kermani, Digambar Mehendale, Abdul Jabbar Rawthar, Ratna Ghosh and Syamala Raju who have represented India at Paralympic Games before.
Today's India is on steroids about sporting achievements of Avani Lekhara, Sumit Antil or the high jumpers who have been successful for about five years now on the international circuit. India's newfound excitement about success at international mega-events like the World Para Athletics Championships and the Paralympic Games is less than a decade old. Active involvement of government agencies like the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (MYAS) in promoting sports content within their discourse and policy communications is no doubt improving an average Indian citizen's consumption of sports media content related to persons with disabilities in the country.
About a fortnight ago, Neha Arora, a peer from the disability rights community and I were discussing a case when she mentioned the WeThe15 campaign that the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) had just launched. A quick search on Google sank my heart. I was staring at millions of dollars spent on a new branding campaign that was claiming it will draw the world's attention to the human rights of citizens with disabilities everywhere who are about 15 per cent of the world population.
If India's success at the Paralympics is estimated on the basis of its gradually increasing medal count, unquestionably we are a growing Paralympic power in the Global South. But when we begin to view India from a systems perspective, we have treacherous mountains to climb. Para badminton debuts at the Tokyo Paralympic Games on September 1 and India is sending a seven-member strong team to cement its position as a South Asian nation that can potentially grow the sport outside the badminton powerhouses of Malaysia, China, or Japan.
However, critical aspects of the sport remain to be ignored by popular media houses and foundations that are scrambling to use imagery of players with disabilities to advance their commercial interests. The Indian Para badminton community housing multiple world champions and veteran players, cannot deny the harsh fact that none of the players have an Identification Number assigned to them by their national sports federation, the Badminton Association of India (BAI). Over six thousand registered badminton players' BAI IDs (active and inactive) can be evidenced from the federation's website. All of them non-disabled players.
Did we need a separate campaign to include badminton players with disabilities into BAI's ID list? Why doesn't BAI include Para badminton in its agenda to develop the sport for all?
A trending video of Neeraj Chopra owning power during a public interaction, when he asked an audience member to ask his questions in Hindi is celebrated and shared. Yet this morning I saw a tweet from Devendra Jhajharia and my first thought was, "He did not write this. These are not his words. Someone wrote this for him."
Non-profit foundations promoting sports content, social media managers handling accounts of celebrity athletes is a well-known fact. Since his first medal, Jhajharia has stayed committed to his goal of bettering his record for as long as possible. For over a decade as he continued to work towards that goal, his voice was unheard and despite his unparalleled brilliance as an athlete, and the ability to be articulate in Hindi, he did not enjoy the same media visibility as enjoyed by the likes of Deepa Malik, another Paralympian who is celebrated for being an articulate English speaker.
The disability rights community members in India often discuss in private how they find Deepa Malik's speeches and language ableist while many para-athletes from grassroots in India celebrate conversations that come from Paralympians like Jhajharia that speak of hope and perseverance against all odds. Between the disability rights community in India which takes a human rights perspective on all matters and Paralympians like Deepa Malik who continue to push an ableist agenda,
"Where are the voices of Indians with disabilities from the rural and semi-urban parts of the country who have been representing India internationally well before WeThe15? Did we need a new campaign to speak of them and their achievements?"
India's Paralympic movement is a failed state for many reasons. Its failed status is a well-known reality at the grassroots that no media reports on. Until December 2016 when India passed an updated disability rights law, right after its successful presence at the Rio Paralympic Games, athletes with disabilities travelling out of the country for international competitions were not well known or written about. Outside the families and local communities that continued to fundraise and cheer for one of their own, administrations and politicians saw no political potential in paying attention to the disabled athlete.
Post-2016, Deepa Malik's ingenious ability to transform her Rio medal win into a political and economic opportunity deeply impacted the Paralympic ecosystem in India. Coming into the sporting ecosystem from a privileged Army family background, education that enabled her to become a motivational speaker and her ability to lobby for higher social and political accolades began to stir hopes for Indians with disabilities who were looking at her from rural and semi-urban spaces. While this can be viewed as a major win for the Paralympic movement in a developing country, what continues to miss public scrutiny is the critical absence of a working mechanism inside Indian Paralympics.
Tokyo Paralympians from India represent currently suspended state units of PCI
Sumit Antil, the F64 Javelin thrower who won a Gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics belongs to the state of Haryana. Under Deepa Malik's leadership, in a PCI Special Emergency Executive Meeting held in New Delhi, on 5 February 2020, memberships of four state associations (Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and Nagaland) of PCI were terminated.
Extraordinary circumstances and efforts to "reduce multiple cross litigations pending in various courts in Delhi, Haryana and Karnataka," were cited as the reasons for the termination of these states' memberships. With over a year's time at hand, PCI under Malik's leadership did not prioritize reconstituting these states units until the National Championships earlier this year when para-athletes from Haryana sought paperwork directly from Deepa Malik to appear at the championships.
Rajasthan and Haryana are two major states from which a sizeable number of para-athletes represent India at international events every year. Print and online media platforms that are publishing high volumes of Paralympic content from India are failing to report about the para-athletes from these states (with terminated membership) who did not stand a chance to qualify for Tokyo Paralympics if they were not close to the power lobbies inside PCI.
Unchecked influx of corporate sponsorships and government funding
Despite the lack of a scientific ecosystem to guide Indian sports, one cannot discredit the attention sports has received under Prime Minister Modi's leadership. A mere mention of sports and fitness as essential aspects of everyday life in regular 'Mann Ki Baat' speeches to the nation has impacted ordinary citizens in India. In many places in rural India where young citizens saw no hope for improved employment or education opportunities, these radio addresses including sports have raised hope among youth to pursue pathways to join government sports hostels and to pursue athletic careers within their districts. In urban India, this unleashed another struggle for citizens with disabilities who were positioning themselves as disability rights activists while seeking transparency and accountability from the national sports federations that were governing disability sport in India.
The rush of corporate companies to push their social responsibility funds into these intersectional spaces to empower people with disabilities and sports through non-profit sport promotion organizations has caused a spike in incidents of abuse of power and control of para-athletes in India. While sport promoting organizations, companies that manage para-athletes claim otherwise, I have discovered a pattern of 'selective enablement' among the practices followed by these organizations. For example, the recruitment of para-athletes into the sponsorship arrangements and scholarship programs is dominated by non-disabled managers and coaches who function as a bridge between the organization and the para-athlete.
Despite a national law for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, the Government of India to this date has not established guidelines for the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE) and MYAS to work together for protecting the sporting rights of athletes with disabilities in India. In countries like the United States of America, the United States Olympics and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) is held accountable by their federal government through various legislative mandates that include SafeSport Policies and athlete-centred organizational practices.
In India, the functioning of nonprofit organizations and sport management agencies violate conflict of interest norms and this is ignored by the Indian Government. In fact, for an Indian para-athlete at the grassroots, choosing the pathway to Paralympics is complex. Funding from SAI and corporates is piled on for para-athletes who are able to access the system through the 'middle people who have the ear of both the parties. For the para-athletes who choose to take a rights-based approach of teaching themselves of the system, advocating for their own rights and seeking accountability in the process – the consequences are clear. Challenges are piled onto these para-athletes until they drop out from the system.
The unregulated influx of private and public funding coupled with ignorance about global frameworks like the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) among government and non-government agencies is placing a never-ending burden on the lives of Indians with disabilities who are getting 'inspired' to join the Paralympic movement. India's disability rights law is based on the UNCRPD and with increased emphasis on gender equity and representation at the global level, the Indian government has a heightened responsibility to create safeguards for athletes with disabilities in India to not be exploited through corporate greed and unrestricted utilization of their disability identities for commercial interests. In today's India, athletes with disabilities are also increasingly discouraged from seeking legal relief for the challenges they face to navigate the Indian Paralympic pathways.
"To continue funding India's Paralympic movement using public money, the Indian Government must constitute a monitoring committee comprising of disability research experts, community leaders from disability rights organizations and subject matter experts on disability sport!"
Blurred lines of governance, administration & conduct
Deepa Malik joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in March 2019. In September 2019, PCI was placed under a suspension by MYAS for violating clauses of Annexure III from the National Sports Development Code of India (NSDCI), 2011. In October 2019, Deepa Malik was unanimously elected the President of India's NPC. Para-athletes from different states in India cite her connections with the central ruling party behind her uncontested election to the post despite making a false representation of herself as a member of an existing para sports organization in India with which she had no working relations. In a direct confrontation with her on a Paralympic India WhatsApp group in 2019, I asked Deepa how she filed her nomination for the elections, and she replied,
"It's open nominations… everyone is welcome… there have been previous occasions where a new candidate has filed for president has filed … Get the history of previous nominations."
Additionally, in the same conversation, she called PCI an autonomous organization. Her response to me in a group where Paralympic medal winners from Tokyo2020 also are members, indicated the privilege she enjoyed in a system that does not seek accountability from the leaders who are overseeing sport governance in the Indian Paralympic movement. Seeking records from PCI is an arduous task. I have filed Right to Information (RTI) applications with PCI that have rarely been answered. The only time I was able to secure a response was when repeated adjoining RTI requests were filed with MYAS by stating that PCI was not responding to RTI communications.
Yet, over the last two years since the lines blurred to allow political parties to directly recruit sportspersons to become 'ambassadors' and 'mascots' for political rallies and social media campaigns, no action has been taken against PCI for failing to comply with the RTI Act, 2005. While the elections that led to the creation of today's Indian Paralympic leadership are being questioned through legal means in courts of India, PCI continues to enjoy unstinted support from the current government to amplify the medal winner's narrative all while erasing any remnants of the actual problems that affect Indian Paralympic ecosystem.
Absence of qualified professionals in Indian Paralympics
In 2020, when I and Sunil Jain, Founder Trustee of Astha, Bengaluru published our first research article on sports governance inside Indian Paralympics, we cited communications from Injeti Srinivas, the former Director General of SAI who reported that Indian Paralympics was in dire need of professionals like classifiers. Over half a decade later, India still does not have a single internationally certified Classifier who can classify Indian para-athletes in the country. This forces para-athletes to stay under the control of PCI's unorganized leadership to attain international classification.
Classification is a critical part of the Paralympic movement. Every person with a disability choosing to pursue competition pathways is assessed by a team of classifiers to be assigned a sports class. The incident involving Vinod Kumar, the F52 Discus Thrower was hyped by Indian journalists as a serious blow to the mental health status of the para-athlete. Vinod Kumar entered a competition like many other para-athletes who also would have undergone 'Observation in Competition' which is used as a way to ensure that the most accurate class is assigned to the para-athlete. He underwent classification through a classification panel on August 22, 2021. What was not communicated by PCI officials prior to the competition was that he must have not been assigned a 'Confirmed Class' and when a confirmed class is not assigned, it indicates that 'Observation in Competition' can occur and that there is a chance for a varied result.
"If PCI had a qualified technical official on team who was internationally trained according to the IPC standards, Vinod Kumar's right to be treated with fairness would have been assured."
By either choosing to withhold that information or by not paying attention to such details that are critical in Paralympic level competitions, PCI through its conduct as an NPC has proven the need for deeper scrutiny of its ability to manage the Paralympic movement in India. As the WeThe15 movement overtakes social media profiles of millions like me and fills the world with purple merchandise that may contribute a fraction of those earnings to disability sports movements globally, one important question about the Indian Paralympic movement remains to be asked.
With this historic information repeatedly erased and ignored, do Indian para-athletes who have repeatedly been exploited stand a chance to actually be counted as a part of WeThe15?