Wheelchair Basketball in India: An Other Side of the Coin


“Is there another one cropping up?”

I say, “No! they are trying to work together”

“Thank God! that would be a disaster for the sport!”

These lines gave me the much needed start to openly write about my learnings from the wheelchair basketball (WCBB) scene in India.

Often times when a context is not established for discussion, all the information shared will seem meaningless. Click here to read quotes from all the people I have spoken to in the last several months. These people include players, administrators, coaches, representatives of international organizations that are trying to promote wheelchair basketball in India.

After being introduced to Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India (WBFI)’s President in December 2015, I volunteered for WBFI for about an year. Prior to volunteering with WBFI, I travelled to Chennai on January 16, 2016 to meet WBFI’s Executive Committee members. When Ms. Madhavi Latha asked me about an agenda for the meeting, this was my email response to her.

On Jan 12, 2016 6:38 PM, “Sri Chennapragada” <sri.chennapragada@gmail.com> wrote:

Dear Ms. Madhavi, 

Greetings. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to present my ideas in front of such a wonderful group of professionals. Following will be points that I will be talking about:
1. What are the potential opportunities for WBFI to collaborate with over seas educational institutions
2. Encouraging research documenting WBFI work and its athletes’ sport performance
3. Collaborations beyond sporting bodies for promoting wheelchair sports in India
I will look forward to meeting you all soon,
Thank you,
SriPadmini Chennapragada

Before I even went to meet WBFI’s team in January 2016, I spent long hours helping Ms. Madhavi Latha generate content for her social media accounts. Three samples of my supposed ‘art work’ are here here below. These still adorn the Facebook account of Ms. Madhavi Latha’s family own/run charitable trust. I am clueless on how to react today as I continue to watch this content.

A Facebook banner made with Indian flag colors (saffron, white, green). Embedded into this banner is the logo of a trust with letter Yes We Too Can and hashtages Yes We Too Can and Adapted Sports India written on it With the background of a series of wheelchairs places on a blue floor mat, there is a quote typed onto this image. Quote is "Adapted Sports are competitive sports that are modified for individuals with disabilities and use modified equipment to support their sporting needs." An Indian tricolor square frame with Yes We Too Can logo at the center

During 2016, a good percentage of my free time over the weekends was spent in ‘volunteering’ for WBFI. Volunteering included elaborate phone conversations with WBFI’s then and current President Ms. Madhavi Latha, authoring internal documents that were used as contracts for events, connecting local professionals in Hyderabad for a national camp – to list a few things I did. The people I interacted with also included the then ICRC representatives based out of New Delhi and foreign coaches who had travelled to India for WBFI’s training camps.

After volunteering for over several weeks, having identified many challenges that repeatedly kept coming up in the way WBFI functioned, I made several attempts to explain to Ms. Madhavi Latha why their approach and accountability measures needed to improve in order to meet international standards for sport governance. From the time I started questioning how the financials were being handled, I slowly began to be avoided and gradually lost access to volunteering for WBFI. One of my major disagreements with Ms. Madhavi Latha’s leadership was that there was no distribution of responsibilities to persons with disabilities (PwDs) at the state and district levels so that they could be empowered to more efficiently contribute to the WCBB movement in India. To this date, the way WBFI is spread widely in India at the grassroots level is a mere presentation of carefully controlled information. Ground realities are abysmal to state the least. The internal structure of WBFI was and is – all control rested(s) with two people: Ms. Madhavi Latha (President) and Mrs. Kalyani Rajaraman (Secretary General). And as I continued to explore the Adapted Sports scene in India, my conversations took me beyond India. In my elaborate interactions with a board member of the international governing body for wheelchair basketball this was one of the responses I received [not verbatim].

Sri! I hear you! You are asking IWBF to intervene and ask WBFI why they are coercing persons with disabilities and …..question all these other administrative practices that are causing burdens for PwD in your country.. But let me ask you this: your own government doesn’t care that persons with disabilities are being bullied and coerced. When your own government doesn’t care, when the people who are complaining to you in private conversations don’t go file police complaints or raise issues with the relevant disability rights bodies, why should IWBF interfere? The burden is not on us. All that IWBF is concerned about is WBFI paying their dues and maintaining their status. How they function internally is your government’s responsibility. Don’t blame the international body for it! ……Let me also tell you, no one at IWBF is happy with the way Madhavi is running the show. But is there anyone better at all? No one else wants to do this. So we let it be.”

When a foreigner talks to you like this about the reality of your country, trust me, it hits you in the gut. While I hate this person’s honesty, they had a point. That Skype meeting, that one conversation set me out on organizing my efforts over a span of several months. My goal was to identify why WBFI is not willing to engage so many other experts across India who are already doing high quality work in the disability rights movement. Meanwhile, WBFI continued to grow at an unprecedented speed for being a  ‘new’ disability sport organization (DSO). As I kept gathering data, more things became clear to me on why two Indians are able to practically control and dictate the scene. I was able to identify major gaps in how DSOs function within the country and why the Indian government looks like it doesn’t care about protecting the rights of PwDs who want to participate in organized disability sport.

I must agree, while digging through WBFI’s structure and practices, I learnt a lot about how sport federations at large function in India. This present work focused on WCBB is intended to bring to light what is not visible to the common citizen’s eye. For many volunteers and donors who support WBFI, this content will come as a shock. The primary purpose of this work is to educate the reader on a least researched sport ecosystem in India. Further this work is intended to also communicate with a global audience, the many questions and concerns that PwDs raise within the WCBB scene in India. This is because my own interaction with several Indians has identified that a majority of citizens look at disability from a charity angle in India (some reading material for the difference between human rights based model of disability and charity model of disability are provided below).

Months ago, before I went public with the information I identified about WBFI, I reached out to a board member of WBFI and gave them a heads up that their functioning needs a major over haul. There was a small cosmetic fix to the problem. Suddenly, the annual reports and audit reports of WBFI were added to the website (unclear when exactly these changes were made. But earlier to my work becoming public, audit reports were never publicly available on WBFI’s website).

To this date, WBFI functions as a registered society based out of Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Registered in October 2014, many aspects of their inception are questionable. Their bylaws, memorandum of association, affiliation documentation connected to Paralympic Committee of India and IWBF are not available on their website. I have secured all the organization related documents from the Registrar Office in Chennai through an official request in June 2018. The affiliation documents of WBFI were shared with me by a source within WBFI’s membership.

After my own failed efforts to initially volunteer-educate Ms. Madhavi Latha and the other key stakeholders who were power playing the system to win the NSF status race, I tried initiating a due process with the GoI’s Sports Ministry. After further failing to find answers for the questions I get from athletes, coaches and administrators at the grassroots level, I am publicly sharing my learning. Using the WCBB situation in India as a case study, one can only imagine the complexities that surround sport governance surrounding DSOs in India.

SEQUENCE OF EVENTS

On April 22, 2018: I publish the first post explaining why I am looking into the ecosystem and why I want to write about it publicly.

April 23, 2018: I speak to one of WBFI’s Board Members and give them a heads up that I will not stopping looking into this and won’t stop asking questions until WBFI’s functioning improves.

April 24, 2018: I contact the CEO of PCI, New Delhi and inquire about WBFI’s affiliation status with PCI.

May 8, 2018: After two telephonic reminders, I received a response from him as follows:

Dear Ms. Padmini,

This has reference of your mail dated 24.4.2018 on the above subject.

Please find below the information desired by you :

1.    Yes Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India (WBFI) is affiliated to PCI for around 5 years.

The affiliation of the Affiliated Members is reviewed at regular intervals.

2.    WBFI is an independent sports federation and the process for affiliation process for Independent sports federation is slightly different from that of the State. The independent sports federation should also be an affiliated member of the International Sports Federation of the respective sport.

3.    The process to be followed for a sports association to seek affiliation from PCI is mentioned in PCI Bye Laws which are available on PCI website (www.paralympicindia.org.in ). You can also refer the same with regard to the Affiliation process adopted by PCI.

Thanking you, 

Gp Capt S Shamshad (Retd)

CEO

[Find PCI’s Bylaws here. According to these bylaws, WBFI did not meet the requirements to seek affiliation from PCI in 2014. WBFI was registered as a society on October 20, 2014 and on December 24, 2014, they received a provisional affiliation from PCI. The affiliation document that WBFI currently holds is dated from 2014. PCI amended their bylaws after they were reinstated post a ban from IPC. And the affiliation provided to WBFI in 2014 was ‘provisional’. Currently there is no further information available publicly that can explain if WBFI’s eligibility to be a self-declared ‘national body’ has been reviewed by PCI.]

May 5, 2018: I publish on my blog all the quotes I collect from the members of WCBB movement in India

Until then I heard for many months about a ‘training’ WBFI was planning for state units which never happened since the Federation started its operations in 2014 as a registered society based out of Chennai.

May 11, 2018: I send an email to over forty Indians (including Sports Secretary, GoI’s MYAS, ICRC, PCI and WBFI) raising serious concerns about the governance structure of WBFI and the need for government oversight into their functioning. I never received any direct responses for the email from the key leaders who received my email. After a few follow up phone calls to the Sport Secretary’s office at Shastri Bhawan, I hit a dead end. In the telephonic conversations, a staff member had mentioned to me WBFI’s Secretary General by her name and also mentioned to me about her spouse being a high ranking IAS officer ‘yahaan pe Dilli mein’ (In Hindi: ‘Here, in Delhi). This was a red flag for me (Something you must know, in the WCBB world of India, this point is a rabbit hole into which you don’t want to further dig into. I did dig into it and found it to be equally scary and unnerving. The sheer extent of how things become possible with political access to the government is shocking for me). Find attached here the email I wrote to Col. Rathore after my last phone call to the Sport Secretary’s office. Next AM, around 8:30 or 9:00 AM I received a phone call from Mr. Kaushik lamenting about the contents of my email. He requested me to not write such emails and assured that the Sport Secretary’s office will respond.

June 7, 2018: All stakeholders at state levels receive an email announcement from WBFI’s Secretary General announcing a two day symposium for state wheelchair basketball associations. Some big names were roped in for this symposium. What information was shared at this symposium and how participants at this symposium felt is an altogether different discussion.

July 4, 2018: I receive the following email from a Section I of the Sport Secretary’s office.

S.No. Information sought Ministry’s Reply
1. If WBFI is a national body for wheelchair basketball in India (as they claim on their website), are they audited each year by MYAS? Are they required to be compliant with the National Sports Development Code (NSDC), 2011 for their governance and conduct? WBFI is not an NSF recognized by this Ministry.
2. IF PCI is an NSF, aren’t all organizations affiliated to PCI required to be compliant with the NSDC, 2011? PCI is a recognized National Sports Federation. Implementation of NSDC, 2011 in the affiliated unites of PCI the responsibility of PCI.
3. I have repeatedly asked for documentation that explains the affiliation of WBFI with PCI. This is not being made available publicly. I have not received any evidence of such a document for either PCI or WBFI. If such a document exists, why can’t it be shared with the stakeholders? The information is to be sought from PCI, as this department does not possess the same. The e-mail address of PCI is hopcidelhi@yahoo.com.
4. WBFI has forced many state groups to register multiple societies with their respective Registrar of Societies using the same bye laws and article of association documents. To the best of my knowledge, that is not a good governance practice. No information is sought from the Ministry. Hence, no comments.

What is the reason for the lack of strong governmental oversight into a delicate sporting ecosystem that is combining a critical need for good sport governance and strict enforcement of disability rights in India?

The How(s) and What(s) that are important for us to consider: 

  1. According to MYAS, WBFI is not a National Sport Federation.
  2. WBFI’s provisional affiliation to PCI has not been reviewed until today. Between April 2015 and May 31, 2016, PCI was banned by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). During this time, WBFI has received recognition from IWBF (June 20, 2015).
  3. Less than an year after WBFI came into existence, IWBF gave WBFI a non-voting member status. In my understanding, this recognition was a huge boost that WBFI received to self declare themselves as a national body.
  4. The National Sport Development Code of India, 2011 is a detailed document that lists several conditions that need to be met by national sporting bodies before they can be declared as a national governing body for a particular sport.
  5. Meanwhile, since their inception, WBFI has received unstinted support from the New Delhi division of the International Committee of Red Cross. More evidence here. However, it is interesting to note that the Delhi office of ICRC stayed mute on many questions I raised about WBFI’s lack of transparency and why ICRC continues its support to them (as a major event sponsor often supporting the organization of many of their events). Since 2014, there has not been a single major event that WBFI has conducted, for which ICRC has not been an event partner.
  6. To this date (best of my knowledge), about 2-3 state level registered societies have completed the affiliation process with WBFI. Interestingly, no one has ever been provided a copy of WBFI’s original bylaws or memorandum of association. Affiliate members have signed certification documents with WBFI declaring that they will abide by the bylaws and internal regulations of WBFI. When I ask these associations if they have viewed the original documents, there is a sign of shock on their faces (And that is when they speak up and say, “Ma’m, if we are not doing this, there is a pressure from Kalyani ma’m that we can’t participate in the nationals or send players from our state to some or the other international event they want to send India team to. That is why we just submitted the draft they send for our state association registration with the Registrar in our city). I have received scores of copies of emails where Ms. Rajaraman insists people to just use the draft and to not worry about anything beyond that. Reviewing these documents carefully, it is evident that selective information is shared with these potential state associations. Some examples (blue = stakeholder; red: Ms. Rajaraman):

Are we required to have a constitutional process in place to register the state level federation?

  Ans. We will provide format of byelaws. 

In which form should the state federation be registered? A trust, society, foundation or association?

Ans. Under Societies Act.

As per your bye laws, as an interested party to set up a state federation, can I request access to your constitution?

 Ans. We will provide the format. So u need not worry.

  • For instance, there are some state associations that have been denied affiliation for over two years now with no reasons being stated. Coincidentally, these are also the groups that communicate with WBFI using a rights based approach and protest the undignified provision of amenities during events organized by WBFI.
  • For anyone knowing the WCBB news out of India, a common presence is the mention of a trust by the name Yes We Too Can Charitable Trust. As of today, I have been unable to trace the functioning or financial reports of this trust. But an interesting fact is that this trust is a family own/run trust of Ms. Madhavi Latha. In WBFI’s audit and annual reports there is a sporadic mention of this trust in the context of awards and other financial incentives that are often given to players. I particularly mention this trust because: In January 2016, when I went to Chennai to meet WBFI’s EC, I also met another individual who has previously worked at IPC’s Bonn Headquarters who was present at the meeting (someone who played the role of IPC’s observer in India for sometime). This individual had then tried to pitch to WBFI a great model of sport management which WBFI’s board was not comfortable with. In subsequent conversations with him spanning several months, he told me that financial management of WBFI was ‘tricky’. So far, I have not been able to secure copies of receipts that have been provided to a few people during WBFI events when the receipts were given from the Trust’s name but not WBFI’s.
  • If one reviews WBFI’s MoA, it is shocking to read two main objects listed in it:

WBFI shall be the sole competent authority for men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball in India.

To control and maintain the classification of players and issuance of player identity cards and player classification cards and regulate the transfer of players from one state to another.

When applying to register as a state level society, how was WBFI allowed to include such objects that enabled them to build the possibility of a national character/presence around their association?

If one reviews the Statutes of IWBF, you won’t be surprised to see the origin of these sentences in WBFI’s MoA. It is important to ask though:

Recognition of a federation shall not be a matter of right and shall be purely at the discretion of the Govt. of India who may grant recognition subject to such terms and conditions as it deems fit (5.1).

  • When WBFI was registered in 2014, it did not have the recognition from IWBF. IWBF’s membership became possible when India’s NPC was banned from the IPC.
  • According to WBFI’s ByLaws, the term of office for WBFI’s office bearers is three years. WBFI has never had any elections so far.
  • The membership of WBFI (largely PwDs) until today are not aware of any voting rights or individual status as members within the organization. Since the ByLaws were never made publicly available, people were not aware of their rights.
  • Even the participants at the national symposium were not provided with transparent details about the organization. Individuals who asked access to WBFI’s ByLaws were informed that they needed no access to it and the draft bylaws being shared with them were all that states needed. This open enforcement of limited access to information is surprising.

Last week, I contacted an Indian who resides in the United States while tracing any identified donors who made monetary contributions for WCBB in India. In a private Facebook chat he told me that he had made about $500 in donation to WBFI sometime last year over an online transfer. My eyes popped out of the sockets! WBFI has no clearance for accepting foreign contributions (FCRA Compliance). When I asked him if he knew where he sent the money and if he has a receipt for the same, he got curt with me. I closed the conversation saying that he should request for a receipt in the future.

Most Indians within the WCBB ecosystem never asked WBFI for receipts for the financial transactions/contributions that were made! I am myself guilty of adding to this situation for not having asked receipts when I previously made a contribution!

WHY IS ALL THIS IMPORTANT TO CONSIDER:

At the center of all disability sport movements in the world are disability rights of the humans involved in these movements. Surrounding these disability rights are the complex web of systems that include administration, accessibility and role of foreign funding for development of the sport.

  • In India, National federations for team and individual disability sports function successfully only while enjoying unrestricted support from bureaucracy (most of the times questionable for lack of ethical standards in the processes followed). For many stakeholders in the Indian WCBB movement, communications out of Delhi have sky rocketed since 2017.
  • Rarely do the functioning of these organizations comply with the National Sport Development Code of India, 2011 (one exception here is Special Olympics Bharat (SoB). They are arguably the only best disability sport national federation in India as of today. However, if you really look deep into SoB’s functioning, many state and district level programs are severely deficient and lack compliance with the national code).

As India’s largest community of citizens who have historically been denied equal rights, PwDs in India immensely value every opportunity that allows for their participation in disability sport events. However, it is important for us to remember that now is the time for India to move beyond the charity model of disability. We must as a country at all levels of the society, embrace the humans rights model of disability. The most simple explanation I can provide for my position on this perspective of rights is that : In December 2016, India passed the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPwD) Bill 2016 that was solely based on the United Nations Convention of Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). As a country, we accepted a major disability rights law. But in interacting with many Indian citizens, it is evident that a minuscule percentage of them are aware about a rights based approach. For many citizens, supporting organizations like WBFI is a major way to serve. Rarely do they feel concerned to ask for accountability and transparency (for example, asking receipts for financial and other contributions made, asking how the leadership is growing in terms of collaborations and partnerships, why do a certain people have the control of an entire ecosystem etc).

There is a common assumption that all the money donated for disability related causes will be used for good purposes.

Despite facing complex diversity related challenges, India boasts of a competent community of disability rights advocates and leaders who have for several years worked to improve the conditions surrounding the rights of PwDs. But if you look deep into the existing system of DSOs in India and the enforcement surrounding these organizations, it is evident that the rights based model of disability is a common missing framework. Additionally, the governance and administration in these DSOs is devoid of active involvement from the disability rights leaders who have been able to positively influence some changes in other spheres of public life while advancing disability rights. The major resistance I faced (in the form of cynicism towards my critical analysis of the WCBB scene in India) is an indicator of how the most important aspect of the discussion is pushed under the rug:

Do we have robust government enforced systems to manage sports (both able bodied and disability) in India?

If an organization is serving the community of PwDs in India, should they not be held accountable to the highest standards of sport governance?

To conclude this, I will list some of the sentences I have recorded from my own conversations with Indians who have been in the WCBB ecosystem

Padmini, did you see that WBFI’s website only has a long list of foreign coaches listed as WBFI’s Basketball Coaches?

Look at PCI Padmini! They are only a joke! What compliance you are talking about?! – (Ms. Madhavi Latha to me in 2016 when I asked about PCI’s role in overseeing WBFI’s functioning).

I don’t like being told what I should do at the State-level by someone who doesn’t even live or see the reality on ground here! And I am not ignorant of the National Code!

We are appalled at their arrogance in denying us access to their organization’s internal regulations! How can we legally associate with them unless we know who they are registered as legally?

How can IWBF just decide that they are India’s best? In 4 years, there were more than two occasions when IWBF received emails about how poorly WBFI is running the federation here.

Kalyani ma’m is very powerful. The way she will shut you up for asking questions about federation is very cheap. I don’t want to be treated like that just because I am disabled ma’m. Why should I take such a tone? My own parents don’t talk to me like that.

We are under constant pressure to register a society Padmini! But I am telling you, running a society is not a joke! It is so much work. And needs lot of resources which we don’t have here!

Today, one Google Search about wheelchair basketball in India returns impressive results of inspirational articles. But like there are two sides of a coin, most of this inspiration porn you see is the major reason for the Paralympic crisis that looms over India’s potentially bright future (if it is not destroyed by yet another ban/derecognition). We need to take charge of the situation as a country and own responsibility for the lack of public will to look at disability rights and sport rights as human rights first.

Supporting any activities connected to disability rights should not be an act of charity. It should be an act of public responsibility.

Disability rights and sporting rights are human rights.

What exists in sport theory/government policy is useless if it is not transferred into actionable items for sport management in India.

If until now Indian sport federations have been run as highly political bodies where power rests with a select few, it is no longer okay to look the other way and say, “It is like this only in India!”

This article is the result of many failed attempts of requesting main stream journalists to look into this situation and raise awareness through their reporting. The data I have gathered over the last two years is exhaustive. I have never conducted an inquiry of this nature before. Processing all this information alone was a herculean task for me. If there is any aspect of this article that needs further clarification please feel free to contact me.

Note: I made WBFI aware of my intentions of looking into their administrative practices months ago through an email. I never received any acknowledgement nor opposition for openly questioning their functioning. And after my email when I saw a surge in the way they began spreading their presence in India (while holding back key information from PwDs), I felt forced to organize my work towards producing this article.

I hope this article can lead to better systems being implemented for legislative oversight into how DSOs are functioning in India. And to the members of international community who have in the past interacted with me when I approached you for help/advise to create solutions for the WCBB problems in India:

Please understand that your presence is so much needed in countries like ours. But please refrain from enabling individuals who seem to function/run organizations in grey areas of human rights provision. As international experts and administrators, your role is critical in shaping how local organizations and power players gain full control of communities where PwDs are beginning to experience the beauty of disability sport and how empowering it is. If the focus is promoting the sport, it can still happen without enabling the politics.

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