The g-force of Indian Para badminton: Gaurav Khanna

the force of gravity or acceleration on a body

– Merriam-Webster’s meaning for g-force

How does g-force impact an object? In conversations with para badminton players and other stakeholders who work within India’s disability sport scene, I often joked about writing this article someday. We always burst out laughing after saying the title out. But as we witness the projected progress in India’s Paralympic movement from a rights-based approach, I can’t stop myself from putting this information out. In the past I avoided writing on this topic because people said to me:

The deeper you dig, the more dirty it gets!

Why can’t you focus on the positives? 

Some of us are benefitting from it, why can’t you let us be?

The ones who can survive the politics will survive. 

When others don’t have a problem why do you have a problem?

The problem with all these statements is one –

not fixing the system limits access to a select few who can position themselves close to the power centers. And when people with disabilities are involved, this aspect cannot be ignored at any cost.

India’s Paralympic Committee (PCI) is still a party to court cases and despite the legal tangles, the sport organization has had its suspension recently revoked by India’s Sports Ministry. As of 31st December 2019, PCI has received about six crores in government funding (MYAS Annual Report, 2020). All this while not having transparent and functional state units that are supposed to send players into the annual national championships after following mandated selection procedures according to the National Sports Development Code of India (NSDCI, 2011). From these national championships, para athletes are chosen to represent India internationally. In the process of seeking approval to function as an NSF, PCI also submitted an annual competition and training calendar (ACTC) in which events happening at an academy in Lucknow were listed – a new Para badminton academy called GKE Badminton Academy. And today I am going to tell you the story behind GKEBA’s inception (GKEBA stands for Gaurav Khanna Excelia Badminton Academy).

For years I have faced opposition to my position taking about how Indian Para badminton is managed. Not surprisingly the opposition stems from a small community of players who single handedly benefit from the ecosystem. An ecosystem that is solely controlled and managed by a Lucknow based Indian Railways employee called Gaurav Khanna (at least as of 21st August, 2020 he is an Indian Railways employee). Khanna’s name is absent from all spaces concerning Indian Para badminton unless one files an RTI to seek information about him. As of 19 October 2020, Khanna is listed as a Head Coach (volunteer service) for Para badminton team in PCI’s paperwork.

How did a full-time Indian Railways employee commit to so many hundreds of hours of travel with India’s Para badminton team?

To find answers, I filed requests for paper work from his employer to know if he has completed paperwork to be working in an alternative occupation and if he is cleared to be engaging in work where he would be officially representing India as a part of a sports team. When one files RTI paperwork in India, the process is pretty straight forward. If the specific department has the information they send it to you/route your request to the appropriate department/refuse information stating why it is being refused.

In Khanna’s case for the first time, I received personal communication on my cell phone from a number in Lucknow asking me to clarify what information I was asking. I curtly said, “Answer what you see on the paper in writing. There is nothing to speak to you over a phone call” and hung up. A week later my RTI application asking for Khanna’s details is sent out to the Personnel Department and sixty days have elapsed since then and I am yet to know if the Indian Railways ever issued a No Objection Certificate for Khanna to be double dipping into resources everywhere with little government oversight. But considering his position as a chief office superintendent in a divisional railway manager’s office, I am not surprised that I haven’t yet received a reply.

What Khanna has done and continues to do today is not different from what the Badminton guru, widely celebrated Dronacharya of Indian Badminton, Gopichand has done for years now. Khanna walked himself into a space that completely lacks government oversight and positioned himself in a spot from where today he sells to popular sport supporting organizations and corporates marketable candidates. Just with the one exception that Khanna is an Indian Railways employee full-time, if one closely examines how they both operate, they are both about a one man show (that’s why I was tempted to title this article using the term g-force). Considering that Khanna is now rising to power, I can only say, he learnt from the best. Over the years, Khanna identified the gaps in the system and mastered the skill to plug these gaps. He did this while constantly brainwashing players with disabilities that he was their only solution in a system that doesn’t care about them.

He knows Badminton Association of India (BAI) has no structure in place to make state units to conduct state level developmental activities in Para badminton.

Largely BAI’s functioning is still through ‘power pockets’ that will place a player in line of sight with the national head coach. In Para badminton’s case, all power rests with Khanna. He is the Head Coach for the country’s Para badminton team and he is the national selector. It was not until recently was he given that title and for years he has masqueraded as a head coach in a space that rarely anyone cared about. On PCI’s website, one will notice the name of Prabhakar Rao as the Chairperson for Para badminton. But if you speak to any random player in India’s Para badminton world, they will deny Rao has any say in the matter. And that Khanna is the one who does it all — from draws in the national championships to controlling who is the most winnable player that the sponsors must place their money on. Today, Khanna has begun operating the Para badminton academy in Lucknow that has already found its place to become a cash chest for money released from India’s Sports Ministry. A private academy chosen randomly. What prevents any other private academy in India from seeking the same level of funding? Sports Authority of India (SAI) in its RTI response about paperwork proving Khanna’s coaching credentials to train players in badminton was simple – “He is a coach appointed by Paralympic Committee of India.”

Para badminton in India functions in a no man’s land!

  • Lack of established/shared responsibility between the Paralympic Committee of India (PCI) and BAI. Since Deepa Malik’s election to the President’s post, PCI does not respond to information requests even if it an RTI. BAI places all responsibility of Para badminton in PCI’s hands (despite BWF stating that the country’s Badminton body must oversee all the development activities for the sport). Khanna functions in a space where he is not held accountable by any federations’ committees. For players training at Khanna’s academy or travelling with him abroad, there is no clarity on who is the federation who can take any reports for abuse or harassment. Players from grassroots complain Khanna has a nagging habit of coercing players to constantly share positive updates and gratitude posts about him for every single goal they accomplish. And that this significantly impacts players’ ability to freely speak for their rights. The players that can survive this behavior or be okay with it are the ones who continue to benefit from his connections within the system.

“PCI ban hogaya tho koyi baat nahin, hum SAI se kaam karaalenge (No problem if PCI is banned, we will get our work done by SAI)”

– Gaurav Khanna’s reply to my question: Where is the system? What if PCI is banned?

The problem with Khanna’s statement is that he has too much access inside a system that actually has the authority to hold him accountable for any actions that are questionable under the law (unfortunately, in India we are still ages away from thinking about preventing abuse in sport). Despite such a powerful and central role, Khanna’s name is absent from many of the usual places where it is supposed to show up. Especially, PCI’s Para badminton program page

In my own conversations with Khanna on more than two occasions, two things became evident:

He considers himself to be the uplifter of the disabled players in India who want to play badminton and he firmly believes he is above the law. In fact there is a certain arrogance he presents in his communications — that him exploiting his opportunity to be employed in a government job all while not showing up at his government job will pass without any scrutiny. And it is a fact. For years, he has comfortably drawn a government salary while traveling the world again on SAI and private sponsor money. All while poaching talented players from the most marginalized communities and drawing them into an ecosystem where they must be aligned with championing for his Dronacharya award. Successfully he managed to lobby for the award in 2020 after Deepa Malik was placed on the committee while heading PCI as a President. 

How does he manage to get away from any scrutiny?

Until recently (early 2010s), like many other disability sport disciplines, Para badminton in India was a neglected sport.

For years players from grassroots in India, without coaches and scientific training have been traveling out of India to win medals for the country.

All at own costs and donor funding. Rarely a local government or department supported these players and athletes with some funding. The sector was largely unorganized until Khanna began to notice potential in creating an identity for himself at the cost of exploiting the community’s vulnerabilities (lack of public support, shortage of funding, absence of awareness among SAI officials about the sport, players’ lack of access to SAI corridors to name a few). Khanna was once a part of the Deaf sports community where he claims to have started his disability sport coaching work (deaf badminton players. Today one of the deaf players, an Arjuna awardee Rohit Baker travels with Khanna as a part of his teams RTI information. It is unclear if Baker is Khanna’s trainee from his Deaf sport days). But mysteriously, Khanna was removed from coaching in the deaf sports world. Not many know the exact reasons but soon he recognized that Para badminton leadership primarily based in Bangalore, Karnataka was facing infighting in South India. At an opportune time, he positioned himself to work closely with Prabhakar Rao from BAI to run the show. 

To this date, no information about Para badminton is notified publicly and rarely a committee oversees the national championship or selection work. All the communication happens over a closed WhatsApp group that Khanna and his supporters maintain. Neither the PCI nor the the BAI can produce any paper trail of what Khanna has been doing. A close group of people from Khanna’s contacts repeat as team members when he travels with the Indian team (Information sourced from RTI replies from SAI). When national championship information is released, Khanna’s name can never be found anywhere in the paper work. But any player who attends the tournament will tell you everything happens under his hawk eye. Unlike the mandated practices, Khanna creates draws for the matches in an arbitrary manner. He speaks to all sponsors and sport organizations that support para badminton players. All the players that side with his working style find a spot with the top sponsors and recently have also been able to secure spots in the coveted SAI (Target Olympics Podium Scheme) TOPS scheme. While SAI does not openly publish the criteria on the basis of which it selects its players, the manner in which SAI is releasing public money for Khanna’s posse is a matter of concern. If national rankings are a part of the criteria, I ask where are the national rankings for Para badminton? Does BAI endorse the rankings? Which BAI officials were present at all these nationals from which players were selected. Players attending the national championships that Khanna cooks up every year are players who sign up to go play at the nationals. There is no mechanism in India for state bodies to conduct state championships and send their top players to compete at the national championships for Para badminton. This set up prevents people who are not choosing to align with Khanna’s working style to not have first hand access to information regarding competitions or other opportunities.

If there is any possibility to restructure this set up in India, Khanna can be held accountable for many questionable practices that he has used over the years to be selective about who are the ‘rising stars of Para badminton in India’ while he handpicked Indians with disabilities who were best marketable and could bring the best return on investment for the sponsors. Recently a wheelchair user aspiring to train at Khanna’s academy in Lucknow was turned away because Khanna randomly decided he couldn’t train there. This at a facility that is receiving/about to receive funding through an NSF.

In a country with hundreds of physical education graduates failing to find gainful employment as sport coaches, people like Khanna occupy cushy government jobs, perpetuate the corrupt culture of lobbying for a few players that will in turn make them rich (financially or socially).

ATTENTION NEEDED FROM THE GOVERNMENT TO FIX PARA BADMINTON CHALLENGES IN INDIA

Hold BAI and PCI accountable for establishing a committee and ensure the committee oversees the national championships and selection process.

Place a national call for para badminton coaches who can dedicate full-time to coach players scientifically.

Establish a mechanism to conduct state championships through state units of BAI and PCI instead of randomly enrolling players into national championships.

Prevent Khanna from running a single person ecosystem where all control lies with him.

P.S: Check out the website that is run as a parallel federation and notice how the site does not mention Khanna as a coach but lists his newly launched academy as its address.