Sport Governance Fails: Paralympic India Today

 “Upon withdrawal of recognition the NSF will cease to exercise the functions of the NSF for the concerned sport discipline. It shall forego the right to regulate and control the sport in India and select the national teams and represent India in international sports events and forums. It will also become ineligible to use India in its name or receive any benefit or concession meant for an NSF as detailed in clause 3.6 of the National Sports Development Code 2011.”

Section (III), Annexure III, NSDCI, 2011

In sharp contrast to celebrating sole medal wins at international events, today’s Indian sports news has occasional content discussing sport governance and athlete development. Since Rio 2016, the Indian Paralympic movement has had a steady increase in corporations and non-profit organizations supporting para athletes in India. Amidst these developments, India’s National Sports Federation (NSF) for promoting para-sports was placed under a suspension by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (MYAS) in September 2019.

The Paralympic Committee of India (PCI), is a National Paralympic Committee(NPC) under the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), which is the world governing body for multiple para-sports. Despite a national suspension in September 2019, the PCI has continued to enjoy the elite status of an NSF. In looking at how a suspended NSF continues to solely control and manage one segment of Indian sports; one can understand the larger problems that loom over India’s sport governance scene. Despite a suspended status, PCI has not stopped sending teams abroad. The officials of the federation embroiled in multiple court battles continue to hold positions within the suspended NSF. Complicit in this long-standing controversy is the role of the IPC that has not made its decision clear on the Indian NPC’s suspended status. Since 2016 multiple stakeholders from the Indian Paralympic scene have contacted the IPC through email communications about sport governance problems that have been rampant inside the NSF. Despite such inputs over the last four years, the IPC has not taken actions to bring the Indian NPC under scanner for possible reforms.

After multiple communications with MYAS, PCI, and other stakeholders – I identified critical problem areas that continue to be ignored by India’s MYAS and the IPC to allow a dysfunctional federation to control para-sports governance in India.

In over a decade now, almost nil changes have been made to the NSDCI, 2011 ignoring the fast-changing sports scene in India. Athlete and federation needs are becoming much more complex and multi layered than before. Despite an elaborate list of guidelines listed in the NSDCI, 2011, MYAS does not have effective procedures in place to hold NSFs accountable for establishing transparency and efficiency as core governance requirements. While recent efforts to reform India’s sports code were met with opposition, one must not forget the plight of failing federations like the PCI that continue to function without robust governance structures in place.

On 25th October 2019, the IPC published a document titled ‘Remaining Fit For Purpose‘ that details many areas of NPC governance practices that it will review to improve Paralympic sport governance within its member countries. I use this document as a framework to explain the governance fails within PCI that need urgent attention from MYAS and the IPC to protect para athlete sporting rights in developing Paralympic nations like India.

Member Obligations from IPC: Responsibilities of PCI and Where it continues to fail

Here I quote the content from IPC’s Member Obligations section (Section 3.2.3) and explain where the problems lie within those areas in India’s Paralympic movement.

Additional obligations on NPCs will be introduced to protect them from government interference

– Section 3.2.2, IPC’s Member Obligations

With the NSDCI, 2011 and the NSF structure that is mandated to solely control and manage para sports in India, NSFs like PCI immensely benefit from millions of rupees in government funding to send para athletes to compete and represent India at international events. Applications to secure these funds and allotment of monies to NSFs is managed through the Sports Authority of India (SAI) which in its present form is not fully independent of government involvement. A small example of this is how the leadership appointment to the SAI is made and how the funds are released to SAI through the annual national sports budget. However, while the Right to Information Act, 2005 enables a system to request information from the NSFs, another major challenge within the Indian Paralympic scene is PCI’s reluctance to provide information through RTI Act, 2005. Despite funding PCI continuously, MYAS fails to have a mechanism in place through which issues like failure of NSFs to respond to RTI requests can be reported to the Ministry. To say the NSF structure is independent of government influence and interference would be inaccurate.

Members will also be required to meet obligations for athlete care and wellbeing

The PCI’s website presents an impressive list of state units and independent sport federations that form its electoral body. However, on deeper examination of these member units and inquiries, it is evident that a majority of these units have rarely functioned at least in partial compliance of the NSDCI, 2011. At the state levels, the state Registrar of Societies are responsible to ensure that these registered societies are functioning efficiently according to their own bylaws. Beyond this, the PCI is responsible to periodically check on these societies. However, over the years, rarely state championships have been conducted in all member states and almost nil records have been maintained. This was evidenced from an RTI response received from the PCI in 2019 through which the organization expressed its inability to maintain archival records. Multiple sport federations and state units have overlapping leadership positions that are headed by the same individuals for several years in a row. With such a functioning at State level units, PCI is popularly criticized among the Indian para athlete community for being a bargaining shop to sell foreign event spots where athletes can seek classification opportunities. PCI to this date does not have a mechanism where para athletes can reach out to report grassroots challenges in the hands of middlemen that control access to elite para sport competition opportunities. Reports of coercion and bullying from senior athletes are common. PCI does not have specific committees set up internally to address the specific needs of female athletes and junior athletes. In instances where athletes have questioned the lack of transparency, efforts have been made to silence them while reminding them of their impending careers.

Members will be required to meet minimum governance requirements including having gender parity

Beyond India’s famous Rio2016 medalist Deepa Malik, India’s Paralympic movement demonstrates indigent gender ratios. Reviewing lists on PCI’s website one can find an impressive list of women para athletes who are registered with PCI for the year 2020. Sadly, if one can look at the top of the image here below, it is clear that anyone can make an unverified entry here. This is an unreliable way of reporting athlete numbers within an NSF (I made the entry titled ‘God’).

[This section is edited since the entry I made was removed from the website after this article was published. However, anyone can still click on the link above and make an entry again].

Outside Malik and her media presence, India’s Paralympic movement has almost nil gender parity at the leadership level. Nowhere within PCI’s governance documents can one witness priority focus to advance women para athletes’ presence within India’s Paralympic movement. Email inquiries regarding governance practices never receive responses. Within the sport governance world, sports finance is a the backbone of any federation. And when one can look at the procedures followed by PCI for financial transactions, it is evident that they continue to violate the laws. For example, since its suspension in September 2019, PCI is disallowed from collecting monies or managing para sports in India. However, since its suspension, the NSF has opened a new State Bank of India (SBI) account operational from October 2019 (Account Name: Selenium Sports; Account Number: XXXX XXXX-688; IFSC Code: SBIN0007637). In the past few months, athletes have been asked to send registration fee monies to this account. On seeking clarification from PCI in a private forum about refund of athletes’ money due to the COVID-19 related event cancellations, this was the response given by Gurusharan Singh, the Secretary General of PCI:

“There is no entry or competition fee for any competitions. Do not raise irrelevant queries? I am not there to answer your any informal queries if it is not asked as per prescribed rules. I have lot of other official work to complete and I don’t subscribe to waste my time and energy on your wasteful and irrelevant questions for upgrading your skill. However I would always welcome suggestions, comments which are constructive and developmental. I in any case not under any obligation to reply, it is only my option. Further, for your information, I am working honorary and not even charged a single rupee since 9 years (not even on conveyance) from PCI. Rather I have extended unsecured loans to PCI for its smooth running. My sole moto is service to the society. I don’t know what impressions you have for me? So plz, you are requested to interact with me not with prejudice mind! Thx”

Ironically, the question that prompted this response was:

“I have a question to members of this group – especially athletes. If you are  uncomfortable messaging in the group – please personal message me.

QUESTION: I want to know if all money (entry fees etc) from cancelled events due to COVID-19 have been paid back to athletes? Can I know if money has been returned? Or any email to that effect sent to athletes?

Financial transparency, accountability for PCI leadership’s decisions and other sport governance basics are problems of the failing federation. Yet, PCI despite its suspended status continues to further marginalize the community of athletes with disabilities who struggle to bring together funds for competing to qualify for the Paralympics.

Members will also be mandated not to participate or engage in any event, activity or competition of an IPC member who is suspended or expelled from the IPC, whether at international, regional or national level.

As of today, India’s NPC is a suspended body at the national level. Despite repeated attempts by multiple stakeholders to inform the IPC of the same, the IPC continues to enable PCI at the international level while disregarding a National government’s suspension of a sports body. And from what is evident so far, MYAS’ suspension of PCI is not baseless. Yet, the IPC with not a single site visit or independent investigation decides that they know better than the Indian government.

Beyond these issues, PCI critically lacks the presence of technically qualified officials called Classifiers who are critical to the development of any nation’s Paralympic movement. Two categories of classifiers – medical and technical – lead any classification panel which allocates a sport class to a para athlete who wants to pursue competition opportunities. In a 2016 report authored by the then Director General of SAI, Injeti Srinivas there is a clear mention of the lack of ‘technical domain expertise’ as a critical shortcoming in India and that India needs IPC’s support for development. Yet in four years since Rio2016 PCI and IPC could not fix the technical domain deficiency that India critically suffers with.

In over two decades of its existence, PCI has been suspended by the IPC and the Indian Government on multiple occasions. Beyond the suspensions, reinstatement of PCI to its status as a sole controller for para sports governance in India, was not followed up with audits or reviews for checking on improvements (both by MYAS and IPC). Otherwise, with multiple world record holders vying for Paralympic medals at the next Games, India would not be putting its best foot forward through a nationally suspended federation that has its bank accounts still frozen, and name still tarnished!