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IOA and Ministry’s Quid Pro Quo Games An Embarrassment for Indian Sport

The amount of aid requested by the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) for restart of sports post Covid-19 lockdown, Rs. 220 crore, is only marginally less than the fund allocated for National Sports Federations (NSFs) in the Union budget presented earlier this year. At the time, the IOA had not lodged any complaints about funding. Now, a month after donating to PM CARES, financial problems have surfaced.
Allocation for Khelo India in the Union sports budget is much higher than that for NSFs under Indian Olympic Association

In the Union sports budget presented in February this year, a meagre Rs. 245 crore was earmarked for the NSFs, with the bulk of the Rs. 2826.92 crore going to the government’s pet project, Khelo India (Rs. 890.42 crore).

Indian sport has pulled off something reminiscent of the kind of stunt some of us have pulled as we entered professional life. In the early 2000s, fresh out of college and into my first  job which earned me around Rs. 2000 per month, I would hand the entire money to my mother at home, making her gleam with pride. Of course, what was not taken into account on salary day was that my monthly expenditure — commute plus small indulgences in a small town — would easily be double of the money handed over. No marks for guessing where I would get the money to sustain me the rest of the month. 

The National Sports Federations (NSFs), led by the  Indian Olympic Association (IOA), have attempted something similar — with the mother’s role being played by the Union Government.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) published a new set of guidelines for the fourth phase of lockdown in India and one of the relaxations listed was stadiums and sports complexes, which will be allowed to open and function while ensuring no congregation of crowds. This potentially means athletes could begin training following strict safety protocols, and sports action can begin as well with no fans in attendance, of course.

However, things are not as easy as opening up venues. Restarting sports across the country within the framework of the relaxed Covid-19 lockdown norms undoubtedly requires quite a lot of planning, and pumping in of resources. With the economy expected to recede further, and continue a downward slide in the coming months, one of the biggest hit sectors would be sports. Narinder Batra, president of the IOA, seems to have foreseen this. On May 17, he wrote a letter to the Union sports minister, Kiren Rijiju, requesting a funding of Rs. 220 crore to be distributed across all the sports federations to boost their efforts at getting athletes back on track, quite literally.

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The breakdown of the amount is as follows. Batra requested a grant of Rs 10 crore for the IOA, Rs 5 crore each for NSFs in Olympic disciplines (31 NSFs including three from Winter Games), Rs 2.5 crore each for the non-Olympic federations (8) and Rs 1 crore each for the 34 State Olympic Associations. The total is Rs. 220 crore which, technically, is a very miniscule percentage of the whopping, and economic logic defying stimulus package of Rs. 21 lakh crore announced by the Finance Ministry last week.

However, the irony lies elsewhere and one has to wind back the clock by just a month to find that. The now cash-strapped federations and the state Olympic associations had rushed to donate money into the PM CARES fund at the end of March and early April. They were all in a hurry to be featured in the long list of sports bodies, including the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and many sportspersons, who donated to the new central fund set up for the fight against Covid-19. 

The details surrounding PM CARES are yet to be declassified, and many have questioned the secrecy surrounding what in essence is a public fund made from donations. There are additional questions such as the need for such a fund when the same purpose could be served by the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF). At the outset, the biggest difference between PMNRF and the PM CARES seems to be accountability. The authorities are yet to release details of the total amount collected so far or the purpose it has served now that India is well and truly in the grips of Covid-19. In the first week, as per reports based on the donations and pledges made to the fund, the ballpark figure was Rs. 6,500 crore. It has been more than a month since its launch and with big donations such as Rs. 500 crore from Tata, government employees giving a day’s salary, and the likes in the kitty, one can imagine the figure involved.

This article, however, is not questioning the PM CARES fund, which requires scrutiny no doubt. It is questioning the sudden realisation from the country’s apex sports governing body that they are cash strapped when a month back they beelined to donate money. 

Presented here are some of the figures donated by sports bodies towards PM CARES as reported by various publications in the first week of April. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), not surprisingly, made the highest contribution — Rs. 51 crore. To be clear, the cricket Board, rich as it is, has not requested a return donation from the government! 

Among the national federations under IOA, the highest contribution was made by Batra’s very own Hockey India, which donated Rs. 1 crore. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) contributed Rs 25 lakh while the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) made a donation of Rs 11 lakh. The total donation made by all the federations under the Olympic Games banner was Rs 2.4 crore. There is more...

The state Olympic associations donated as well. Uttaranchal association made the highest donation of Rs. 5 lakh while Kerala and Bengal paid Rs. 3 lakhs each. The total came up to Rs 28.26 lakh as per reports. The federations which run non-Olympic sports contributed a total of Rs. 30.38 lakh with the Sepaktakraw Federation of India making the highest donation of Rs. 5.25 lakh. 

As per reports available in the public domain, the country’s non-cricket sports bodies donated a total of a little over Rs. 3 crore to PM CARES. This amount does not include personal donations made by various sports persons nor does it include contributions made after the first week of April, if any.  

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Now, there is no question that the 3 crore of donation made by the bodies is nothing compared to the 210 crore requested by the IOA at the moment. The attempt here is not to question the authenticity of the fact that Indian sports bodies badly need cash to get their activities up and running. 

However, one should also take into account that the amount requested  is only marginally less than the fund allocated for NSFs in the Union budget presented by Nirmala Sitharaman earlier this year. The Finance Minister had earmarked Rs. 245 crore for the NSFs, with the bulk of the Rs. 2826.92 crore budget going to the government’s pet project, Khelo India (Rs. 890.42 crore). 

Since the poverty of sports bodies is the matter of concern, the IOA should have highlighted the disparity in this meagre allocation for NSFs in the Union budget at the time. It did not.  

The latest request for funding by Batra, when looked at with the rush to donate into PM CARES shown by the same organisations last month, can only lead to one assumption. The gesture last month was merely to appease the powers, earn some added PR brownie points and nothing more. 

Now that the IOA has approached the ministry, it remains to be seen what reply the government would give. Will it allocate the funding or prioritise sport down the pecking order? One can never be sure with the current dispensation about objective prioritising. Their track record from demonetization to the implementation of lockdown provides very little confidence. 

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Sport, no doubt, is integral and important to the return of society to normalcy post the Covid-19 crisis. And, one is sure the funding requested by the IOA will help Indian sport a long way towards getting things back to normal. But the storm is yet to pass and any form of haste and lack of planning or implementation of safety protocols while bringing the playgrounds back to life could also spell disaster. One can only hope such things are also taken into account as decisions are made in the coming weeks. 

At the same time, one also hopes the funding, if and when the sports bodies get it, is better used for the purpose it is meant to serve and not thrown into some random fund generating initiative whatever be the cause.

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