From Rio to Sirsa, Haryana sports minister Anil Vij has been making headlines for playing by his own rules to promote sports. From heading a nine-member non-sporting contingent for a 10-day tour to the Brazilian city to “encourage the players” of his state, to a latest donation of ₹50 lakh from his discretionary fund to the religious sect Dera Sacha Sauda, Vij seems oddly determined to increase the medal tally of his state’s players in Tokyo 2020.
After India’s less than spectacular performance at the Rio Olympics, one can only hope that the present spirit of the states and the central government to encourage sporting traditions and athletes makes a real difference. But can the same be achieved by making copious donations to random sports academies, as in this case, run by Messenger of God-starrer and Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s organisation? This is a question that should have been a part of the sports minister Rs 5-crore worth discretionary portfolio. None of the games, including the “interesting” one witnessed by Vij on his visit to the event at the Dera headquarters in Sirsa — ‘Tiranga Rumaal Chu’, a combination of kabbadi, kho-kho and wrestling — are played at the national or international level. For many who make it to the national or international level games, the journey begins at the grassroots; add to that a consistent discipline of training, hard work and determination, and we have sportspersons making history. This is a reason why there is a need for a well-equipped sports infrastructure and academies to spot, train and nurture girls and boys at the panchayat, district and state levels.
But more often than not, there is a gap between spotting talent and nurturing medal-winners that leaves out potential athletes. This gap is often filled by a player’s own ability to fund her own training or with government’s scattered avenues of help.
In states like Haryana, with a tradition of creating Olympians, there is a greater need for focusing on the existing sporting traditions than investing in obscure games created by the likes of the Dera chief. Refreshing existing government initiatives such as Khelo India and, if implemented, the ‘task force’ for Olympics can help the Centre and states to achieve their sporting ambitions from a talented pool of athletes from India’s rural quarters.
Using its discretion, the Haryana government can save itself from the 2015 fiasco of the Haryana sports department. Back then, it closed down the Panchkula athletics nursery, along with many others across the state. And many athletes from poor backgrounds were stopped in their tracks to take a hopeless road back home.
That the Dera Sacha Sauda, which has millions of followers and an flourishing empire of FMCG products, supported the BJP in the last Haryana assembly elections is a known fact, but does that excuse the minister to not do a fact-check on its sporting academy’s track record? And with the so-called godman’s diversified interests, from starring in movies and riding a Harley Davidson, no one will object if he decides to make a substantial investment in the country’s sporting ambitions from his treasury. For a state with a sporting legacy, there is a greater need to invest in its existing sporting tradition and policies than in inventing and diverting the tax payers’ money into an organisation that has been wrestling with controversies.