Sports code: Is relaxation clause beginning of the end?
- An innocuous-looking circular from the Ministry of Youth Affairs & Sports (MYAS) was slipped past at the same time, its sober words, however, containing an ambush.
Remember the Raja Rani song with Asha Bhosle, sounding soulful yet sinister, singing, “Sheheron ki galiyon main jab andhera hota hai/ aadhi raat ke baad.” (“When it turns dark across city streets/ some time after midnight.”) For younger folk, think of the Calvin and Hobbes title: Things That Go Bump In The Night.
That’s what happened when the budget was announced on February 1. An innocuous-looking circular from the Ministry of Youth Affairs & Sports (MYAS) was slipped past at the same time, its sober words, however, containing an ambush.
Watch | Sports Code: Beginning of the end
The core of the MYAS notice, signed by L. Siddhartha Singh, joint secretary, was a ‘Relaxation Clause’ and read thus: Government shall have the power to relax any provisions of the Sports Development Code of India, 2011, and other instructions issued with regard to recognition of National Sports Federations (NSF), renewal of recognition of NSFs on annual basis and governance and management of Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and NSFs as a special exemption where considered necessary and expedient for the promotion of sports, sportspersons…always being guided by and not inconsistent with the over-arching spirit of good governance… Power to relax the provisions will vest with the Minister in Charge of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sport.”
The power to relax a Code that works only when it’s applied in its totality effectively nullifies the purpose of the code.
Stay with this story, dear reader, because you often roil in angst at how few medals India wins at the Olympics. The reason behind that paltry historic turnover happens to be our flawed sports administrators and their gymnastic flips around responsibility or professionalism. The February 1 letter has made the Sports Code 2011, a break-out piece of Indian sports regulation, bendable, and from here possibly, redundant.
In reply to a detailed questionnaire sent to the sports ministry, a senior official in the ministry who did not wish to be named said: “We have put a relaxation clause but we have not done any relaxation, apart from giving some more time to federations to hold elections during Covid times. The ministry wants to implement the Sports Code and expects the federations to strictly follow all the guidelines of the Sports Code.”
When the Code came into being, India’s sports officials were made accountable for the first time ever about how they spent the taxpayer money, how long their gentry held office, (forty years, on some occasions) and whether they conducted fair and free elections.
The Code was not perfect but it was the first step towards reform and professionalism in Indian sports governance, separating policy from management—from political bahubalis to those who put the sport and athletes front and centre.
Annual NSF recognition depended on, among other things, submitting accounts, holding elections, setting up an office of professionals—including a sizeable number of female administrators and former athletes in its executive committees, measures to combat age-fraud, sexual harassment and doping.
There are around 25 such conditions and the Code’s demand for complete compliance may look like giving government too much power. Yet, on which planet does anyone handing out cash to an organisation not expect annual accounts? These were, after all, our taxes being given to Indian sport federations. The Code was meant to shake up an ecosystem of entitlement under the guise of ‘autonomy’, which had been nurtured over decades because sports officialdom cuts across party lines like no other pan-Indian platform.
The Code was the baseline document in framing of a National Sports Development Bill (NSDB) around sports governance. Never mind tabling it in Parliament; that NSDB draft was sent back by the union cabinet in August 2011. The standard line of defence by the government of the day was ‘too much interference by government’ in the ‘autonomy’ of the NSFs who, by the way, still expected our tax cash. Indian sport has always been treated as an all-party, eat-all-you-can-buffet. Why turn anyone away from the table?
To understand the relaxation clause, let’s follow a short, rough trail. In June 2020, the Delhi High Court de-recognised 56 federations due to non-compliance of the Code. De-recognition means that, most importantly, NSF funds from the government dry up. On January 22, 2021, the same court also shot down the sports ministry’s grant of a 6-12 months extension to the NSF over compliance. The NSFs instead were ordered to submit a fortnightly audit of compliance so the Court could keep tabs on their progress or lack of.
Then came the Feb 1 ‘relaxation’ note with no details available as to how this position was arrived at and on advice from whom. On Feb 2, another letter from the Sports Ministry went out to NSFs and the IOA asking for the submission of the fortnightly audit required by the court. That Feb 2 letter will show the court that the due paperwork was done. But the Feb 1 letter has ensured that the NSFs have been shown the next option available to them: to appeal to the minister citing the relaxation clause.
What the ‘relaxation’ clause does is give the sports minister of the day the power to circumvent court orders demanding that the federations comply with the Code. The relaxation provision focuses on ‘recognition’ and ‘renewal of recognition’ of NSFs—which are specific clauses—before lapsing into a broad sweep of ‘governance and management’ which could include anything, presumably even ‘relaxations’ around allegations of sexual harassment, age fraud, misappropriation of funds.
Is such an antagonistic position on my part against Indian sports administrators unfair? Most certainly. Unfair on those five, okay let’s say 10 percent, who use their position to work for their sport and their athletes.
The rest follow what is called the ‘kitchen table’ model of sports governance from an older, amateur age where patronage by royalty, philanthropists and private business pushed Indian sport ahead. Here, the administrator is king, the athlete merely a footsoldier.
Today when there’s money in the market, there are other ways to manage sport. Instead of medieval patrons, Indian sport needs forward thinkers in its high offices, a self-sustaining financial model and a busy calendar of competition at all levels.
The Sports Code has been in existence for the last decade, and was formally supported through a 2014 court order. It has been followed by seven years of smokescreens, dodging and circumvention. A formal relaxation of its conditions is a not very covert way to dilute and eventually disband it.
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