This was originally published on Quora on February 26, 2016 as Laura Hale’s answer to “How should the current issues with the Paralympic Committee of India be fixed so India can compete at future Paralympic Games?“.
As an outsider, it is very tempting but very difficult to try to figure out what is wrong with Paralympic governance in India and offer solutions for how to fix it. The situation as it stands is untenable, and is thus:
- The Paralympic Committee of India (PCI) has elected a new governing board but has yet to get government recognition and be unsuspended by the International Paralympic Committee;
- The Sports Authority of India (SAI) is running international Indian Paralympic sport for all intent and purposes allowing Indians to compete under their own flag but are slow in responding to budget requests and are not working on creating long term development plans for Paralympic sports in India; and
- A rival organization to the PCI has been created. Named the Indian Association of Para Sport Organizations (IAPSO), it has support from a number of national disability sporting federations but is run by Rajesh Tomar who was suspended by the PCI following the IPC suspension over issues related to the Indian para-athletics championships that saw sportspeople lack access to toilets and drinkable water, and had to sleep on the floor of accommodation for the event.
The International Paralympic Committee has made clear in the past that government interference is not going to be tolerated within National Paralympic Committees (NPCs). This issue has led to the suspension of other NPCs, including Kenya. The PCI and IAPSO both appear to have this problem in spades, both in terms of who makes up their board, government relationships, issues with nepotism from government officials leading to inequitable treatment of sportspeople inside the movement.
Government involvement in sport is not necessarily a problem though, as the current structure for sport is appearing to function adequately, or at least gives a slight appearance of functioning more adequately than when the PCI was in charge. When the Sports Authority of India does provide funds for Indian athletes to compete internationally, these funds appear to come slightly faster, cover more and leave athletes on the hook for less in terms of stop gap issues in funding to compete. The issue is that SAI is understaffed, still has a limited budget and is not equipped to serve as India’s NPC. The latter is a concern because the lack of recognition of the PCI means some sports are in a limbo zone for how to send teams overseas to represent India. This includes sports like para-badminton which were directly overseen by the PCI.
Still, government involvement on all levels is a critical step to the growth and development of Paralympic sport in India. This can clearly be seen in some sports like wheelchair basketball, where the support of the local government in terms of organizing leagues, championships and come-and-try-it events is critical in the success of the sport. These events are most effective when they combine two critical elements: efforts for broader inclusion of people with disabilities in society and developing pathways for athletes with disabilities to compete on the local, regional, national and international level. Government buy in and participation has proven critical in terms of bringing organizing support, institutional support, monetary support, bringing legitimacy to get NGOs involved and getting access to a broad network of Indians with disabilities involved.
Cutting the government out is clearly not the solution to India’s support, especially since when they work, they are some of the most effective change agents in India. It’s the type of support the government provides, who is involved and the political elements that can be the most problematic. Bureaucrats supporting inclusions are good; politicians with agendas are bad. Government involved needs to be clearly defined and done in conjunction with the norms established by international sports governing bodies. Errors need to be on the side of more freedom from political interference. India has not proven capable of this though, and it isn’t just Paralympic sport that has suffered from political interference. Boxing is one of several sports that has had international problems because of this.
When it comes to the solutions on paper, IAPSO is better positioned on paper than the PCI when it comes to complying with international norms. The PCI has traditionally been organized with regional members representing various Indian states. This has created regional rivalries inside Indian Paralympic sport, where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing because of regional differences. This was one of the precipitating factors in the Indian athletics situation. IAPSO looks to be changing this with national disability sport federations as members.
IAPSO’s fix though does not go far enough. It is dependent on national para-sport organizations, using a membership model that is becoming slightly archaic inside many NPCs. In re-imagining a future for an Indian NPC, able-bodied sport organizations should be the governing body of sports where Paralympic athletes and Olympic athletes both compete in the sport. Para-badminton should not be situated as a subcommittee of the PCI or as an Indian para-badminton national sports association. Badminton Association of India should be the governing association for para-badminton in India. Cycling Federation of India should be overseeing para-cycling in India. There is zero excuse for Indian sport associations to not integrate. This is where the world is moving, and the best way to allocate scant resources. Inclusion is the order of the day, and with few exceptions, the world is moving this way. This is where IAPSO’s efforts appear to be a failure, and to signal that this really is just about politics on the part of Rajesh Tomar instead of about moving the Paralympic movement forward. His solutions appear at best to be a band aid that papers over the problems, without really addressing the broader underlying issues.
To fix the problems with India, 2016 needs to be written off with a focus on 2020 with normalized participation and 2024 as the end game for positioning India as a movement ready to serve the over 70 million people in India with disabilities by providing them with pathways to succeed at the highest level.
The first thing that needs to be done is to have India’s national sport associations take over the governance of the disability side where applicable through IPC recognition of these sports. This includes athletics, swimming, cycling, basketball, equestrian, shooting, football, rowing, tennis, table tennis, badminton, sailing, judo, canoe, powerlifting, triathlon, archery, shooting, volleyball, fencing, winter sport, and taekwondo. Consideration should be given to requiring non-Paralympic sports where there is active and regular international competition to also fully integrate. This includes sports that are recognized by the International Blind Sports Association (IBSA), INAS, and International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports (IWAS) or the Commonwealth Games but not necessarily the IPC. These include chess, golf, hockey, body building, handball, karate, ten-pin bowling, gymnastics, netball, lawn bowls, cricket and wrestling. Where there is no able-bodied counterpart or where the sport is designed exclusively for people with a specific type of disabilities, these sport governing organizations should exist either through existing organizations like the Indian Blind Sports Association and All India Sports Council of the Deaf based on disability type, or through specific national sport federations. The latter includes sports possibly like wheelchair rugby, boccia or goalball.
Government involvement should be kept at a minimum, with funding for these associations dependent on maintaining good relationships with their international parents, regularly sending Indian competitors to participate in international events, and having development plans for the disability side on file with the government along with requirements to meet these. Compliance with these requirements will be overseen by the SAI.
These sport associations and disability specific sport associations should serve as the new core for membership of the new Indian NPC. Each sport association gets one vote for members of the board of this new NPC, with nominations for the board coming from members. A ban should be put on people from the board being people who are actively serving as politicians in India, with associations encouraged to nominate people with experience in sports governance.
The goal of the new NPC then should be about moving pieces around on the board to insure full participation in the Paralympic Games, working on broader promotion of disability sport in India, seeking national sponsorship deals for all athletes and the organization, working to get international grants, etc. It should not be on the day to day governance of individual sports.
Couple the newly re-organized and fully integrated Indian NPC with full integration of the National Institute of Sports (NIS). Allocate a fixed percentage of resources and funding for disability sport inside the NIS framework. The Indian government should insure through funding and guidance that on a daily basis, Indian Paralympic and Deaflympic athletes are training alongside Indian Olympic athletes.
To insure this works, people who were on the board of the PCI at any time when the organization was suspended by the IPC should be prohibited from being part of the new NPC and any sporting federation that is a member of the new organization. Family members should also be banned from serving on boards and leadership roles.
Because of a potential loss of administrative talent, the SAI should open scholarships up to current and past Indian top level national and international sportspeople to go abroad to get sports management training, conditional they return and put their newly acquired expertise to work. This way athletes are insured of future pathways once their competitive career ends.
And then the government needs to butt out.
None of this is easy though. It requires a fundamental re-think for how Indian sport operates. It isn’t clear that India is ready for this. It isn’t clear either if India is serious about making even minimum changes necessary to fix the broken system that exist. The future for Indian sportspeople is not bright.