Much like typical Indian guests who tend to overstay their welcome on which movie Atithi Tum Kab Jaouge? is also based, our politicians take their election as a matter of right to be extending beyond the governance of the geographical contours of their constituencies and they control sports bodies to prolong their political career. While the government is lauded for putting money for the promotion of sports in the country, a stint in the ministry gives a chance to many Politicians and ex-civil servants to use the national level sports bodies as tools of self-enrichment and self-glorification. The governance and regulation of the Sports system in the country, that can at best be described as ineffective, amoral, biased and a snag to its raison d’être, has often been critiqued as highly politicized or in the words of the International Olympic Council, one characterized with “government interference and bad governance”. While the tale of sports politics in the country with its many instances of distressing consequences can easily fill pages unlike the toilsome research for worthy news in the Sports section, there seems to be a silver lining after all with Delhi High Court stamping out a historical order. In what seems to be a battle being fought with much vigor, various advocates have been in a bid to mould the governance of sports to an autonomous yet accountable system in the country. In one of the cases filed in 2010, a prime contention of the petitioner is that the Indian Olympic Association has been strategically colonizing the National Sports Federations by a systematic derecognition of existing Federations and replacing them with ad hoc entities headed by people favoured by him. This alleged action would be in violation of the National Sports Development Code of India, 2011. To state in brief, the framework of recognition of National Federations by Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports is governed by Paragraph 8 of the Sports Code while the conditions of de-recognition by the Ministry are mentioned in Annexure III of the Sports Code and that by the Olympic Association under Paragraph 27 of its Memorandum of Rules and Regulations. Thus, apart from the compliances required under these liberally constructed provisions, the autonomy of the Ministry and Olympic Association is absolutely unbridled. While adjudicating on these allegations, in February 2020, the Delhi High Court’s Special Bench comprising Justice S. Muralidhar and Justice Najmi Waziri, directed the Olympic Association and the Sports Ministry to inform the court in advance, “while seeking to take any decision in relation to the NSFs.” While the Annual recognition of national federations by the Ministry is pertinent for financial assistance and national representation in accordance with the Sports Code, they failed to grant recognition in the month of January for the year 2020, as reported, due to the delay in collecting required information and the consequent National Lockdown due to Covid-19. Consequently, via letter dated 02.06.2020, Ministry provisionally renewed recognition of 54 National Federations which were recognized as on 31.12.2019, until 30.09.2020. But on 24.06.2020, in what seems to be a bol step in the right direction, the Delhi High Court ordered the Ministry to issue a fresh notice recalling the provisional renewal, as they failed to inform the court in advance against the terms of court’s earlier orders. Thus, pursuant to the withdrawal of the earlier letter on 25.06.2020, 6 months well into 2020, there are no recognized National Federations in the country. While this direction of the court may bring some problems for the National Federations eagerly waiting for finances and resumption of sports camps and other activities, keeping in mind the gist of the court’s order, it would be a matter of time that the Ministry convinces the court of the rationale and grants such a provisional recognition again. Furthermore, while the Olympic Association has often weighed upon the importance to its autonomy that the International Olympic Council regards indispensable for ensuring freedom from political interference, nepotism and discrimination, the judiciary has been unequivocal in establishing that an attempt to bring upon public accountability will not be intrusive of the association’s independence.
What needs to be appreciated is the impact this order has on Sports Politics in the country. The direction of the court has far reaching implications on the lack of transparency and unchecked decision making of the Ministry and Olympic Association. In most of the countries, these National Federations are independent non-governmental entities and depend on the national Olympic associations for affiliation which would entitle them to be governed by International Federations for the respective sport. What makes the system in these countries smooth is the element of Public accountability and the regulation of these bodies by athletes and sports persons rather than politicians and bureaucrats or their relatives.
While countries like Panama, Iraq and Kuwait have received their fair share of criticism in the past for disrupting the autonomy of their National Olympic associations and federations by ministerial meddling and unfair elections, many countries are internationally appreciated for having best practices in sports regulation. The United States, for example, does not have a sports ministry and instead, various sports legislations provide for the creation of independent committees that act according to their mandate. The United Kingdom on the other hand, whilst having a government body, funded by the Department of Culture, Media and Sports, regulate the affairs of National Governing Bodies of the sports, has given relative permanence with a high autonomy to these bodies for their rules of functioning which helps with the grassroot development of sports in the country. Even the legislation in China is globally appreciated for ensuring minimal political interference in sports via a legislation mandating sports expenditure in financial budgets.
Nevertheless, while the decision of Delhi High Court seems very promising, it is definitely not a permanent solution and such high dependence on the judiciary for the daily working of sports federations will end up creating problems of its own magnitude. Thus, albeit it is cutting a few leaves, the root of problem needs to be pulled out by promising legislations. The National Sports Development Bill, 2013, The Prevention of Sporting Frauds Bill, 2013 and The National Code for Good Governance of Sports, 2017 which have been stocked in Cold storage by the government must be revisited and enacted in essence, at the earliest. Three very important changes sought by these legislations, that have been vehemently rejected by the IOA for obvious reasons, include the imposition of age caps (to 70 years), tenure caps (to 2 terms or 12 years) and the prohibition upon people with Political backgrounds in holding positions in the Sports Federations.
The situation of sports in the country is deplorable for in the words of Justice T.S. Thakur and Justice Chelameshwar, the office bearers in these institutions, “have nothing to do with the sports and run the bodies at the cost of the game.” An impasse seems to have been reached for those in power prefer to hold the game hostage for their public interest than to ever agree to regulations for an independent sports system in the country. It is time that this inefficient management of these hollow entities crippled by inadequate skewed legislations are dissolved for the sake of development of Sports in this country of a billion sports enthusiasts by ensuring public accountability and political independence. It’s time that the office bearers of the Sports bodies in India focus on strategizing accrual of Gold medals rather than daydreaming the amount of gold bars they hope to make out with each term in the office.
Sudhir Mishra, Founder & Managing Partner Trust Legal Advocates & Consultants. Lavanya Pathak, 4th-Year Student, B.A-LL.B. Programme National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi.