Lodha-BCCI dispute: Some precepts are impractical

Just as every bitter pill inevitably has a side effect, the one that the BCCI was forced to swallow has had a slew of consequences that neither the Lodha Committee nor the courts of the land either anticipated or particularly cared about.

The Lodha Committee was first brought in to enquire about spot-fixing allegations in the Indian Premier League (IPL). Then, its scope widened.   -  RAMESH SHARMA

Balloons were released to mark the return of Ranji Trophy cricket to Belagavi after 16 years on November 29, 2016. The opposing teams were Gujarat and Punjab. It is becoming increasingly difficult to hold such matches as the BCCI is finding it difficult to get money released in time.

Just as every bitter pill inevitably has a side effect, the one that the BCCI was forced to swallow has had a slew of consequences that neither the Lodha Committee nor the courts of the land either anticipated or particularly cared about.

First it recommended, then it strongly suggested, then it made acerbic remarks and when none of these approaches got it the desired results, the Justice Lodha Committee hit the Board of Control for Cricket in India where it hurt the most: it went after the money. No, the committee did not fine the BCCI, it merely took away the Board’s right to spend its money how it wanted.

Given the scale of mismanagement in some state associations affiliated to the BCCI and the numerous allegations of financial wrong-doing and outright corruption, coupled with the opacity of how these bodies utilised the not insignificant subvention funds that came to them each year, the move appeared to be a logical and welcome one. But, just as every bitter pill inevitably has a side effect, the one that the BCCI was forced to swallow has had a slew of consequences that neither the Lodha Committee nor the courts of the land either anticipated or particularly cared about.

Consider a simple scenario. The BCCI organised an Under-19 tournament for associate and affiliate members in Alur on the outskirts of Bengaluru in September. The week-long tournament featured over 100 players and support staff from Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Sikkim, Nagaland, Manipur and Bihar. The participants were housed in a hotel, which is yet to receive payment for the stay. Typically, the Karnataka State Cricket Association would have made the payment and received a reimbursement from the BCCI upon submission of relevant invoices. Now, the state association is reluctant to make the payment for there is a real chance it may not receive the funds from the BCCI as the parent body has been ordered to desist from disbursing any funds to state associations. In this scenario, which state association will come forward to host a tournament of this kind in future?

The Lodha Committee has carried the torch for transparency in BCCI’s accounting, a move welcomed by everyone in Indian cricket who had nothing to hide. The BCCI, whose accounts are already professionally audited and whose balance sheets are available to the public via its website each financial year, set in place a process by which its entire accounts would be digitised by a reputed multinational consulting and auditing firm. But, before it could finalise the exact terms of the service and the commission or fee that would have to be paid for services rendered, the BCCI was directed not to enter into any new contracts. Strictly speaking, this was not a new contract, but, from a legal standpoint, it was, as it had not been inked before the order barring entering into contracts came through. The Lodha Committee may want to force the Board to clean up its accounting practices, but, ironically, the norms it has imposed are making it extremely difficult for the Board to actually do this.

At the end of November, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana travelled west to play their Ranji Trophy fixture at the neutral venue assigned to them, Valsad in Gujarat. The former is the home state of the BCCI president and the latter that of the treasurer and over the last few years their teams have grown accustomed to staying at five-star hotels even during domestic assignments. By virtue of guaranteeing a certain number of room bookings per year, the BCCI has negotiated deals with leading hotel chains to provide accommodation to its players at exceptionally economical prices. But, these big chains don’t have a presence in venues such as Valsad, and the result was that the two teams were housed at a Gujarat Cricket Association facility. With only 26 rooms available each team had to make do with 13, while otherwise each player would have had his own digs. To expect a state association or the BCCI to float a tender for a week-long hotel stay and wait for the best bidder to win the contract is unrealistic, but this is exactly the situation that they have been put in.

 

In the course of speaking to BCCI officials from at least three different zones, Sportstar perceived one common thread: none of the men in power agreed to be quoted on record for fear of further incurring the wrath of the Lodha Committee or the courts. “Before all this began, the BCCI used to clear between 150-200 transactions each week. The treasurer’s office would vet the payments and once the authorisation came payments were made on a timely basis, to state associations, vendors, partners, and everyone else involved,” said a senior functionary. “Today, many of the payments pending are not even sent to the treasurer’s office because they are so far back in the queue. Also, even once the treasurer’s office receives something, their first step is to consult their lawyers to ensure that the payment being made could not be construed as something the courts found inappropriate.”

Another official, who has held various posts in the BCCI for more than three decades, was even more strident. “It looks like the aim of the Lodha Committee is to dismantle the BCCI, not clean up whatever was wrong with it. There have been innumerable instances when the recommendations of the committee were not treated in the spirit intended, but on a petty and technical basis,” he said. “Nowadays even if someone in the BCCI says good morning, it is wilfully misinterpreted.”

In this context it is worth recalling that the Lodha Committee was originally instituted in January 2015 to make recommendations on the quantum of punishment to two Indian Premier League teams, Rajasthan Royals and Chennai Super Kings, in the wake of spot-fixing allegations. Since then, the committee’s terms of reference have changed drastically taking under wing every aspect of the running of cricket in India.

Cricket lovers who welcomed the intervention, who support their team with passion without particularly caring about who was running the BCCI, will now empathise with the spot the BCCI finds itself in. After all, the Lodha effect on the BCCI is not dissimilar to the demonetisation impact on the common man: there is plenty of money in the bank, legally earned and accounted for, but little or no access to it.

It would not be too much of a stretch to draw the parallel out a little further, the Lodha panel’s recommendations were well-intentioned and perhaps even needed, but the implementation has adversely affected those who were never the target of the clean-up in the first place.

(The author has been a cricket writer for nearly two decades. His work has won four national awards for excellence in journalism.)