An avoidable embarrassment

Two years ago, Milkha Singh turned down a `life-time achievement' award, feeling insulted at being equated with two virtual unknowns.

Two years ago, Milkha Singh turned down a `life-time achievement' award, feeling insulted at being equated with two virtual unknowns. His criticism, and the resultant media focus, forced the then Sports Minister, Ms. Uma Bharti, to bring in far-reaching changes in the composition of the selection committee as well as in the criteria that separated the `true Arjuna' from the also-rans.

Outstanding sportspersons would select the Arjuna awardees, only performances at international competitions would count. So we were told. In reality, officials still called the tune and any performance was good enough if the recommendations came from the right quarters.

This is not to say that the Prakash Padukone committee last year and the P. K. Banerjee panel this year did not try to do a fair and sincere job. They did. But they were stymied by the bureaucracy, flooded with recommendations from all and sundry and deprived of machinery that could help them cross-check information.

The result: For the third year running, we have a huge controversy over the manner in which sportspersons are being treated in this country while handing out State awards. This is indeed sad. For, Ms Bharti had the best of intentions while revamping a system that was abused by politicians, bureaucrats and sports officials and misused by sportspersons.

To its credit, the P. K. Banerjee panel did come up with a popular choice in jointly recommending the names of athlete K. M. Beenamol and rifle shooter Anjali Vedpathak for the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award, though questions could have been raised against at least a few among the 21 named for the Arjuna Award. The justification sought to increase the number of awardees from 16 to 21 was the success of our sportspersons at last year's Commonwealth Games and Asian Games.

It was surely not the panel's prerogative to suggest an increase in numbers, though a stubborn Sports Minister only complicated the issue. He caused avoidable embarrassment to Anjali, the Arjuna award hopefuls and the panel itself by returning the recommendations and ordering that the panel be reconvened. Was he worried about the meagre funds at his disposal, as had been made out, or was he being plain fussy?

In this game of numbers, after the names were splashed across the sports pages of national dailies, the committee had little choice — unless it was prepared to defy the minister — but to axe Anjali from the Khel Ratna race and chop five in the Arjuna awardees list. It was unfortunate that Anjali, one of the finest shooters the country has produced, gave vent to her feelings and said a few uncharitable things.

From the outset, the ministry made mistakes. Instead of keeping the `latecomers' out, it passed the buck onto the panel. And its representative should have been the one to rule on `eligibility' and `deadlines.' Instead, he allowed the Railway Sports Promotion Board (RSPB) official, one of the two sports administrators in the panel, to dictate terms.

To be fair to the Railways, it was not the RSPB alone that had intruded into a domain kept reserved for the National federations, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and the State/UT Governments. There were recommendations from a Punjab police officer, a former Union Sports Minister and a Dalit organisation to name just a few who had no clear business to poke their noses.

That the RSPB official was allowed to sit in judgement on his own recommendation was farcical. That he was also allowed to explain the official status of the RSPB as a Government-recognised body was to compound the offence. The allegation from some quarters that the Railways had a clear voting majority in the panel might sound rather harsh and unwarranted but such lop-sided representation should have been avoided. It is incomprehensible that the IOA, the apex sports body in the country, does not have a representative in the panel while the Railways had one this time and the Services one last year.

The Sports Minister has not distinguished himself in the past couple of weeks nor have his lieutenants shown any signs of bringing in more transparency in the procedure.

The questions that have come up are, should awards be linked to availability of funds, should their numbers be restricted according to a pre-determined pattern, should federations be allowed to nominate more than three sportspersons in a year, whether forms and deadlines should play a role at all?

Once the sports ministry has the answers, it would have come a long way in fine-tuning a process that Uma Bharti had set in motion. Its success will be not in giving up and handing over the reins back to the politicians but in plugging the loopholes.