Misplaced priorities

It is one thing to worship Sachin Tendulkar and celebrate his genius; quite another to convince yourself that he deserved to have customs duty waived to bring in a fancy car, writes NIRMAL SHEKAR.

ONE hundred and thirteen lakhs. Rs. 1.13 crores. Remember those figures. For, they represent the line dividing idolatry from outrageous foolishness.

VINO JOHN

There it is: 1,13,00,000. That's where idolatry ends and a crime of love, so to say, begins.

Rs. 1.13 crores! How many remote villages — forgotten and lost in the clamour of liberalisation — can be provided clean drinking water for that kind of money?

Rs. 1.13 crores! How many gifted yet impoverished children studying under street lights in tiny hamlets can be provided food and electricity at home with that kind of money?

The car that has caused so much controversy. -- PTI PHOTO-

Rs. 1.13 crores! How many widowed young women and children suffering from AIDS and turned away by callous hospital staff in every city and town in this country can be provided care and medical support for that kind of money?

Rs. 1.13 crores! How many gifted athletes in the remote corners of the country — particularly the North East — who struggle for funds to seek quality coaching can be provided what they need to reach their potential for that kind of money?

Think. Think how far Rs. 1.13 crores can go in this country where several million people are still below the poverty line, a country where we talk about poverty level as if it was just another line on a playing field. Hey, how many inside the 25-yard line there?

Think. Think again. Think what that kind of money can accomplish to assuage the sufferings of men, women and children in a proud yet largely poor nation that seems to have forgotten the meaning of compassion.

Steffi Graf and Boris Becker with the Wimbledon singles trophies in 1989. Though they are icons in Germany the taxman has not spared them. Steffi's father, who was managing her accounts, was sent to prison for some irregularities, while Becker has been fined heavily for a minor infringement of tax rules. -- Pic. SIMON BRUTY/GETTY IMAGES-

Yes, think. And think, too, of what our honourable Union Government did when that kind of money was waiting to fall into its coffers.

It simply said: No thanks. And you know why? Because the money would have come out of the pockets of the country's favourite sporting son.

Did Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar need to benefit from our honourable government's munificence? Did the richest sportsperson in the entire history of the country need to have Rs. 1.13 crores in customs duty waived so he can enjoy the luxury of a Rs. 75 lakh Ferrari-360 Modeno gifted to him by Fiat, in the streets of Mumbai and on our highways?

If Fiat, which has used India's most easily recognisable sportsman as its model, was happy to offer him the car free, it could have also undertaken to pay the customs duty at the time when it gifted the car to him rather than wait till a storm was kicked up before offering to pay the money.

"You can't change a policy for one person. If you change a policy, you change it for everybody. Why can't we have the same system for everybody? Suppose tomorrow Viswanathan Anand or Dhanraj Pillay or Sourav Ganguly or Amitabh Bachchan gets an aircraft as a gift, will you charge duty or not?" -- Kapil Dev-

Few sane men would grudge the little man the money he has in the bank, the money he has earned, thanks to his genius with the bat.

Time after time after time, Tendulkar has delighted us with his marvellous gifts at the crease, winning matches as only he can, destroying the best of bowling as only he can.

All this, surely, are worth much, much more than Rs. 1.13 crores. They are priceless contributions to the cause of Indian cricket, to Indian sport itself.

When we travel overseas and meet people interested in cricket, we are proud to say that we are Indians, that we are from the land of Tendulkar. Such has been the little big man's track record, both as a player and as a person.

But, no matter all this, does the government of a country where thousands of villages do not have access to clean drinking water, where millions are not privileged enough to be able to switch on a light when darkness descends, have the right to gift that kind of money to a citizen who is among the richest in the nation?

"I would like to see the same treatment being given to others who make the country proud, irrespective of the sport. Opportunities for all sportspersons should be the same." -- Syed Kirmani-

What is more, it even chose to amend the rules to clear the state-of-the-art Ferrari without customs duty!

Priorities. It is all down to priorities. And, as always, this government's sin is that it has its priorities mixed up.

It is one thing to worship Tendulkar and celebrate his heroics; quite another to convince yourself to believe that he — a multi-millionaire many times over — deserves to have customs duty waived to bring in a fancy car gifted to him by a sponsor.

It is one thing to be proud of the little man's cricketing feats and hold him up as a role model; quite another to accept that the government was right in doing what it did.

Germany has seen no greater sporting hero than Boris Becker. Yet, for what might be considered a minor infringement of rules vis-a-vis taxes, the German legend was in the docks recently. He was fined heavily but did not go to prison only because the judge chose to respect his special status as a national icon. Steffi Graf's father was not as lucky.

Of course, there is no real comparison between a government choosing to waive customs duty on its own accord and a person actually being involved in a case of tax fraud. Tendulkar might be squeaky clean in that respect.

Yet, the point is made here to show that governments of strong nations do not single out sporting icons for special favours. What is good for Herr Gorman the bank teller is good for Boris Becker too.

Not here. Not in this country. And the mistake is not, repeat NOT, Tendulkar's. In fact, strangely enough, it is not even the government's perhaps. It is ours. For the government would not have done it if it had believed it would be an unpopular decision. And so long as we remain quiet, it will never be unpopular.

And the public outrage touched off by the issue clearly points to the increasing mature awareness vis a vis such controversial issues among large sections of Indian society — and not merely a handful of social activists — that do not see eye to eye with the government on this question.

While megastar cricketers worshipped by millions have always been treated as special people in our society, what is shocking is the haste with which the government chose to bend over backwards to amend the Customs Act so that Tendulkar's request for a duty waiver could be granted.

Eleven years ago, as Tendulkar, then all of 19, was preparing to leave Bombay for London to play for Yorkshire in the English County championship, I spent the good part of a day with the handsome teenager in his hometown, first in his apartment and then on a long drive to the Gateway of India. He was quite the most wonderful host, warm, friendly and ready to accommodate every demand made by The Sportstar photographer V. V. Krishnan.

And Tendulkar was very proud of the Maruti 800 that he owned then. Driving from his home, he showed me the ground where he played his early cricket and as we got near the Gateway of India, the young man missed the far end of the queue for parking and drove around it right up to the gate.

"You have to go behind and join the queue," a policeman directing the cars into the lot told me as I looked out. I turned to my companion, resigned. Then the policeman spotted the young man in the driver's seat. His eyes popped out and, in a jiffy, other cars were pushed aside, a special place was created and Tendulkar's car was accommodated.

"Indeed, in a city where time and space are at a huge premium, where nine tenths of life is an argument, all arguments cease when Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar arrives," I wrote then, in April 1992.

Today, as the big argument rages on about the duty waiver, the government's readiness to accommodate Tendulkar's request is, we can understand, no different from the attitude of the traffic constable in Bombay 11 years ago.

It's all down to that, really, all down to our attitudes.

Consider, for instance, what the country's Solicitor General had to say in court. Saying that the whole thing was "blown out of proportion," and the duty waiver was a "policy decision" by the government, Mr. K. K. Sud, added: "Cricket is a game in which we are doing well and let us not discourage our players."

Discourage? Well, life itself is a game in which 25 crore Indians — living below the poverty line — are not doing famously well. What has the government done to "encourage" them?

This apart, in Indian sport itself, there is hardly any consistency when it comes to such largesse from the government. While cricket may be a sort of religion and the other disciplines merely sports, the point is, the government at one point said that it did not have enough money to increase the number of Arjuna Awardees and hand out the Khel Ratna award to two sportspersons, instead of one, as a special case.

And, all this, believe me, would have amounted to about 20 lakhs, give or take a little, compared to the Rs.1.13 crores it was willing to write off for one individual.

To be sure, the car was no performance incentive — although attempts were made to make it appear a sort of bonus for Tendulkar pulling alongside Don Bradman in the number of Test centuries — as was the case when Ravi Shastri won an Audi on being named Champion of Champions in the 1985 WCC event in Australia.

Then again, misplaced priorities in the corridors of power should seldom shock us, of course. For, time after time we see just causes in sport being totally neglected while huge amounts of money are spent on events/things that will not bring any long term benefit for Indian sport.

Now that we are debating the question of priorities, it might not be out of place to question the wisdom of a government that proposes to spend upwards of Rs.100 crores on hosting something called the Afro-Asian Games.

What kind of television revenue would these games bring? How many Indian sportspersons will use this event as a springboard for greater glory at the international level? How many Indian sports fans will actually care to buy tickets and watch these Games — and no, I am not talking about flag waving schoolchildren marched into the stadiums to make a crowd.

Finally, this duty waiver issue should also throw light on some cob-web filled dark corners, so to say, in the governmental structure dealing with sports in this country. Quite apart from understanding the folly of handing out unexpected bonuses to multi-millionaire sportspersons who can pay Rs.1.13 crores on their interest income alone, the sports ministry would do well to pay more attention to how well its annual allocation is spent.