Equestrianism... And thereby hangs a tale!

For a rider a horse is equipment just like a rifle is to a shooter. Riders at the moment pay full duty (42%) and the federation has not pursued the riders’ cases for duty-free import of sport horses.

Fouaad Mirza (right), who bagged an individual silver medal in equestrian at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, poses with his sponsor, the Chairman of the Embassy Group, Jitu Virwani, in Bengaluru in September last year. India also won a team silver medal in the event.   -  V. Sreenivasa Murthy

The birds have come home to roost for the Equestrian Federation of India (EFI). With the expiry of the Indian Olympic Association’s (IOA) August 3, 2019 deadline, it faces de-recognition by the IOA for blatantly ignoring the implementation of the National Sports Development Code of India (NSDC) 2011.

The Federation, completely dominated and run by the army, follows a unique and completely undemocratic system for the election of its officials. To retain majority votes the army has made a large number of its own units — which have nothing to do with the sport such as Mechanised Transport Battalions, Supply Companies, FOL Depots and Dog units to name a few — members. It also directly recognises and gives voting rights to clubs and individuals. There are over 300 such clubs with two votes each. As per the NSDC only state associations have voting rights. Clubs and individuals are required to become members of their respective state associations. But the 20 state associations which are recognised by the EFI enjoy no power. Besides these, many state associations, such as Tamil Nadu, are deliberately being not recognised by the EFI.

Last year in its AGM the IOA was extremely critical of the EFI and its inefficient functioning and reduced it to an associate status without voting rights and gave it sufficient time for full compliance of the sports code, failing which it would face full de-recognition. As expected, the EFI did nothing in this direction and has now taken the ridiculous stand that a sport like equestrian cannot follow the sports code due to a lack of facilities in the country. Nothing can be further from the truth. Over the last decade the sport has grown by leaps and bounds with civilians and corporate houses leading the way by importing top sport horses from Europe and raising the bar to heights previously unattainable.

In the Jakarta Asian Games last year the Equestrian eventing team, totally mounted on private European sport horses and trained in France, won the individual and team silver. An individual medal was won for the first time since 1982, thanks to Fouaad Mirza! This team was wholly sponsored by Jitu Virmani of the Embassy Group. He trained three young army riders for the team completely at his expense. Despite his efforts, the Federation in a terse five-lined letter signed by the then president General Ambre cancelled the team when only a month was left for it to leave. It was only the last minute intercession of the IOA which ensured that the team went and the rest is history.

Sport federations are meant to facilitate, encourage and where possible sponsor sportsmen. Equestrian sportspersons in India have to fight their federation at every step.

A recent example is the arbitrary refusal of No Objection Certificates (NOC) to Indian riders wanting to import sport horses for competition. For a rider a horse is equipment just like a rifle is to a shooter. Riders at the moment pay full duty (42%) and the federation has not pursued the riders’ cases for duty-free import of sport horses. Despite this they object to riders selling non-performing horses to buy better ones. They claim that this is a business, which is completely untrue. A rider at best can only recover 50% of what he spent to import a horse. The truth is that the army is feeling extremely threatened by the import of top horses by civilians which has left them nowhere in the sport now completely dominated by non-army riders.

Another glaring, unjust money-making practice by the federation is the levying of a charge of USD 250 on every rider who wants to compete abroad. No federation in India or abroad charges its athletes to compete abroad, rather it encourages and finances them. Being in India a charge in US dollars is inexplicable. As per its balance sheet in the last AGM, the Federation earned over a crore from this illegal charge.

All this money is being spent by EFI officials on foreign trips and illegal hiring of taxis in Delhi and other cities. In the last AGM this was brought out by members. The Secretary General, Colonel R. K. Swain, has spent over ₹30 lakh in the last two years on foreign trips, attending meetings which could have been resolved over emails. The spending of large sums of money on taxis for his personal use in Delhi was also questioned in the light of him being an army officer posted in Delhi and drawing a government transport allowance. Negligible amounts have been spent on the sport and no financial assistance has been provided to any rider. Though run by the army, there is complete inefficiency in the functioning of the Federation. Despite it being August, the sports calendar, which other federations finalise a year in advance, is still not ready. Major events are less than a month away. The EFI follows a procedure of giving events to the highest bidder. It pockets the corpus money and leaves everything to the organising committee. It does not care if the venues are unfit due to the ground being hard or the arenas not in consonance with the technical specifications. All the EFI officials care about is a free trip to the venue where they enjoy hospitality at the expense of the organisers.

During the last few months there have been letters from nearly all state equestrian associations to the Sports Ministry and the IOA, vehemently protesting against the EFI’s efforts to sideline them and ignore the National Sports Code.

Without exception every state has contradicted with proof the contention of the EFI that state associations are not promoting the sport.

State associations are apprehensive that the EFI might use its army clout to get the government to make an exception for it and allow it to carry on functioning the way it is. Till date the Federation has never called for a meeting of the state associations and whenever such a meeting is demanded it is brushed aside on one pretext or another.

As per the directions of the IOA it is now mandatory for all sports federations to form an Athletes Commission where athletes’ representatives have a voice in all decision-making committees like the executive committee. Even in this the EFI has ensured that many equestrian athletes who have represented the country in the recognised Olympic disciplines of show-jumping, dressage and eventing are ignored. And they have included many of their handpicked representatives who have only taken part in tent pegging, which is neither an Olympic or an Asian games discipline, nor is it a part of the FEI (International body for equestrian sport).

The author is an ex-officer from the 61st cavalry who has represented India in the Asian Games in show jumping and dressage. He has been a National Show Jumping champion four times, most recently in 2014 and silver medallist in 2015. Still actively competing at the National level, he represented India in the World Show Jumping Championship in Tashkent, Uzbekistan last year. He breeds and trains sports horses and riders in his competition yard in Ooty, Tamil Nadu.

The EFI’s stand

Under fire from various quarters, including the Sports Ministry, the Indian Olympic Association, the state associations and riders to get its house in order, the Equestrian Federation of India (EFI) has come up with a counter.

The Sports Ministry, in a letter dated February 1, 2019, informed the EFI that the renewal of recognition “is subject to their compliance of Sports Code within the time frame allotted to them i.e. latest by August 3, 2019, failing which their recognition status will be reviewed and action taken as per extant guidelines.”

Responding to the questions posed by Sportstar, the EFI Secretary General Col. R. K. Swain said, “Equestrian cannot be equated with other sports, and hence the parameters applied to other National Sports Federations cannot be applied to EFI.”

He said, “Since the sport includes an equine athlete (horse) and a human (rider), it is not possible to find them in every district or state.

“In view of the non-availability of horses and riders, the EFI has not been able to form the minimum of 24 state associations with 50% of district associations affiliated to them (as stipulated in the Sports Code).

“Therefore, owing to the peculiar nature of equestrian sport, the EFI has written (on June 24, 2019) to the Sports Ministry and sought exemption from adhering to the Sports Code.”

Elaborating on his argument, Swain said, “Unlike other disciplines, equestrian is a club-based sport. We have 15 state associations most of them inactive besides over 300 clubs and army units as affiliates of EFI, with two votes each.

“Without the army’s support and structure, the sport will die. Private stakeholders can hold dressage and show-jumping. But eventing is something only the army is capable of hosting,” declared Swain.

Reinforcing its stand, in the letter to the Ministry, the EFI has mentioned that disciplines like rowing, yachting and winter sports could find it difficult to follow the guidelines of the Sports Code.

“How can you have winter sports in Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh? Is it possible?” asked Swain and continued, “The Ministry guidelines seek facilities for yachting and rowing in all states. That’s not possible.

“Therefore, till the Sports Code is appropriately revised, the EFI’s recognition should continue.”

— Rakesh Rao