Bring in more transparency

The ever-changing set of guidelines followed by the selection committee lacks clarity. it is ambiguous and hence leaves plenty of room for interpretations

President Pranab Mukherjee presents Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna 2015 award to tennis player Sania Mirza at a ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi.   -  PTI

The then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh during an interaction session with medal winners of Indian wrestling team during the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games. Coach Vinod Kumar is in the middle.   -  Rajeev Bhatt

Across the board, awards and controversies seem to go hand in hand. Be it the Nobel Prize or Oscars, Bharat Ratna or Padma Shri, questions are raised about those chosen or ignored. Different sets of people, depending on their ability to judge, form varying opinions.

In some cases in India, those ignored move the court and a few among them manage to win favourable verdicts. So where is the lacuna?

If we keep this introspection limited to the sports awards in the country — Khel Ratna, Arjuna, Dronacharya and Dhyan Chand — there are too many lacunas in the process of selection.

Are these controversies only because those ignored make a noise or do they feel denied despite having irrefutable substance in their arguments?

It is a bit of both.

But, before looking from the athletes’ point of view, let’s look at the system adopted to choose the annual award winners. The ever-changing set of guidelines followed by the selection committee lacks clarity. It is ambiguous and hence leaves plenty of room for interpretations.

A point-system, based on the importance of the medal won in various competitions — World, Asian and Commonwealth championships, Olympic, Asian and Commonwealth Games, World Cups etc — is followed to shortlist those worthy of being discussed for the awards.

Again, disciplines like golf and tennis which do not have a World championship or World Cup, are judged mostly on the basis of medals won in the multi-discipline Games. Worse, the four Grand Slams in tennis and four Majors in golf are yet to be considered as competitions that merit rating points by the Sports Ministry.

A closer look at the selection process shows that there is no well-devised mechanism to rate performances. For example, a World chess champion will get the same points as the World carrom champion. Given that both these are indoor events, one has to consider that chess is played by millions in nearly 200 countries, much more than carrom, in a purely competitive sense.

Similarly, events like athletics, swimming and shooting attract world class fields in Commonwealth Games or the Commonwealth championship which is not the case in many other disciplines like boxing, wrestling, chess etc. But when the selection committee is given the details with the points earned by the athletes to be considered, there is no distinction made to indicate the field or the competitions faced in winning the medals.

Now, consider the predicament of those in the selection committee. Firstly, those in the Sports Ministry and the Sports Authority of India make no secret of the fact that since these are government awards, they are the ones in control.

Each member of the selection panel is handed over the details of those aspiring for the awards, before going into the meeting. Even if these are screened/shortlisted for the panel, it is impossible for the members to carefully consider the claims of each aspirant, before the names are discussed.

Since these are National awards in sports, it would be so much better if the selection committee members are given these details much in advance so that they can have a clear idea as to whom to nominate. Thereafter, these can be discussed in the meeting that usually lasts a couple of hours.

Therefore, how can one expect fair selection when the selection committee members barely have time to know more about those whose performances they are going to judge? Here, they are driven by the suggestions of those from the Ministry/SAI. As a result, there is more room for controversy and in some cases, litigation.

Why look too far? This year, former Chief National wrestling coach, Vinod Kumar, moved the Delhi High Court that forced the Union Government to include his name in the list of Dronacharya Awardees on the eve of the awards ceremony.

In what was clearly a selective invalidation of the selection committee decisions, the Court observed, “Discrepancy appears on their account which should not be expected from the committee deciding the awardees for an award of this prestige.” The Court went on to reject the contention of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports that since Vinod was a recipient of the Dhyan Chand award in 2012, he was ineligible for the Dronacharya Award this year.

The latest verdict shows the Ministry and the system adopted in selection, in poor light.

Parathlete H. N. Girisha moved the Karnataka High Court challenging the nomination of Sania Mirza for Khel Ratna. He pointed to the point-system laid down by the Ministry and contended that he had an aggregate of 90 points, much more than Sania’s. The honourable Court, without stalling the ceremony, asked all those named in Girisha’s petition, including the Ministry, to reply within 15 days.

Here, it is pertinent to note that it was the Sports Ministry that recommended Sania’s name for the award well after the last date for nomination!

Frequent instances of litigation raise question marks against the very basis on which these awards are decided. On one hand, the Government finds the need to rein in the National Sports Federations (NSFs) by bringing in the National Sports Code. In the view of the Ministry, the Code would discipline the NSFs and help the sportspersons.

But the contradiction is not missed when the Ministry itself finds it so difficult to get its act right, objectively and honestly, when it comes to the annual National sports awards.

The need of the hour is to bring in more transparency in the entire process of selection. Let there be an independent panel, preferably outsourced by the Ministry. The nominations received should be made available to the public on the Ministry website. Let the public express their views on those in contention for various awards. The members of the selection committee will have time to know more about the aspirants and state their preferences clearly.

Once the selection is made, the Selection Committee chairperson should address a media conference and explain the reasons behind the choices made. This transparency will bring the Ministry out of the poor light it finds itself in.

This will also make the selection committee members more responsible and accountable. This change could be a small step aimed at bringing back the faith of the sports fraternity in these awards.