Pragmatic | On the Draft Sports Bill

An opportunity lost to eventually do away with the Sports Ministry at the Centre.

The Draft Sports Bill presented to the Cabinet by the Sports Minister, Ajay Maken has created its fair share of controversy. The Union Cabinet has returned it to the sports ministry for reconsideration and the accompanying public spat between ministers of the UPA government has been rather ugly.

Before getting into the debate proper, let us get a few facts out of the way. While all the media attention has been on cricket, the Bill also deals with 65 other sports in India. While the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) — as do other sports bodies — gets benefits from the government via tax-exemption, subsidised land allocation and use of other subsidised public services, the government has provided Rs 490.84 crore from its budget to these sports bodies in the last three years.

In that sense, these sports bodies are no different from the NGOs who take government money and are thus considered as Public Authority under the Clause 2 (h) of RTI, 2005. The opposing argument is that the government should simply stop funding these bodies and leave them to the mechanisms of the free-market. Sports which aren’t commercially viable should be allowed to wither away. Although this sounds good in theory, it is practically infeasible to do so because most of the sports that will die in this process will be Olympic sports. India’s performance at the Olympics has never been something to write home about and has caused much outrage and heartburn among the new generation of proud and impatient Indians. No government can afford to be accused of plotting India’s poor performance at the Olympics.

As an aside, there is a High Court ruling which clearly states that BCCI officials are in fact public servants. This would negate the BCCI’s argument for evading the provisions of the RTI Act.

Is the maximum age limit of 70 years, and a tenure limit of 12 years for officials of sports federations arbitrary and without precedent? No. As per the International Olympic Committee Charter, the duration of term of office of the President is eight years, renewable once for a four year term. In other words, the IOC President can serve for a maximum period of 12 years. The IOC Charter also prescribes a retirement age for all IOC members, which is 70 years.

Furthermore, the World Badminton Federation does not permit more than two consecutive terms for its President and other office bearers; the International Hockey Federation (FIH) allows its President, Hony. Secretary General and Hony. Treasurer to hold a maximum of three tenures of four years each; and the International Governing Body of Swimming (FINA) prescribes a maximum of two terms in the same post for the President and the Hony. Secretary and the Hony. Treasurer. The rule in the draft bill is thus in accordance with standard international practices.

But all this doesn’t answer the real question in the Indian context. Why should ministers, bureaucrats and other people on the roll of the government be allowed to run sports bodies? This raises uncomfortable questions about the ‘conflict of interest’ and ‘office of profit’ which need to be tackled politically by the government and the parliament.

Do other countries have similar legislations? Yes. In the US, the Ted Stevens Olympic Amateur Act of 1978 requires the US Olympic Committee (USOC) to establish and maintain several provisions with regard to governance such as: (i) reserve 20% of membership and voting rights in favour of amateur athletes who are actively engaged in amateur athletic competition or who have represented the United States in the preceding 10 years; (ii) before carrying out any amendment to its constitution and bylaws, USOC has to issue a public notification inviting objections; shall not engage in business for profit or issue stock; shall engage an ombudsman for providing independent advice to athletes at no cost; shall establish an Athletes Advisory Council; and shall submit detailed report of its operations and accounts to the President and Congress.  In short, the USOC is expected to act as a responsible public body and maintain the highest standards of good governance. The USOC follows a normal 4 year term for its elected officials a with possible 2 year extension.

In France, sports associations are incorporated under the provisions of the Associations Law of 1 July 1901.  The new French Sports Law of 2000, which modifies the law of 16 July 1984, establishes the framework for the “public service of sport”.  It reaffirms the principle of close collaboration between the state and sports movement.  France has an interventionist sports legislation model, and the sports movement of the country operates on a regulatory basis that is determined by statute.  The French law differentiates between two types of sports organisations.  There are those that are simply recognised and, others that are, in addition, given state-delegated powers to manage certain sports disciplines.   The organisations with delegated powers hold a direct mandate from the state in executing a public service.  They benefit from relative autonomy in issues directly relating to their sport but must also comply with a series of regulations.  They are also under the control of the state and their delegated powers are reviewed every four years.  The Act also provides for the establishment of Sports Council, which is responsible for stakeholder consultation for all legislation and state regulation in sports; and to evaluate state policies in sport and submit its report to the parliament.  The France Code of Sports enforces democratic functioning of sports associations, transparency of its management and equal access of women and men in its bodies.

UK does not have any sports legislation, but the government have prescribed elaborate governance guidelines under a recent modernisation programme for sports organisations.  Under this scheme of corporate governance, sports organisations are categorised in terms of their abilities to meet a set of self-governance standards.  This programme is based on values, which include professionalism, equity, autonomy and inclusion.  Accountability is also one of the cornerstones of this government-initiated governance model for the sports movement.

However, in discussing all  these issues, the crux of the debate has been lost. The purpose of this bill is to make sports bodies accountable. This accountability is to be ensured by bringing transparency in the functioning of these bodies. Measures like asking the federations to mandatorily place various reports, including their audited accounts, in public domain through their web-sites are designed to ensure that accountability.

But there is an even bigger issue which has been overlooked in the whole debate. Sports in India continues to remain under the State List (Entry 33 of the List II of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution) after the proposal to bring it under the Concurrent List was dropped a few years ago. This means that there is no rationale for the existence of a Sports Ministry at the Centre. Now, this draft Bill was actually an enabling provision which would have made National Sports Federations more autonomous without any interference by the government in their functioning. If the government did actually end up doing away with its controls as envisaged, the logical consequence would have been the disbandment of the Sports Ministry in this country.

That, in fact, should be the endeavour of all well-meaning Indians.

By allowing this Bill to snowball into a political controversy, the UPA government has lost a great opportunity to discerp one of the unwanted ministries at the Centre. The Status Quo shall thus prevail. And Status Quo, to quote Reagan, you know, that is Latin for “the mess we’re in”.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.