Anything but a game-changer

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8 August 1984, Los Angeles
The entire state of Kerala stood still with bated breath, and then heaved a collective sigh of despair. PT Usha missed an Olympic bronze in the 400-metre hurdles by the hundredth of a second.

11 October 2010, New Delhi
India held its collective breath when Tintu Luka bent over the start line in the 800-metre final at the Commonwealth Games. Usha, the coach of young Tintu, was nervous and anxious. Tintu shot off like a bullet, lunging ahead of the pack. But, as the seconds ticked by, she began to slow down and, before long, went out of steam as a couple of Africans rolled past her. On the home straight, she didn’t have enough strength for a last push. India couldn’t win any medal.

Fade out Kerala excels in school-level sports but fails to develop the youngsters into world-class athletes
Fade out Kerala excels in school-level sports but fails to develop the youngsters into world-class athletes. Photo: VV Biju

Thirty years after 1984, the sports fraternity in Kerala is still basking in the afterglow of that Californian night. Yes, there have been a few flashes in the pan but the southern state flatters to deceive as most promising talents fade away. Yes, the athletes, volleyballers and odd cricketers have given performances for a rare swell of pride, but it could always have been better.

As Kerala will be hosting the 35th National Games from 31 January to 14 February next year, after much unpredictability, abnormal delays and apathy from the state and national governing bodies, the question to ask is: what ails sports in Kerala?

Or, what will happen to the world-class infrastructure being built for the National Games by spending crores of taxpayers’ money?

The answer is in black and white — in the Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) report, which was submitted to the Kerala Assembly on 10 June. The report comes down heavily on sports administrators for their lack of planning and failure in proper utilisation of funds, completion of projects on time, implementation of programmes, etc.

Shockingly, the Department of Sports and Youth Affairs (DS&YA) does not have a comprehensive database on sports infrastructure in the state, and thus no long-term plan for development of facilities, for instance, has been, or can be, made. It is understood from the findings of the CAG report that the DS&YA officials are quite myopic.

Kerala won the national school athletic meet for a record 17th time in a row this January. One would imagine, then, that there must be champion athletes by the dozen in the state. But most of these promising talents are lost in their transition from junior level to seniors; a much fewer number go on to represent the country. Moeover, most of these youngsters are not from the government-run sports schools.

“People still play a sport at the junior level as a sure way of either getting some marks or landing a job,” says Pradeep Suthan, a former Kerala Under-25 cricketer. “Most of my friends who made it to the next level either quit or only played for the institution that gave them a job.”

There is indeed a glaring absence of a system with a long-term vision to inspire these youngsters to compete beyond school meets and develop into champions. “We lack training facilities, imagination and commitment to create champions,” says a Thiruvananthapuram- based sports journalist, who doesn’t want to be identified. “Given the facilities we have, the athletes’ performance is commendable.”

After the 2015 National Games gets over and the caravan rolls away, Kerala will have a slew of international-standard sports infrastructure. But will the state’s sports administration be up to the challenges this would entail? Its track record, going by the CAG findings, doesn’t augur well for a dramatic transition in thought-pattern and work ethics.

The first challenge will be maintenance of the facilities — making sure that they generate revenue, lest they turn out to be white elephants. The Aquatic Complex at Pirappencode, about 20 km from Thiruvananthapuram, consumes electricity worth over Rs 1,00,000 a month. Where will the Kerala State Sports Council (KSSC), which owns the facility, find the funds to pay the electricity bills? The complex took nearly 14 years to be constructed, with costs going through the roof. Though KSSC officials are upbeat about shifting their entire aquatic activities to the new premises, retrospective wisdom whispers uneasy facts.

The second challenge is to have the imagination, expertise and commitment for chalking up long-term plans for the training and development of young talents. The CAG report says: “The Sports Development Fund, envisaged for the creation and upgradation of sports facilities in the state, to arrange extra funds for training abroad and engagement of dedicated specialist coaches for meritorious sportspersons was not created, despite a provision of Rs1.25 cr ore made in the state Budget during 2010-12.”

Kerala is a sluggish consumer state with an increasing budget deficit. By the end of FY 2014-15, the state government’s estimated debt would be Rs 1,36,872 crore. As per the CAG report, the estimated cost of the National Games is Rs 611.33 crore with a Central assistance of Rs 121 crore. The National Games Secretariat (ngs) has asked the government for an additional allocation of Rs 90 crore at a time when the state is experiencing a fiscal paralysis.

Embarrassingly, three months away from the opening ceremony, the DS&YA’s website still boasts that Kerala is “the proud host for the forthcoming 35th National Games scheduled for 12.12.2012”. This minor blunder should be read as a symptom of what ails sports in Kerala.

The government and the officials are generous in rewarding star athletes, but don’t have the intuition and foresight to spot and nurture talent. That’s why every Malayali has to be alarmed at the spending of such a huge amount of public money for building world-class sports infrastructure because if not utilised after the Games, they will remain just blocks of cement and pillars of iron and steel. The ngs chief describes how the shooting range and swimming pool in Jharkhand remained unused after the 34th National Games. Kerala can illafford to allow such costly infrastructure to gather dust and rust.

Past glory Malayalis hold sprinter PT Usha in high esteem
Past glory Malayalis hold sprinter PT Usha in high esteem

Four years ago, when an 18-year-old HS Prannoy (the current Indonesian Masters champion) won silver in badminton at the Youth Olympics in Singapore, ministers and sports officials made a beeline for his house at Anayara, on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram. Reporters camped at his house when he was playing in the final — recording every emotional expression of his parents, turning them into ‘human interest’ stories. And the government reportedly promised to sponsor all his training expenses until the 2016 Olympics! But did Prannoy need the encouragement and money after he won the Youth Olympics medal as badly as he had needed them when he was out in the cold?

It is in the formative days, when no one knows them or believes in their talent, that players need financial support and encouragement. They need money to pay their coaches, participate in tournaments and for better gear and food. They need encouraging words to feel motivated to do the routine year after year. They need a hand around their shoulders when the chips are down.

“To improve sports in the state, we should have a sound system in place and long-term plans to train the students to international level,” says PT Manoj, a physical education teacher at a nondescript government school in Palakkad, whose students VV Jisha and Mohammed Afzal have won double gold medals at the Asian School Meet in Malaysia. “The coach or trainer has to spot talent and keep the trainees inspired and motivated for better performance.”

But with no such system in place, there are more broken dreams than those that have come true. Take RS Vinod, who had won many medals at state-level athletic meets between 1993 and 1996. He had even clocked the best timing in 1500 metres at juniors in 1996. But he ended up becoming an autorickshaw driver.

When the Kerala government recently honoured the Asian Games medallists and Arjuna Award winners, it was good to see the chief minister taking time out to acknowledge sports stars. But a government with foresight should nurture talent before it garlands winners. “Giving cash prizes to the winners alone will not work and encouragement should begin from the grassroots level,” says Manoj.

Waning Sports Culture
Kerala, which once had a robust sports culture, is now witnessing a decline in public participation in sport. Manoj points out that the disappearance of arts and sports clubs from rural areas contributes significantly to this. He also feels that children nowadays are more into video games than outdoor sports.

In cities, the playing area is at “the bottom of the apartment builder’s pecking order”, says Suthan. Even most school managements don’t think twice before constructing buildings in playgrounds. “Most schools don’t even have space for a 200-metre track,” says a physical education teacher at a government school in Thiruvananthapuram, who doesn’t want to be identified.

While a sports curriculum has been put in place recently, the CAG report says that physical fitness tests revealed that only 19.61 percent of the schoolchildren in the state met the minimum recommended standards. The report also mentions that the government has taken no remedial measures to improve the physical fitness of schoolchildren.

“Only dedicated sports people use the University Stadium, not the public. How many people know that one can use the facilities of an international stadium for about Rs 1,000 a year?” asks Suthan. He also laments the fast disappearance of college-level tournaments, which have given way to youth festivals. “The government isn’t doing anything to change the attitude of the middle class and encourage the youth to take up sports as a healthy way of life,” he says.

As former sportswriter Matt Hern suggests in his book One Game at a Time, sports is serious stuff. But, for a generation born into WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, playing fields belong to their parents’ paraphernalia. “Football, basketball, tennis, mixed martial arts, and beyond: these are arenas of immense power, with mass appeal, yet far too many of us have abandoned the sporting world as a legitimate site of contestation and innovation. Why? What do we gain by handing over the power of sports to the world of hyper-consumption, militarism, violence, sexism, and homophobia — the worst elements of our culture?” asks a reviewer of Hern’s book.

It is in this context of general apathy towards sports that Kerala is spending crores of rupees for world-class infrastructure. Unless there are concurrent awareness programmes to attract children and the public to use these facilities, the post-Games scenario could be grim. The infrastructure being built in seven districts should be used to train raw talents and make them compete with the best in the country and beyond.

Lost chance Tintu Luka didn’t win a medal at the 2010 CWG
Lost chance Tintu Luka didn’t win a medal at the 2010 CWG

But that is where the worry is. The CAG reports mentions how ineffectively the KSSC used the Panchayath Yuva Krida Aur Khel Abhiyan (PYKKA), a Centre-sponsored scheme to promote sports among rural youth through the creation of infrastructure and conduct of annual sports competitions. Between 2008 and 2013, the scheme was to be implemented in 400 gram panchayats (GP) and 60 block panchayats (BP). The KSSC received Rs 24.68 crore from the Centre and incurred an expenditure of Rs 17 crore.

This is what the CAG says: “An amount of Rs 9.82 crore was distributed to only 199 GPs and 28 BPs and the scheme was only partially implemented in these GPs and BPs. Most of the GPs covered under the scheme did not turn up for the second installment of assistance and did not furnish statement of expenditure/utility certificates to KSSC. Records produced to audit indicated that as against the release of Rs 9.82 crore, the beneficiary panchayats had furnished utility certificates only for Rs 1.44 crore… Out of 84 panchayats test-checked, only 47 utilised ‘one-time seed capital grant’ for the creation of play fields, utilising Rs 1.54 crore against the release of Rs 3.85 crore. It could be seen that an amount of Rs 2.31 crore was not utilised for the creation of play fields. But an amount of Rs 1.64 crore released for annual rural competitions was fully utilised without the creation of play fields intended.”

This is the way the local self-governance institutions utilised the funds. While in one instance utility certificates for over Rs 8 crore were missing, in another funds were not at all used. The CAG report also notes that the KSSC’s accounts were audited only up to 2008-09, even though the Kerala Sports Act 2008 makes it mandatory for the council’s funds to be audited by the local fund audit authorities and the reports to be submitted to the government.

In this backdrop, it is quite likely that unless the governing bodies keep their eyes on the ball, infrastructure worth crores of rupees would fall into the hands of greedy local politicians and officials with no exposure to international sports.

KSSC president Padmini Thomas, who has, surprisingly, not even heard of the CAG report that tears her organisation apart, rubbishes the findings as “wrong”. “These are clerical findings,” says Thomas, an Arjuna Award-winning former athlete. “Theory and practice are two different kettles of fish.”

However, both Thomas and KSSC secretary Binu George Varghese sound confident that the infrastructure being built for the National Games will not be underutilised. “We have the expertise to run programmes using these facilities to their optimum,” says Varghese.

The CAG has also pulled up the sports and youth affairs department for underutilisation of infrastructure and grants for the development of sports and abnormal delay in execution of projects. It says: “The department prepared annual plans related to sports and youth affairs with reference to Five-Year Plans of the state. Other than the annual plans, the department did not have any long-term plan for the development of sports. Funds for the development of sports and youth affairs were provided by the government based on annual plan proposal of the DS&YA and the KSSC. The audit noticed that 11 projects/schemes like construction of stadia, swimming pool, development of play fields, sports academies, etc, which were repeatedly included in the annual plan of the KSSC, had not commenced, as of March 2013. The inclusion of such projects in plan proposals reflects lack of proper planning and non-prioritisation of work on need basis.”

The KSSC has explained that some of the projects are not under active consideration for implementation, and the government has replied to the CAG that “steps would be taken to prepare a need-based long-term plan of viable projects”.

But what is the point of making a quixotic annual plan only to throw it into the bin and make another for the next year?

According to the Kerala Sports Act, the KSSC is responsible for the development of all sports infrastructure in the state, but some projects were left to the local self-governance institutions or district sports councils with partial assistance from the KSSC or the DS&YA.

The CAG report notes that 10 infrastructure projects costing Rs 78.30 crore, initiated during 2000-13, were still under construction. It adds: “Three works directly executed by KSSC were not completed (December 2013) despite sufficient funds being available, due to reasons like delay in re-arrangement of works, revision of estimates, etc. Till December 2013, KSSC spent an amount of Rs 18.40 crore against the project estimate of Rs 14.49 crore, resulting in a cost escalation of Rs 3.91 crore and time overrun of more than 13 years!”

The other seven works were delayed due to lack of funds since the executing agencies — local self-governance institutions or district sports councils — failed to raise money from sources such as mp/mla local area development funds. The CAG report sums it up: “KSSC/ DS&YA did not assess the capability of the implementing agencies to raise the additional funds required for completion of the project. In all the cases, the implement agencies failed to raise the required funds and repeatedly requested DS&YA for additional funds”. Once these funding agencies informed the implementing agencies that they were not in a position to further fund the projects, the work began to drag. The CAG concludes: “Thus the seven works were halted due to lack of funds and an amount of Rs 25.59 crore released for these works was lying blocked up.”

The government replied to the CAG that the DS&YA couldn’t fund the projects any longer, and the CAG rapped on the knuckles of KSSC and DS&YA for failing to complete the projects “due to poor financial planning and project management”.

Jiji Thomson, director general of Sports Authority of India (SAI), says that the way sports organisations function in the country pulls sports backwards. “Though there are organisations that do good work, the majority of them are not up to the mark. Those who head these organisations don’t care about the development of athletes. Most of these officials don’t have foresight, and go for a horses-for-courses attitude,” says Thomson. “This is the curse of Indian sports.”

Kerala shining? Crores of rupees have been spent to build infrastructure for the 35th National Games
Kerala shining? Crores of rupees have been spent to build infrastructure for the 35th National Games. Photo: AFP

Two Classic Cases
Poor planning and poorer project management are not just the hallmarks of the KSSC but also of the NGS. In April 2012, the NGS obtained permission from the army to conduct a survey to prepare a detailed map for the construction of a trap-and-skeet facility at the Army Shooting Range at Mookkunnimala in Thiruvananthapuram. In January 2013, the NGS awarded the work to a firm for Rs 1.46 crore, which included construction of towers and bunkers, without obtaining permission from the army in writing. Understandably, the army intervened and stopped the work, saying they had only given permission to conduct a survey, not to construct anything!

Another example of foolhardy project management was the attempt to renovate the swimming pool at Kerala Water Authority’s (KWA) campus in Thiruvananthapuram. The NGS planned to renovate the existing pool and construct another between the old pool and the nearby Jimmy George Indoor Stadium. The work was awarded to a contractor in January 2010. The NGS had paid KWA Rs 1.50 crore in December 2009 to relay a waterline before the work could start.

Once the work on the new pool started, the re-laid pipe was displaced and began to leak due to heavy seepage of underground water from the indoor stadium. The NGS abandoned the project and shifted the venue of aquatic events to the new International Swimming Pool at Pirappancode. The CAG clearly states that the awarding of the work of the swimming pool “without conducting its feasibility study resulted in a wasteful expenditure of Rs 1.5 crore”.

NGS chief Jacob Punnoose, who is also a former director general of the Kerala Police, admits there has been “wasteful expenditure” and a loss to the exchequer, but is quick to add that it is not a “culpable loss”.

In the early 1990s, all hell broke loose over Kerala politics when a CAG report mentioned a loss of over Rs 2 crore in the import of palm oil. In the swimming pool case, however, even though Rs 1.5 crore went down the drain because of bureaucratic blunder or lack of planning, no Opposition leader has yet raised his/her voice in protest.

Spending hundreds of crores of rupees for sports infrastructure has to be seen as a commitment to provide the best for the people, but the catch is in how the facilities are going to be managed post-Games.

The ‘legacy plan’ of the NGS involves handing over all the facilities to their respective ‘owners’ such as the municipal corporations and the KSSC. Going by the CAG’s performance audit of the sports and youth affairs department and the growing apathy among the public towards participation in sports and fitness programmes, there are serious doubts over whether the facilities would indeed be put to good use after the Games are over. After all, the CAG report states in no uncertain terms that the DS&YA “did not have any long-term plan for the development of sports”.

As the adage goes, people perish when there is no vision. It could prove true in the case of costly infrastructure too — and Kerala can ill-afford it.


JacobAn Organisational Nightmare

The man in charge of organising the 35th National Games in Kerala is in an unenviable position. Jacob Punnoose, CEO and secretary of the National Games Secretariat, knows that in the coming days he will be like a cat on a hot tin roof. “It’ll be an organisational nightmare,” he says.

Spread across seven districts in Kerala, the National Games will have over 12,000 delegates and officials, 31 venues and 34 events. “My task is seven times more complex than organising the Olympics in one city,” says Punnoose. “And the probability of things going wrong is also seven times greater.”

Punnoose believes that spreading out the Games across seven districts ensures that the benefits of the world-class sports infrastructure that is being created for the purpose would not be confined to the state capital. “The challenge lies in finding ways to make the facilities generate sufficient revenue as they need huge amounts of money for operation and maintenance,” he points out.

Kerala has been waiting to host the National Games since 2008. In June that year, the then state sports minister M Vijayakumar had said that the Games would be held in 2009. But it was finally scheduled for 31 January to 14 February 2015. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to inaugurate it.

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