Written by Muralidharan and Padmini Chennapragada
Up from four at Rio to 19 medals at the Tokyo Paralympics is a leap of epic proportions. As we bask in glory over the spectacular performance, it is also an opportune moment to address some uncomfortable truths.
Persons with disabilities have been representing India at international events for over four decades. However, sports for persons with disabilities was outside mainstream conversations surrounding disability rights in India till 2007, when the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) was ratified by India and pursuant to it the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (RPD Act) was enacted.
Section 30 of the RPD Act elaborates on the measures that have to be undertaken to ensure sporting rights of Indians with disabilities. It mandates restructuring of courses and programmes to ensure access, inclusion and participation of persons with disabilities in sporting activities; redesigning infrastructure; developing technology to enhance potential and talent; allocation of funds, etc.
Unfortunately, despite the stellar performance at Rio in 2016, the Special Olympic World Games, Deaf Sports events, etc, little has changed at the grassroots in India, from where most international medal winners come. Para sports persons, with some exceptions, continue to be denied entry to major sporting facilities and there has been no tangible attempt to enhance support systems for them.
There is a hyped media buzz about the success of public-private partnerships that have immensely helped India’s para-athletes. These partnerships have been beneficial to only the few who had access to the powerful lobbies of national disability sport organisations that continue to violate mandates of the National Sports Development Code of India (NSDCI), 2011 and the RPD Act.
The despicable treatment meted out to para sportspersons is highlighted by a report in theTimes of India on September 2. It says that Rajasthan’s forest department woke up to the sobering realisation that “gold medal-winning shooter Avani Lakhera, javelin silver medallist Devendra Jhajharia and bronze winner Sunder Singh Gurjar were recruited as officers of the rank of assistant conservators of forest between five and ten months ago, but their salaries remained pending until the trio shot into the limelight”.
Nothing can be more telling than the pathetic manner in which para sports events are conducted. At the 15th National Para Athletics Championship at Ghaziabad in 2015, athletes were lodged in unsafe spaces without basic amenities. Inaccessible mobile toilets forced many participants to defecate in the open. The plight of women participants was worse with many not being able to bathe for the entire duration of their stay. Not much has changed since then.
In 2021, originally scheduled to be held at Chennai, PCI’s national para-athletics championship venue was changed to Bengaluru with just four days’ notice. There were complaints of rules being flouted, merger of certain categories, etc. Worse still was the holding of certain events after dusk using mobile phone torches for light. And this when we have a Rio medalist heading the Committee.
National disability sport federations — the Paralympic Committee of India, Special Olympics Bharat and the All-India Sports Council for the Deaf — have all failed in complying with the mandates of the National Sports Development Code of India, 2011. This is evidenced in the form of multiple court cases that athletes with disabilities and their families have had to file to make it to competitions.
Unconfirmed classification status of a para-athlete participating at Tokyo leading to his medal stripping after the event was PCI’s responsibility. It is a laxity that cannot be condoned. In an earlier instance, a female athlete had to get an order from the Madras High Court to let her participate in the 4th World Deaf Championship at Lublin, Poland in August 2021.
Combined with the RPD Act provisions, India now has a robust framework to protect the sporting rights of persons with disabilities, even those based in remote areas. However, rampant corruption, lobbying, favouritism and the pernicious grip of the politician-bureaucratic nexus impedes the tapping of talent, capacity building and training.
Regrettably, the nodal department, the Department for Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities and the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports are yet to work together towards protecting and advancing the sporting rights of India’s athletes with disabilities. In contrast, in countries like the US, the United States Olympics & Paralympic Committee is held accountable by their federal government through various legislative mandates that include Safe Sport Policies and athlete-centred organisational practices.
What is urgently required is democratisation of these sporting bodies and providing accessibility to all sporting facilities on an equal basis with others. Side by side enhanced spending on para sports, putting in place governance and oversight mechanisms as also enforcement of the mandates of the UNCRPD and the RPD Act are called for.
Conversations around para sports should gain more credence in the days ahead and get mainstreamed. This will, for sure, also impact the way society treats the disabled from being objects of charity to holders of rights.
Muralidharan is General Secretary, National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD).Chennapragada is a disability sports researcher