In January 2014, five girls at Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) training centre in Hisar accused their coach of groping and kissing them on the pretext of celebrating ‘world kiss day’. The girls, all minors, filed a police complaint against the coach but it was later withdrawn after the village panchayat intervened. Three years later, an SAI sexual harassment committee found the coach guilty. By then, however, the coach — against whom there were multiple cases of misconduct since 1981, according to an order passed by Chandigarh bench of Central Administrative Tribunal — had retired. His punishment? Ten per cent cut in pension for one year.
In the last decade, at least 45 complaints of sexual harassment were reported at 24 different government-run sports institutes, data obtained by The Indian Express through RTI and official reports has revealed. In several cases, the accused have been let off leniently, with punishments ranging from transfers to a small cut in pay or pension. However, investigations into almost a dozen complaints have dragged on for years, without any resolution so far.
According to the data, 29 of the 45 cases reported are against coaches. A parliamentary committee on the empowerment of women report noted last February that “the number could be higher as, many times, cases against coaches also might have gone unreported.” It further added: “The committee finds it quite unfortunate that the mentor and guide himself (is) turning the predator.”
SAI did not reply to a detailed questionnaire sent to it. But the organisation’s former director-general, Jiji Thomson, said the athletes often withdraw their complaints or change their statements, fearing their careers would be impacted, which makes it difficult for them to take action.
“Most of these girls come from humble backgrounds. So they are persuaded or pressurised to change their statement or take back their complaints,” Thomson, who was SAI DG from March 2013 to January 2015, said. “The girls give in to the fact that their future in sports, which for many is a way out of poverty, is in the hands of the coaches. So they often give up.”
The cases reported at SAI centres range from molestation to physical abuse, in sports such as gymnastics, athletics, weightlifting, boxing and wrestling. While some of the accused were acquitted, inquiries against several others have been going on for years even as they continue to mentor young athletes.
n For example, as per information obtained via RTI, five girls from a North-Eastern state accused their coach of molestation in July 2014. SAI sources said the girls — all aged around 14-15 years then — alleged that the coach, aged 50 then, touched them inappropriately on the pretext of taking their body measurements. Two girls said he even asked them to remove their shirts at the time of measuring weight, while he allegedly embraced and tried to kiss another girl.
SAI, in the RTI response, said an FIR was registered against the coach, who was “punished by giving compulsory retirement from service, imposed by disciplinary authority on August 22, 2017.” The case is being heard in a court.
This is an instance where action has been taken. In several complaints, however, that is not the case.
Take, for example, two cases, both mentioned in the RTI response, from SAI’s Gandhinagar Centre. In 2013, two girls alleged that their coach at SAI’s Gandhinagar centre sexually harassed them. SAI officials said the girls even wrote letters to then Union Minister of State (Sports and Youth Affairs) Jitendra Singh, Thomson and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.
“The girls, in their letter, wrote that the coach invited them to join him in his car and please him. In return, he promised to take them to Sri Lanka for a competition. Else, he threatened to destroy their careers,” said an SAI official, adding that the coach “blackmailed” the girls by claiming he had their videos.
An inquiry was ordered, and in December that year, the coach was transferred to SAI’s Sonepat centre. SAI, in its RTI reply, said: “… Inquiry of case was conducted on 12.12.2013. The report of which was forwarded to SAI HO New Delhi on 13.12.2013 for further necessary action as the cases related to coaches are dealt with (by) Head Office (the competent authority). The person was transferred (red) to Sonipat.”
In another incident, also at Gandhinagar, the father of a trainee accused a coach of harassment in March 2017. SAI said it initiated an “immediate inquiry” into the case while the coach was transferred to Army Boys Sports Company, Roorkee. “Inquiry of case was conducted on 13.04.2017… However, as per the SAI HO letter dated 26.02.2018, the inquiry is to be re-conducted through newly constituted sexual harassment committee,” SAI said. When asked, SAI did not confirm if its investigation in the case had concluded.
Two years ago, a woman in Thiruvananthapuram accused her coach of harassment. The coach, who was attached with the women’s national camp till last year, was subsequently transferred to SAI’s Aurangabad centre, where he continues to be in charge of about 50 trainees — boys and girls in the age group of 12-18 years. The investigation is still going on.
Similarly, a teacher at the Lakshmibai Institute of Physical Education in Thiruvananthapuram was accused of misbehavior by a bunch of female students in 2015. He, however, continues to be in charge even today.
Other cases of harassment have been reported at SAI training centres in New Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Aurangabad, Daman & Diu, Patiala, Eluru, Kashipur, Cuttack, Kozhikode, Bhopal and Mayiladuthurai.
As per the data, at least five coaches who were found guilty were penalised with a pay reduction — in one case, a deduction of Rs 910 per month while a few others were denied increment for one year. Contracts of two coaches were terminated while one was suspended. Five others were acquitted after the complaints against them were deemed to be false. Last year, a coach committed suicide after he was accused of molestation by a player who was a minor.
The parliamentary committee, in its report, linked the “power and authority” that the coaches wield to their misdeeds. SAI has internal committees to deal with harassment cases and a code of conduct for the players, but the parliamentary committee noted there are no dos and don’ts for the coaches.
A SAI official blamed the lack of sensitivity to harassment complaints to an internal nexus between the coaches and officials, and the lack of women trainers. The official also said action is often delayed because of the shortage of coaches at SAI centres.
“If you take action, then you find there isn’t anyone to replace him. Hence, they are either transferred or let off with some other minor sanction, like a pay cut,” the official said. “And since most of the coaches are well connected within SAI, there is seldom any strict action taken against them.”
Thomson, the former director general, conceded there “could be some truth” to that claim. “But it is not only the fellows inside the SAI. Major influence comes from the federations. Coaches are employed by SAI but they have connections with the federations, who are the ones who actually control them,” he said. “But in 90 per cent of cases, they have withdrawn complaints or changed statements. What can we do then?”