Hours after The Indian Express reported that 45 cases of sexual harassment were reported at 24 institutes under the Sports Authority of India (SAI) over the last decade, the organisation’s former director-general Neelam Kapur said the “actual number of cases will be much higher”.
Speaking to The Indian Express Thursday, Kapur, who headed SAI from February 2018 to July 2019, said she was “shocked” at the number of sexual harassment complaints that were pending when she took over, and attributed it to a “cultural problem in our society.”
“I do believe that the actual number of cases will be much higher than reported because everybody does not have courage to report them. I did not realise the extent to which sexual harassment was an issue,” Kapur said.
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“When I went into details, I found out that there were a lot of cases pending for years. So it did come as a shock but this is a culture that has developed over a number of years. I don’t think this is the fault of anyone specific. This is just a culture in our society,” she said.
According to data obtained by The Indian Express under the Right To Information (RTI) Act and from official reports, 29 of the 45 complaints from 2010 to 2019 were against coaches in sports such as gymnastics, athletics, weightlifting, boxing and wrestling.
A Parliamentary committee on the empowerment of women had earlier noted that coaches took advantage of their “power and authority” and turned into “predators”.
Kapur said there “may be a large number of trainees who may not complain as they are scared of retribution and not being selected”.
“A lot of people do not know where to go to. If there is a case, some of them suffer quietly. The impression some of them have is, ‘We have to put up with this else we won’t be selected in the team’,” Kapur said.
“Both sides should know this is not acceptable. The complaints have to be investigated and dealt with very swiftly. Action has to be very quick, you can’t keep it pending,” she said.
The Indian Express investigation also revealed that the accused in several cases were let off leniently, with punishments ranging from transfers to a small cut in pay or pension. Moreover, it found, probes into several complaints have dragged on for years.
For instance, it took SAI three years to take action against a coach who was accused of groping and kissing five minor trainees at the Hisar centre. After the coach was found guilty, he was let off with a 10 per cent cut in pension for one year. In another case, a coach was penalised with a deduction of Rs 910 per month in his salary.
Kapur claimed that at the start of her tenure, she got NGOs on board to educate sportspersons, coaches and SAI’s administrative staff on these issues. Towards the end of her tenure, she said, a “call centre” was established “where trainees could report on any issue — living conditions, food, harassment…”
Kapur said, “There were a lot of pending cases but the basic issue was people were not aware. One of the first actions I took was to dismiss a coach from his services without pension. He was just two years away from retirement. But I dismissed him. The director-general has the power to do it.”
SAI did not respond to a questionnaire sent by The Indian Express on the findings of the investigation.
Asked if SAI had a code of conduct for coaches, Kapur said, “I don’t think we need a specific code of conduct for coaches because we are all subject to the law of the land, which is the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) Act and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. Not only does the POSH Act apply to SAI but also POCSO Act because a lot of the trainees are minors — girls and boys, I am not ruling out boys either.”
SAI has 56 training centres across the country where, according to Kapur, roughly 15,000 athletes train. For most aspiring athletes, admission to a SAI centre is seen as the first step towards making a career in sports. It is also a way out of poverty for many, since the government takes care of boarding, food, sports kit, competition, education, medical expenses and even insurance.
Kapur said the “priority” now should also be to make these centres “safe”. “Some of the trainees are minors. So, we will be disappointing a large number of our sportspersons if we don’t have an environment, at least at SAI, where they can achieve their best potential. Especially now, when in many of our sports, it is women who are top achievers.”
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