FOR almost four years now, the iconic Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium here — listed as one of India’s five Class 1 facilities by World Athletics — hasn’t hosted any track-and-field event. The reason: “sinking” of the ground after a botched-up track relaying project.
The project, for which the Sports Authority of India (SAI) had earmarked Rs 6.50 crore, began in the summer of 2019 and was expected to be completed by 2021. It was handed to WAPCOS [Water and Power Consultancy Services (India) Limited], a public sector enterprise under the Ministry of Jal Shakti. But, when the project was nearing completion in 2021, a section of the 400 metre track over an underground tunnel started caving in.
The tunnel was built during the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and used for the opening and closing ceremonies.
The issue, in fact, was among several deficiencies flagged by an Athletics Federation of India (AFI) team, which had first visited the site in December 2020 on SAI’s request. “Fill the ditch at the entrance of the VIP gate for the track which created a gap in the underground tunnel,” said the AFI report, seen by The Indian Express.
An AFI official said they were consulted only after the initial relaying of track was almost over. “We immediately noticed waves on the track and informed WAPCOS, but they brushed it off saying it’s nothing. But a few months later, after incessant rainfall, the track started sinking,” said the AFI official.
Responding to a text message from The Indian Express, Rajni Kant Agrawal, chairman and managing director of WAPCOS, texted back saying: “In this regard you are requested to contact SAI.”
When contacted, SAI, in its statement to The Indian Express, said: “The laying of the track was started in 2019 and the work was undertaken by WAPCOS, a central government undertaking. The work was progressing at good speed and by 2021 around 95 per cent of the work was completed. However, at that time it was found that due to excessive rain water seepage into the ground and because of the presence of an underground tunnel across the stadium, below the track, the under construction track was sinking”.
“Therefore, it was decided to suspend the ongoing work and CPWD, responsible for the overall maintenance of JLN stadium, was asked to identify the reason for the ground sinking. CPWD in turn has approached IIT Guwahati for a detailed research on the issue. The results of the research are expected soon and work will resume depending on the finding,” it said.
“SAI has sanctioned Rs 53 lakh for the research and Rs 6.50 crore has been sanctioned to WAPCOS for the track,” it said.
Admitting that “the last athletics event held on the track was before the renovation work began in 2019”, SAI said “the Athletics Nationals held last year was held in the warm-up area of JLN since the Athletics Federation chose that venue for the competition”.
“They should have consulted us before beginning the work. During our first visit, we found several issues apart from the track. The surface of the long jump pits was uneven, the throwing circles were not right, and the base of the steeplechase pit needed to be changed. We flagged the tunnel issue long back and I don’t understand why you need an expert panel from IIT to tell you the same thing,” said the AFI official.
With the turf-relaying project nowhere near completion, the country’s premier venue, that hosted the 1982 Asian Games, will continue to be under-utilised. An evening at JLN explains how unused infrastructure impacts the training of several elite athletes.
A 5m patch has been dug up at the 250m mark on the 400m track exposing the concrete structure below, the jumping pits have become resting places for dogs, the carpet area around the track is in shambles, and the throwing area is far from ready. The pole vault set-up has been missing since 2020.
This has forced athletes, including international medallists, to train at the worn-out, crowded practice track outside the main stadium. Hundreds of athletes train simultaneously on a track that is long past its use-by date.
“Not having good facilities for training can ruin the future of young athletes. For every athlete, the goal is to train hard and perform well so they get selected for the national camp. But if the facilities are not good, they cannot perform well,” Bahadur Prasad, who held the 5000m national record for three decades until Avinash Sable broke it this year, told The Indian Express.
A junior Asian Championships medallist said that his practice has been hit adversely and it is very difficult to fight for space in the cramped practice area. “See the state of the practice track yourself, the inside lanes are completely worn out. We have four or five barely usable lanes that we have to share with hundreds of athletes,” the junior champion said.
For Arjuna awardee Bahadur Prasad, who also held the 1500m national record for 23 years until it was broken by Jinson Johnson in 2018, JLN has a special place in his heart. He trained and attended national camps at the facility on numerous occasions between 1989 and 1998.
“During my career, all preparatory camps before international meets were held at JLN and we could train at both tracks. It is a premier facility and many government agency-employed athletes also train here. I don’t know why there has been such a delay but it needs to be sorted out on priority. If budget is the issue, increase it. The authorities should just focus on getting the track ready as soon as possible,” said the two-time Olympian.