The government’s ambitious scheme of providing grants to potential medal winners in 2016/2020 Olympics will see some of the biggest names as beneficiaries. Among those identified for the sports ministry backed Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) are Abhinav Bindra and MC Mary Kom. The Beijing Olympics gold medal winning shooter will get a funding of Rs 1.12 crore, while the London Olympics bronze medallist boxer is set to get Rs 75 lakh.
While their selection for TOPS is beyond reproach, what comes as a surprise is that both are part of the committee that was set up to identify talented sportspersons and decide on the funding amount, raising questions about conflict of interest.
National badminton coach Pullela Gopichand, former long jumper Anju Bobby George and sports minister Sarbananda Sonowal are other members in the TOPS committee which has BJP MP Anurag Thakur as its chairman.
Former champion pistol shooter and now chief coach of the junior pistol team, Jaspal Rana slammed the vetting process and questioned how somebody in their senses could allow a situation where active sportspersons are also members of the selection committee.
“You cannot have a situation where the same people active in shooting or otherwise are part of the committee that will decide who gets selected for the funding. It is just not right,” Rana told The Indian Express.
“I am in the committee that decides the financial help and I am the applicant as well! How is this not a conflict of interest?” he asked.
Rana further questioned whether the scheme was reaching the needy. “If they are giving money, they should ensure it is getting to the right people. People who have crores are still coming to the ranges without either the target, rubber rolls or other basic stuff and expect the government to provide these things to them.”
The conflict of interest doesn’t end with Bindra and Mary Kom. Gopichand, who runs his academy in Hyderabad and is also the national coach, has five of his academy students on the list of beneficiaries. PV Sindhu (Rs 90 lakh), P Kashyap ( Rs 90 lakh), K Srikanth (Rs 90 lakh), Guru Saidutt (Rs 60 lakh) and HS Prannoy (Rs 60 lakh) all train at Gopichand’s academy.
Besides this, trap shooter Mansher Singh and rifle shooter Suma Shirur, part of the expert panel set up to vet applications for shotgun and rifle/pistol disciplines, are active shooters themselves
In Bindra’s defence, it must be said he did raise the issue of conflict of interest before the first TOPS meeting. In an email to Thakur, Bindra wrote: “As an active shooter working towards Rio 2016, I potentially have personal interests in myself being selected by the Committee (direct primary conflict) and also could potentially be seen to have certain stake in the selection/non-selection of competitors (perceived potential conflict) within the same event (10m air rifle).
“My desire is to contribute fairly, materially and with integrity in developing the Scheme but I want the Committee and the process to be beyond reproach and question. I also do not want my integrity to be called into question.”
His email also went on to spell out measures which could make the process free from criticism. Leaving the room when one’s application is to be discussed, recusal from the selection process if a competitor’s name in 10m air rifle is being considered, are few of the measures that Bindra put forth in the October 26 email. It must be mentioned that Bindra did recuse himself when his name came up for selection.
Sports secretary Ajit Sharan said it was wrong to point fingers at Bindra and Mary Kom.
“I would say they have reached iconic status in their respective sports and at that level we have got to trust their objectivity. There is a strong system of checks and balances. These guys don’t take the names out of their hats. They basically look at the recommendation made by the research team and then vet them. So, it is simply not that Bindra alone decides who will be the shooters getting assistance or Mary Kom decides who the boxers will be getting support. It is a collective effort of the team which is based on solid research as well as on the recommendations of the national federations and the national coach.”Sharan also deflated the notion that active players could be biased against contemporaries. “Taking an active player or a retired player, in terms of their assessment, makes no difference. If Bindra was to retire today and then give his assessment on other shooters… if he has some preferences now, even otherwise the same preferences would continue.”