On Sunday, Vikas Gowda will walk out at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing, hoping to become the first Indian male athlete to win a World Championship medal. But his training for a for an event of this magnitude would not have been ideal.
It is learnt that Gowda is yet to receive the funds he is entitled for under the sports ministry’s Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS). Gowda, who trains in the USA, is waiting for the ministry to release the payment for his training in the USA for the last quarter, which amounts to approximately Rs 40 lakh.
Like Gowda, former world number 1 pistol shooter Heena Sidhu has been in pursuit of a berth for the Rio Olympics. But her quest has been marred by the government’s delay in clearing the payments of her coach Ronak Pandit, sports psychologist Pierre Beauchamp of Canada and purchase of equipment. The amount totals to roughly Rs 14 lakh. The courier containing her bills was misplaced at the ministry office and they have assured it will be dealt with this week.
These are just two examples from nearly a dozen cases where athletes are yet to receive funds they have been assured under TOPS owing to administrative red tape. The scheme was launched by the sports ministry earlier this year to provide financial assistance to the medal prospects for next year’s Olympics as well as grooming talent for 2020 Games.
The ministry has approved names of 102 athletes for the programme, out of which 81 have agreed to join. Sixty six sportspersons have signed the contract so far assistance has been approved for 31 of them after reviewing their programmes. However, from the time the scheme was announced, athletes feared whether the ministry – known for its tiring bureaucracy – would be able to implement it in a timely and efficient manner. As it turns out, their concerns are not entirely unfounded.
The ministry has spent Rs 2.08 crore on 29 athletes so far. But in almost half of the cases, there have been delays – which run into several months – in releasing the money requisitioned by athletes, or in some cases reimbursing them. Even Pullela Gopichand, who is a part of the TOPS committee, is not spared. The ministry had sanctioned roughly Rs 30 lakh for equipment for the men’s national camp at Gopichand’s academy in Hyderabad. The proposal was approved in June but the amount is not released yet.
A ministry official said they had asked Gopichand to submit quotations before purchasing the equipment but he insisted on buying them from one particular place. “There might be nothing wrong in what he is claiming but we are spending public money. If some other shop gives the same equipment for a lesser amount, what’s the harm? We have to ensure there is accountability,” the official said.
The athletes claim they have to go through at least three to four layers of clearances before their file is approved, which makes it a time-consuming process. “Are we expected to sit and fill forms or compete at events? The government’s intention is noble but if they are not able to implement in an effective and timely manner, it defeats the purpose. We cannot go running behind them for funds all the time,” an athlete said.
In some cases, like triple-jumper Arpinder Singh, the federations have stalled the procedure. Arpinder had requested to train in the USA under renowned coach Jeremy Fischer. The US Academy insisted he gets along an Indian coach to bridge the communication gap. Arpinder suggested his long-time coach SS Pannu’s name, which was cleared by the TOPS panel but rejected by the Athletics Federation of India. His proposal has been pending for two months.
Similarly, teenage sailors Varsha Gautam and Aishwarya N – identified as medal prospects for 2020 Olympics – travelled to Germany for a nine-day training camp ahead of the junior World Championships at their own expense after the ministry did not release the funds on time.
A sports ministry official said lack of staff to deal with all the athletes, cross-checking athletes’ requirements and training program with national federations and coaches, and the inability of the sportspersons to submit the bills on time are the key reasons for the pendencies.
“We have increased out staff and whatever cases are pending will be cleared soon. But most athletes have not submitted their bills on time, which has resulted in delays. We understand their job is to compete and not indulge in administrative stuff. For that reason, we are employing more people who will stay in touch with them and assist,” a ministry official said. “We are trying to make it as easy as we can for the athletes. But there has to be cooperation both ways to make this work.”
Vikas Gowda (discus throw): Payment for previous quarter for training in USA still pending. Amounts to approx Rs 40 lakh. Ministry says it’ll be cleared soon.
Top down approach: A few cases where there have been delays in receiving assistance
Seema Punia (discus throw): Proposal to train in USA approved but she hasn’t been able to go as the previous payments are not settled.
Arpinder Singh (triple jump): Submitted proposal to train in USA under coach Jeremy Fischer. Ministry approved but Athletics Federation of India objecting to his coach SS Pannu’s travel.
Men’s badminton: Approx Rs 30 lakh sanctioned for gym equipment at Gopichand’s academy in Hyderabad for national camp. Proposal made in June but no progress yet. Ministry says he hasn’t submitted quotations for the equipment. A project officer appointed to look into the issue.
Varsha Gautam and Aishwarya N (sailing): Sailors’ nine-day training camp from August 12 in Germany ahead of the junior World Championships. Sailors have left but money not sanctioned yet.
Anisa Sayyed (shooting): Payments of expenses incurred in April-May not reimbursed.
Heena Sidhu (shooting): Payment of roughly Rs 14 lakh relating to fees of sports psychologist, coach, foreign training and purchase of equipment pending. Ministry says will be done soon.
Shweta Singh (shooting): Settlement of bills and payment for purchase of equipment pending. Proposal submitted in May.
Malaika Goel (shooting): Was sanctioned money for training but not cleared by the ministry.
Wrestling: Reimbursement of foreign training trip to USA in January pending. Government says contingent stayed for longer duration without any intimations. Moreover, they claim bills also have not been submitted.