Monday, June 7, 2010

Disabled athletes left high & dry, India may lose out on medals

Disability sports comprising 15 events in the upcoming Commonwealth Games (CWG) in New Delhi will account for 45 medals - a gold, silver and a bronze medal for each event.

Medals won in these events will be part of a country's final medal tally. Yet, in India, the host country, with just four months to go for the Games, the disability sports scene is in utter disarray.

Not only does India seem ill prepared for most of the disability events, it won't even be participating in two of the events. This after Rs 13.8 crore was allocated for disability sports events to train athletes and to buy equipment for them. With the CWG just a few months away, so far, the sports ministry has released just about Rs 5 crore. The initial allocation plan was to release over Rs 5 crore in 2008-09, an equal amount the next year and over Rs 3 crore in 2010.

The two events India will not be participating in are the 1500m races for men and women. And why? Because there are no racing wheelchairs for athletes to train with. To make matters worse, wheelchairs for the women's table tennis event and for the 100-metre race are not available. Hence, the athletes are practising with wheelchairs they will not be using during actual competition.

The cost of a racing wheelchair is about Rs 3-5 lakh, not really unaffordable with the crores allotted. However, the Sports Authority of India (SAI), which was supposed to procure them, never brought them in. And now, at this late stage, the Paralympic Committee of India (PCI) has been asked to procure the wheelchairs.

"We had submitted our proposal for wheelchairs over one and a half years back because the process of calling for tenders and so on is complicated and time consuming. But there was no response to our proposal. Now, there is no time for the tendering process. They will have to be bought in the open market," says PCI president Ratan Singh.

"We traditionally did not have any wheelchairs for these sports. And so, our athletes are not trained to compete at the international level. Now we have asked PCI to procure the latest wheelchairs as SAI has failed to do so. EAD (elite athletes with disability) was a neglected sector all these years, but now with the CWG coming up, we are working to improve the situation," said Rahul Bhatnagar, joint secretary of the ministry's international sports division, who is in charge of arrangements for the CWG.

Disability sports are part of the Games since the last CWG in Melbourne in 2006. "So why has no effort been made to prepare our disabled sportspersons when crores are being spent in the name of CWG? What was the ministry doing till now?" asks Javed Abidi of the Disability Rights Group.

"There have also been several allegations of financial irregularities levelled against the PCI. The ministry has initiated an enquiry into these allegations. We have asked the Comptroller and Auditor General's office to look into these allegations. But till the enquiries are complete, we have no option but to release funds to the PCI, because it is the only federation for disability sports in the country. But if any allegation is proved, we will suspend the federation," says joint secretary in the sports ministry, Injeti Srinivas.

The fact remains that even as the sports ministry grapples with myriad problems, disabled athletes struggle to train without proper equipment.

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