City City Bang Bang, Columns

An unsporting bureaucracy?

The Haryana government’s latest notification to appropriate one-third of the earnings of sportspersons from their winning and endorsement deals is yet another of those interventions by the bureaucracy that has met with significant outrage and has consequently been put on hold. The idea of the state lining its pocket on the back of the success of achievers in sports has understandably been difficult to stomach by many.

However, there are significant arguments that can be made for the proposal. Firstly, it applies only to those that are employed with the government, and is aimed at taking what is seen as legitimate share of the earnings that have accrued while being employed full time with the government. It is limited only to professional events and leagues, and does not include what is earned while representing the country. It is an attempt to curtail the flouting of service rules by the athletes, which is apparently being resented by other government employees. This proposal is not without precedent- in academic institutions, it is common for income from external consultancies to be shared with the university. Overall, while it may not be the most popular move, the proposal seems to be technically sound.

The problem with this argument does not lie in its technical correctness, but in the fact that it is a technical argument in the first place. The big picture view is being sacrificed for a narrow bureaucratic perspective and this is what needs to be resisted, not just in this case but even otherwise.

In the words of Ashok Khemka, the Haryana secretary for sports, ‘If you are employed with the state and you then want to sell your services to someone else, then you need to pay the state’, who goes on to label the demand for just one-third of the earnings as a ‘concession’. The problem with this argument is that the government employees in question do not just happen to be playing sports; these are athletes hired by the government precisely because of their sporting achievements, and not because they made for great lower division clerks. They were given jobs because they excelled in sport, which means that treating the time they spend on it as a leakage from their terms of employment is prima facie, erroneous. Unlike universities where the faculty is hired because of its academic abilities, in the case of sportspersons, they have been given government jobs in order to create a secure future so that they can continue to excel in sports. How will they continue to excel if not by participating in tournaments? If these are regarded as forms of absenteeism and this time is accounted for as leave without pay, why hire sportspersons in the first place? If the government job is in any case a form of reward, then why begrudge the athletes other rewards? When an athlete wins at a prestigious tournament, the government falls over itself in a hurry to shower all kinds of rewards on the champion. It has no problem making all kinds of exceptions in such cases. In this case, it needs to make a systemic exception for a larger cause, and that is where its narrow bureaucratic instincts kick in.

The larger view is that by virtue of their making a good living, these champions will inspire far more young people to take up sport than the kind of programmes run by sporting federations, which are less than efficient in fulfilling their mandate. Who have had thought of making kabbadi a career before the entry of a professional kabbadi league that pays really well? Healthy rewards will also help reassure parents about the viability of sports as a career. It is possible that with time, as the sporting culture takes hold in India, a more technically precise view of this subject can be taken, but it is far too soon to do so today. The spirit must win over the letter right now.

The implicit message given out by this proposal is that the winnings and endorsements of sportspersons are somehow ill-gotten, or at the very least are a form of an extra bonus, and are really not theirs to keep. The government is doing them a favour, in return for which it must be able to impose some form of restraint on the beneficiaries of its largesse. Tellingly, in many cases, the actual amount of money involved is trifling. The intent is clearly punitive in nature.

The move smacks of a larger bureaucratic need to bring anyone doing well down a peg or two. Anybody doing well as a result of an ‘out-of-turn’ consideration needs to be put in their place. They must feel the power of the establishment, they must cower in front of the beacons of power. Athletes are in any case made to kowtow to all manners of officials, the pettier the better. Historically, the treatment that they have received has been consistently shabby, as has been well documented over the years. Now that things are beginning to improve a little, there seems to be a sense that they are getting above themselves and need to be taught a lesson or two in humility.

That the person spearheading such a move is the anti-corruption crusader Ashok Khemka is revealing. The flip side of honesty can often be an overweening form of self-righteousness, which obsesses about anyone who is seen to get even a little more ‘unfairly’. The urge is to deny others, in this case, athletes that are government employees, any extra advantage, even if the express purpose of employing them is to confer that extra advantage. The government seeks to promote sportspersons but resents them when its attempts are successful. For now, the move has been put on hold, and chances are that it will die a quiet death. But the instinct that gave rise to this idea is alive and well.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *