What a Series of Failed RTI Queries Reveals About India's Para-Badminton Governance

While researching for her doctoral thesis, a student found that the entire para-badminton circle has become a one-man show under national coach Gaurav Khanna.

New Delhi: Since February 2019, a disability sports researcher has filed 60 applications under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI), querying the credentials of the national coach of the Indian para-badminton team, Gaurav Khanna, and trying to learn which national sports federation had appointed him to the post. But she has yet to receive a useful response.

The researcher also claims that ever since she began filing the RTIs, she has been getting anonymous threatening calls from unidentifiable numbers, asking her to be careful when she travels to the US where she is currently pursuing a PhD programme.

All the researcher had wanted from these RTIs was information that would help her make sense of the functioning of the para-badminton circle as part of her doctoral research on the sporting environment in India for athletes with disabilities. But the less-than-useful responses to her RTIs, the harassment she has been subject to since she began filing the RTIs and the opaqueness of the whole environment of para-sports in India that she has experienced since she started her research in 2015, have given her cause to believe that para-sports in the country are less than safe for their athletes.

“India is blinded by the medals won by athletes with disabilities. No one delves behind the inspirational stories,” Padmini Chennapragada told The Wire. Chennapragada has a master of science in adapted physical activity from the US and has been researching para-sports in India for five years now.

“I wanted to show the citizens of India that medals are not proof of how safe a sport is. I wanted to do substantial data-backed research to bring to light how the under-privileged of India are taken advantage of,” she said about her research.

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A series of dead ends

Chennapragada’s study is particularly relevant at this time as Indian para-athletes prepare for the Tokyo Paralympics that will be held between August 24 and September 5 this year.

Her study lists several ambiguities in India’s national sports federations (NSFs) including a lack of transparency and accountability. She has also noted some clear violations of the National Sports Development Code of India, 2011 (NSDCI), in the functioning of the NSFs.

The researcher started filing RTIs for her analysis of the role of the Paralympic Committee of India (PCI) in para-badminton in February 2019 when, after three years of on-ground research, including talking with officials in the various sports associations and the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (MYAS), she did not have enough useful information to position on an empirical academic paper.

Different authorities had provided different answers for the same questions, which also contrasted to the ground-level feedback she had collected, Chennapragada claimed.

“Having returned to India after witnessing the smooth functioning of the Freedom to Information Act in the United States, I realised that India has a similar powerful tool in the RTI Act. But the system failed me when my RTI applications were repeatedly unanswered and eventually lost while doing the rounds of different departments,” said Chennapragada.

All the RTI applications Chennapragada filed should have had easily available answers. But she still does not know, for instance, how players are selected for the Target Olympic Podium Scheme. Or on what basis players are sent to international events. Or how Indian para-badminton players can have international rankings when there appear to be no national rankings.

Reigning para-badminton world champion Manasi Girishchandra Joshi. Photo: Twitter

She also alleges that she cannot find information about coaches, sports budgets, the credentials of players, the functioning of state-level units of the national sports federations and even the coordinators of the Badminton Association of India (BAI) and the PCI.

For example, when Chennapragada requested archival information pertaining to state and national championships and other old records from the PCI under the RTI Act, 2005, to analyse the governance of the sport and the administrative practices internal to the organisation, the response she received from the PCI said: “The requested information is over the stipulated duration and PCI does not have the resources or the infrastructure to store the data for such a long period.”

This violates certain aspects of the NSDCI which states that a national sports federation will get recognition from the MYAS only if it is able to provide “annual report, audited accounts, details of national championships held, utilisation certificate in respect of government grants” and so on.

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If the PCI does not have this data, Chennapragada argues, how is it still a recognised national sports federation?

Many email RTIs sent to the MYAS regarding the PCI’s internal functioning also never received a response, said Chennapragada.

“The online RTI system lets you choose MYAS or the Sports Authority of India (SAI) as an option. As an applicant, I have zero control on which sports section the RTI is sent to. I see a pattern especially in the MYAS where RTI applications pertaining to the PCI often go to sections where the information is unavailable and the application is transferred to another section and it is a dead end from there,” Chennapragada alleged.

The Wire tried contacting PCI president Deepa Malik regarding the issue, but failed to get a response.

There are classification and qualification rules set by the Badminton World Federation (BWF) and the International Paralympic Committee for the players representing a country in international tournaments. However, in India, the national rankings of para-badminton athletes are not mentioned on either the BAI or the PCI websites.

Chennapragada filed another RTI to get the national rankings, for which she received varied responses from the PCI that either asked her to refer to their official website, which has not been updated since 2018, or specified that “such information is not withheld presently”.

“Information that is supposed to be public according to the Sports Code was not being provided openly. So I had to use the RTI to bring that information out,” said Chennapragada. “For example, the PCI’s MYAS disclosures were not public prior to October 2019. My repeated RTIs and complaints to MYAS finally got the PCI to update their website with that information.”

In direct violation of the NSDCI, the PCI has for many years not adhered to an annual competition and training calendar that is published on their website. And there is no evidence of a long-term development plan submitted to the MYAS or the SAI as required by the NSDCI.

In an RTI response sought from the PCI to provide information regarding all the long term development plans that have been in place between 2002 and 2019, Chennapragada was told: “The requested information is over the stipulated duration and PCI does not have the resources or the infrastructure to store the data for such a long period.”

The PCI is also required to provide proper training to coaches and conduct coaching development programmes as part of its long term development plans. But this too has not been adhered to.

In another instance of a violation of the NSDCI, state championships have never been conducted for all the member states of the PCI. While the code requires the national sports federation to have an all-India presence, the PCI’s membership does not include all the regions of India even today.

“The NSDCI is in fact a policy document that became a de facto law with poor and inconsistent enforcement,” said Chennapragada. “But in reality, India needs a sports law that considers all these issues. In the case of para-badminton, there is not a single person in its leadership who has any trained experience to scientifically handle governance.”

Chennapragada also found a couple of loopholes in the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (RPwD) that would make it difficult for athletes in para-sports to turn to the legislation for support if necessary.

First, although the RPwD lays emphasis on the promotion and development of sports for people with disabilities, it never specifically mentions the Paralympics or any other disability sport discipline when it refers to creating opportunities for competition.

And second, although the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE) supervises the promotion of disability rights through its Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, there is no mention of any working connection between the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports and the MSJE.

“If we have any issues or grievances we can go to the PCI, but usually people tell the coach,” an international-level player told The Wire. “However, I am hesitant to approach the coach because he controls everything and decides who participates in which tournament.”

‘A one-man show’

“The RTIs I filed to gain Khanna’s employment details and understand his affiliation with the PCI or the BAI were the strangest experiences of my research,” said Chennapragada.

From her on-ground research, Chennapragada had learned that while the BAI is responsible for the development and management of all aspects of the sport in India, including para-badminton, its lack of expertise in para-badminton has seen the PCI take over most of its functions in the para-badminton circle.

She had also heard from grassroots level players that the para-badminton national coach, Gaurav Khanna, had all the sponsors and national associations that manage para-badminton in his hands and also controlled the underage players.

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This information intrigued Chennapragada and she wanted to know who had appointed Khanna as the national coach – the BAI or the PCI – and what his credentials were for the job.

N.C. Sudhir,  para-badminton convenor of BAI, told The Wire that the BAI should ideally take all decisions related to the sport of para-badminton. “But due to a lack of experienced people from the para-badminton circle, the BAI is not able to take as much interest in the discipline as they are doing in the able-body sport,” said Sudhir.

He confirmed that although there is no written agreement between the two associations, the PCI, which actively works in the management of para-sports, “has been taking a keen interest in developing para-badminton”.

The PCI is affiliated to the International Paralympic Committee as India’s National Paralympic Committee. It is also recognised by the MYAS as a national sports federation, which gives it the powers to develop and manage most para-sports and a few international events of para-badminton such as the Paralympics, the Asian Games and the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation (IWAS) tournaments.

“But the entire sport of para-badminton has ended up becoming a one-man show with the national coach, Khanna, getting too much power to take major decisions,” alleged Sudhir.

K.Y. Venkatesh, a veteran dwarf athlete who was recently conferred with the Padma Shri award for his service to para-badminton, also told The Wire that the entire para-badminton scene in India is controlled and run by Khanna from his academy in Lucknow. He alleges that Khanna, along with BAI para-badminton chairman Prabhakar Rao, manipulates the national rankings and appears to push only one player.

Rao told The Wire, “”There are no issues between BAI and PCI. The medals we’ve brought to the country in the past three years are proof that there is a smooth functioning between the two associations. Yes, Sudhir is not involved in many decisions I take but that is because I’ve been elected to hold this post and make those decisions for the betterment of the sport. In my view, anyone can lose but the sport shouldn’t lose.”

The process of filing an RTI application in India is pretty straightforward. If the specific department has the information you need, they send it to you. If not, they route your request to the appropriate department or refuse to share the information while stating why it is being refused.

However, said Chennapragada, when she filed an application with the Lucknow Division of Northern Railways where Khanna is officially employed and posted, she received a personal communication on her cell phone from a Lucknow number asking her to clarify what information she needed via her RTI.

“A week after the phone call, my RTI application was sent to the personnel department of the railways and since then I have yet to learn if the Indian Railways ever issued a No Objection Certificate to Khanna to run a private coaching academy and travel across the world as the national para-badminton coach on government money while still earning a salary from Northern Railways,” she said.

The RTI applications Chennapragada made to the MYAS and the SAI requesting the same information have either been lost or ended in responses that blamed other committees.

BAI convenor Sudhir told The Wire that the BAI had been informed by the PCI that it had appointed Khanna as the national coach for the para-badminton team.

“In 2019, the appointment of the new chairman, Prabhakar Rao, completely changed the functioning of the sport. All decisions are taken by Khanna and Rao without any discussions with me. Even the rankings are prepared by them,” said Sudhir.

Indian para-badminton team with national coach Gaurav Khanna at a BWF tournament. Photo: Twitter

‘Half-baked information’

On condition of anonymity, a player who is in the race to qualify for the forthcoming Tokyo Paralympics confirmed to The Wire Chennapragada’s claim that the functioning of the para-badminton circle is not transparent.

“We get all the information on a WhatsApp group. The PDF circulars sent on the group never have a letterhead. All national rankings, tournament calls, press invites etc, never carry any official stamp. We have to seek information regarding sponsors, our affiliation with the government schemes, what tournaments we should participate in and the procedure to participate and so on from other players or outside the circle. All the information we receive is half-baked,” said the player.

The PCI has been suspended by the International Paralympic Committee three times since 1992 for a multitude of reasons including internal conflicts, gross mismanagement and practices impeding the growth of the paralympic movement in India. The most recent suspension of the PCI was in September 2019, when the MYAS cited violations of the National Sports Code in the body’s decision to sack its then chairman, Rao Inderjit Singh.

Last December, the PCI’s suspension was revoked. In the process of seeking approval to function as a national sports federation, the PCI submitted an annual competition and training calendar, in which several events were scheduled to take place at a private para-badminton academy in Lucknow – the GKE Badminton Academy (Gaurav Khanna Excellia Badminton Academy).

“The fact that a new academy is owned by the national coach is not new, as we see in the case of the Gopichand Academy, but annual tournaments that decide which players will participate in international events being listed at a private academy sounds fishy. Also, how did a full-time Indian Railways employee commit to so many hundreds of hours of travel with India’s para-badminton team?” Chennapragada wrote in her personal blog.

Her RTI responses filed to confirm Khanna’s coaching credentials said: “Information being personal cannot be supplied as per Section 8 of the RTI Act, without consent of the concerned person.”

This is a violation of the RTI Act, 2005, claims Chennapragada. Section 8 of the Act does not apply to Khanna’s case, she said, considering that none of the RTI responses from any association say Khanna has been appointed by them.

In almost all the RTIs filed by Chennapragada regarding Khanna, the departments concerned say different things.

RTI query: Who employed Gaurav Khanna as the national coach for para-badminton?

Response from SAI: He is engaged by PCI and BAI as coach.

Response from PCI: There are no Coaches/ Assistant Coaches that are appointed by SAI in PCI payroll / PCI has not appointed any Coaches/ Assistant Coaches for SAI payroll neither has claimed any such expenses from SAI.

Response from BAI: He is appointed as a coach by PCI.

Grassroots level players also allege that Khanna tries to push players training at his academy to all international events while ignoring the talents of others.

“I didn’t know that participating in multiple events would work for qualifiers in the Paralympics. I don’t want to name the player but no one can qualify for the Paralympics within two years of entering the sport. Not being able to have the same advantages as Khanna sir’s students is mentally taxing,” said a para-badminton player on condition of anonymity.

Chennapragada said that in a private conversation with Khanna he had told her: “PCI ban hogaya tho koyi baat nahin, hum SAI se kaam karaalenge (No problem if PCI is banned, we will get our work done by SAI).”

‘Nothing to prove’

In response to Chennapragada’s allegations, Gaurav Khanna told The Wire that as long as medals are won by the players he trains, he does not need to prove anything to anyone other than the officials of the PCI.

“My statement about getting work done from SAI meant that if none of the associations work, we can always go to the highest authority and they’ll listen to our requests. In India, there is no provision that a government employee cannot volunteer in a sport for its betterment. If anyone has any issues with me on a personal level, they can approach me directly,” Khanna told The Wire.

“I have no personal issues with Ms Chennapragada. I met her and she is a very enthusiastic girl. A girl of that intellect should be in a positive direction (sic) and support the progress of the sport in the country.”

Khanna also said that his coaching abilities are being proved every day by the number of Arjuna Awardees he has produced, the number of medals his students have won and the rankings they hold in international events.

In relation to his academy and railways job, he said that his service towards para-badminton is purely on volunteer basis and that he is grateful for all the support he gets from his colleagues and his department, which allows him to serve the nation.

While many in the para-badminton fraternity allege Khanna’s actions are harming the sport, Palak Kohli, India’s para-badminton star who made history by becoming the youngest para-badminton player in the world to qualify for the Tokyo 2021 Paralympics, said that her journey started because of Khanna and all is well in the sport.

Sukant Kadam, world no.5, Indian para-badminton player said, “As an athlete our goal is to win medals for our country and it is being made possible because of the smooth functioning between BAI and PCI which is supported by Khanna sir. As a coach, it is not his job to become a bridge between the players and the associations, but because of his efforts we’re able to concentrate on our game and bring medals. There is always scope for improvement but the conditions right now are much better than the previous years.”

World’s youngest para badminton player ever to qualify for a Paralympics, Palak Kohli, with national coach Gaurav Khanna. Photo: Twitter

No accountability

There are two levels of legislative frameworks through which the PCI can be held accountable by the law: state-level legislation in the form of the Registrar of Societies Act of Karnataka and the NSDCI at the Central level. Neither of these two legislations mandates regular and structured communication between each other to maintain accountability and transparency from the national sports federations to the Government of India.

For example, despite providing annual funding to the PCI, the MYAS has no direct information pertaining to coaches appointed in Indian Paralympics and their credentials to work as coaches in India.

This is evident from the RTI responses received from the PCI and the MYAS for two questions:

RTI query: Does Gaurav Khanna have a coach credential / certification / degree to train athletes with disabilities in para-badminton?

RTI response: Information being personal cannot be supplied as per Section 8 of RTI Act, without consent of the concerned person.

RTI query: Is Satyanarayana, Mariyappan Thangavelu’s coach, a Sports Authority of India or National Institute of Sport certified coach?

RTI response: He is deputed by the Paralympic Committee of India as Coach.

These responses also reveal that the ministry has given complete control of the professional credentialing of technical officials and coaches working in Indian Paralympics to the PCI, Chennapragada alleged.

Palak Kohli told The Wire that according to the players, their sport’s national governing body is the PCI.

“The BWF marks emails to BAI for open events except for the Paralympics, IWAS and Asian Games and other major events. Gaurav Khanna coordinates between BAI and PCI, which is very convenient to us since we want to focus on our game. On a personal level, we feel comfortable approaching the PCI because they have expertise in para sports,” Kohli said.

Since it seems evident that the MYAS has no structure in place to continuously monitor the functioning of organisations at the grassroots level, Chennapragada contacted the BWF directly to bring these ambiguities to their attention.

However, the BWF said it had no jurisdiction over para-badminton at the national level.

“As the world body for badminton and para-badminton, the BWF does take any governance-related issues seriously. However, where a complaint relates to issues at a national level, it is generally the BWF’s position to maintain a level of impartiality and not to become directly involved,” said John Shearer, Senior Development Manager, BWF.

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Inspiration or exploitation?

“About 99% of disability sports federations in India don’t have subject matter expertise,” said Chennapragada. “The sports ministry spends crores every year on sports, by which it mobilises vote banks at grassroots levels, but there is no verifiable governance framework.”

K.Y. Venkatesh told The Wire that since 2001 his only mission has been to develop para-badminton to the same level as the able-body sport and bring transparency and accountability in its management.

“To continue the work I’ve been doing for a decade now, I wrote a letter to the higher officials from all associations. I requested them to allow me and other members across the country to form a small committee that would bring more accountability to the sport. But it has now been three months without an official response,” he said.

For Chennapragada, one of the worst aspects of the lack of transparency in the management of para-sports in India is the way the athletes are exploited in the name of inspiration.

“People like Khanna thrive on pushing para sports from the inspiration porn angle,” alleged Chennapragada. “I remember speaking to him two years ago. The way he ‘sells’ you the idea of ‘uplifting’ a disabled player, the way he talks of enhancing the quality of their lives, it reeks of all the variables that work against diversity and inclusion – casteism, ageism and ableism. India thrives on the projection of success and empowerment that people like Khanna sell, especially when players with disabilities are involved.”

Ever since Chennapragada began to realise that there is a lack of transparency and accountability in para-sports which may put the athletes at risk, she has been asking members of the media to investigate the matter for themselves.

“But no one pursued the story,” she said. “In fact, a journalist from ESPN told me that the story is not ‘a smoking gun’ and that it would not ‘bring traffic and numbers’ to the website. This is exactly what is wrong with our society. As long as the medals come in, everyone thinks everything is all right.”

This story was originally published on June 24 and has been updated on June 25 with additional quotes from BAI para-badminton chairman Prabhakar Rao and para-badminton world no. 5 player Sukant Kadam.