During the 2018 Indian Super League (ISL) season, Gourav Mukhi, a 16-year-old Jamshedpur FC player, was announced as the youngest ever goal-scorer in the league’s history when he scored in his club’s 2-2 draw with Bengaluru FC. The joy was short-lived. Later, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) found that Mukhi falsified his age and suspended him for six months. The ban was lifted on September 9, 2019 after Mukhi submitted the correct birth certificate. Falsification of documents is a criminal offence under the Indian Penal Code, but the AIFF did not report the crime to the police and instead preferred to act as a referee on its own.
In June 2019, cricketer Manjot Kalra, who was the man of the match in India’s U-19 World Cup-winning 2018 team in New Zealand, was chargesheeted by the Delhi police for age fraud. Since Kalra was a minor at the time of committing the offence, his parents are also named in the chargesheet. Along with them, there are eleven other parents too named in separate chargesheets who have falsified the date of birth of their children who are playing for different Delhi teams. Also named in the chargesheet is a DDCA official who owns the Lal Bahadur Shastri cricket club for which these players play and who had apparently encouraged them to produce false birth certificates.
Manipulation of date of birth by athletes in order to qualify for participation in junior competitions is the bane of Indian sports. The problem is spread across all sports and it happens with the blessings of parents, coaches and school authorities.
This practice has been thriving because of the complacency of sports governing bodies. Instead of dealing with fraudulent birth certificates as a criminal offence and reporting the matter to the police, sports bodies have found a golden opportunity of “fishing in muddy waters” by rejecting all types of birth certificates; genuine as well as fake and subject junior athletes to X-rays to determine their bone age where officials, X-ray imaging centres and radiologists make good money. Sports bodies like the BCCI, AIFF and the Sports Authority of India are spending millions of rupees in subjecting thousands of juniors to wrist X rays for age determination tests which in itself is not a foolproof method for certifying age as stated by the International Olympic Committee.
Thanks to the multiple initiatives taken by the government in the past two decades, the birth registration status in the country has improved drastically. As per 2013 statistics, the level of birth registration is 95.6% at the national level: urban registration is 98% and rural is 95.5%. Even in tribal pockets, the figures are pretty high. In addition, 17 states and UTs have achieved the target of 100% birth registration. Gone are the days when ‘over smart’ athletes could successfully befool the system claiming that they didn’t have birth registration certificates because institutional delivery rates were low.
The problem is not that the athletes don’t have original birth registration certificates. The cheats among them conceal the certificates when they come to know that the age entered in their original birth certificates make them ineligible to participate in junior competitions. Instead, with the connivance of unscrupulous touts, they “manufacture“ fake birth certificates which make them eligible to participate in the relevant competition. Leading the pack are our young cricketers who aspire to play in different age group tournaments organised by the BCCI. They also know that if caught, they are not sent to jail because the callous sports officialdom which is not keen to get the certificates verified from issuing authorities or report the crime to the law enforcement agencies.
It should be made binding on the part of sports bodies to accept genuine birth registration certificates produced by athletes as proof of age. Blind refusal on their part to do so is a slap on the face of the government, which is striving hard to streamline the birth registration system in the country. This practice also treats law-abiding parents who meticulously follow the government’s rules at the time of the births of their children as suspects when the bone age determination tests, which as discussed earlier, are not foolproof and can contradict the age recorded in genuine birth registration certificates.
The costs associated with the bone tests is another issue here. Expenses on bone age determination tests vary from Rs 2,000-3,000 per subject. Eyeing the fortune which one can make through these tests, instead of being selective, sports bodies enthusiastically subject all the juniors participating in a competition to the tests. This is irrespective of the fact the X-ray tests may have radiation hazards, are time-consuming, cumbersome, expensive and above all inconclusive to ascertain the age of the subject.
The sports bodies which favour bone age determination tests claim inconvenience when they are advised to get the original birth certificates verified from issuing authorities. Ironically, they do not seem to face any “inconvenience” when certificates related to death, marriage, caste, income, school/university degrees, require to be checked and are promptly verified. If these certificates are found fake, they are reported to the police, which takes legal action for forgery and put the culprits behind the bars. When we start sending parents of athletes who produce fake birth certificates to jail, the menace of age fraud will automatically be controlled.
Acceptance of original birth certificate, issued within one year of birth, needs to be adopted as a policy by sports bodies to stop the racketeering on indiscriminate bone age determination tests. In those cases where there is a promising talent but no original birth registration certificate, it is fair to subject the athlete to bone age verification test to ascertain the age.
Age fraud is as serious an offence as doping. In the case of doping, there is the WADA code which books and punishes dope cheats. In the case of age fraud, it is high time the government enforces a code of conduct to deal with it.
In 2015, former Indian cricket captain Rahul Dravid hit the nail on the head when he said, “If a child sees his parents and coaches cheating and creating a fake birth certificate, will he not be encouraged to become a cheat?… At 14, it may be in the matter of the age criteria, at 25 it may be fixing and corruption.”
P.S.M. Chandran is former director (sports sciences), Sports Authority of India and president, Indian Federation of Sports Medicine.