Guest post by PRAGYA DEORA
The 15th National Para-Athelitic Championship held in Ghaziabad in March 2015 was my first national-level athletic competition that I was participating in. I did not know much about the world of sports, the associated pressures for sportsmen, politics at different levels and most importantly the amount of compromises that the participants had been making in all these years.
Our team left for Ghaziabad and even before we reached we were a little surprised. The condition of roads leading to the stadium was so terrible that we were confused if we were reaching the right place. After we reached, we realized there was worse to come. Working on issues of accessibility in my campus for making our campus barrier free for persons with disabilities, there was an expectation from the organizers that this would be a model of the way a sports competition should be organized in terms of infrastructure, procedures and attitudes. But it was a far cry from it. What screamed at each step was complete insensitivity towards persons with disabilities. The ramp leading to the building was so steep and without railings that one wonders if it could cause more damage than benefit for those with locomotor disabilities. A friend (also a participant) rightly wondered who would be responsible if someone died or got injured if the half constructed building in which the players were made to stay collapsed? Each time I felt hot, I thought of thee players who have not taken a bath due to lack of proper bathing space (and here I am not referring to accessibility but simply a proper space). The food was not what athletes would be advised to eat. The soft drinks that were being sold were above the MRP, the building where the participants were made to stay was not accessible from within. There was no stadium; it was just a simple uneven field with the grass growing not containing proper tracks. The registration was to begin at 12 and started around 6 and it was a complete chaos. The registration was happening at the entrance of the building, hardly leaving any space to go in and out of the building, especially with a wheelchair. It was in the midst of these moments that I realized the pain of sportsmen when they complain about not getting proper lodging facilities. I could not help recalling the movie Mary Com and the statement where she talked about bad accommodation. Till that moment I had not really understood the depth of this simple statement. The schedule for the National level competition had also not been decided and late in the evening, prior to the day of events, we had no information if we had any of our events the next day.
It was not in my capacity to take in the hopelessness of this situation. So after the registration got over I thought that this needs to come to the attention of the public. Early morning the next day, I started contacting different media houses but did not get a response assuring me that this would surely be covered. I was told that they would look into the issue but I was not convinced. I learnt how difficult it can get to highlight an issue in the media. What if I did not have a phone to call, what if I did not have the internet to find numbers, what if I did not have the money to make calls on roaming, and what if I did not have a number of hours to spare and most importantly what if I did not have the luck? Finally I decided to give a last try and to my relief one reporter assured me that he would try his best. Of course I did not know if the issue would get published, but I was sure that the reporter was coming and that one hurdle was over.
While discussing with my team, I realized that there were many more hurdles to come. They were aspiring for international games. One of them had qualified for international level a number of times but was never taken to play for international games. Belonging to the same university, my speaking up could affect their chances of playing at an international level, which they had deserved and were really longing for. Further I was told that a number of complaints had been made earlier. It was self evident that not much difference had been made. The politics of the Paralympic Committee of India (PCI), the organizers, came forth even more strongly. Here were players who had being playing for so many years and were afraid to speak up as it could affect their chances of something which they rightly deserved. I was left in a state of utter confusion. I did not know if this news if reported would make a significant difference to PCI but the attempt had to be made. At the same time I did not want to hurt the feelings and ambitions of my team members. Meanwhile the reporter reached Janhit Stadium in Ghaziabad. He had told me if people did not speak up, it would be difficult for him to make a good report. My dilemma was reaching its peak. I was relieved when he told that participants are speaking up. And not just one, many were ready to speak. The report came the next day, which was the last day of the event. To my joy, I saw many news channels covering it. My heart went out in solidarity of all those who were speaking out their concerns, bringing forth the complete mismanagement and exposing PCI. Also once again, we witnessed the power of media where this issue was given so much of coverage. Without their support, probably this issue would have taken a very different turn.
The government took prompt action and as a result of efforts of many para-athlets and activists finally PCI has now been disqualified. But is the issue over? No. it has just begun. A strong signal has surely been sent for future organizers, but is that sufficient? Can the government ensure a zero level tolerance to insensitivity towards persons with disabilities? If such a situation is repeated and if the media does not highlight this issue are the mechanisms in place that would ensure a strict and prompt action? Are the mechanisms in place to ensure that such a situation is not repeated at all? Would it be possible for someone to speak up fearlessly for something that is right with the confidence that they would not be victimized? Well, to a great extent the issue boils down to the buzzwords of these days – accountability and transparency.
Pragya Deora is a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University.