NEW DELHI // Disabled athletes in India say chronic mismanagement of their sports has left many of them without decent equipment, training or preparation before next month's Commonwealth Games. The government has admitted that only about 50 million Indian rupees (Dh4m) have been spent on preparing disabled athletes for the Games, out of a budget of 138m rupees. In at least two events - the men's and women's 1,500-metre races - India is not expected to field a single contestant because training wheelchairs were not acquired in time for the Games, which begin on October 3.
The Paralympic events are part of the overall programme of the quadrennial event, the third-largest multi-sport event in the world, after the Summer Olympics and the Asian Games. One of India's leading medal hopes is the 29-year-old swimmer Prasanta Karmakar, ranked third among Asian swimmers. He says he has received hardly any support from government bodies in attending international events. "In August, I attended the World Championships in the Netherlands with one other swimmer. Up to the very last moment, the government had been saying we would have to pay for the trip ourselves. In the end, they paid for our flights, but we had no coach or manager with us, no food or water supplies, and when we arrived we found they had not even booked the hotel room they promised."
Similar stories are heard from other disciplines. India's No 1 disabled table-tennis player, Pawan Sharma, says he has missed many tournaments because of lack of funding. "There are very few opportunities to go out in the world and improve my ranking," he said. "Athletes need exposure and proper training, but our national body just isn't interested." A low point for Sharma came in 2002 at the Asian Games in Busan, South Korea, when he was provided with only one team T-shirt, which was white. He was forced to remove it by the referee since white T-shirts clash with the colour of the ball.
"I was the only player without their country's name on my shirt. It is only a small thing, but it was very shameful and it says a lot about how we are treated," he said. He trains 27-year-old Suvarna Raj, who hopes to make the final three for the Commonwealth Games. She abandoned the government training programme this year after finding a lack of basic equipment. "There were no wheelchairs, no proper tables, not even new bats and balls," she said. "We got no support whatsoever, so I gave up and got private coaching through a sponsor."
Along with her husband, Pradeep, a successful table-tennis player and activist for disabled people's rights, Raj is determined to highlight what she claims is corrupt and ineffective management by the Paralympic Committee of India (PCI). "The government gives the money to the PCI, but they do not provide us with anything," she said. "When I tried to complain to the Ministry of Sports, the coaches told the other players not to play with me anymore. Most players are too afraid of losing their place to make a complaint."
The PCI denies any wrongdoing and says it is dependent on the government to clear funds. "From the beginning, there was no proper coordination of the budget by the sports department," the PCI president, Rathan Singh, said. "No proper messages were sent to us and we were only able to utilise a limited amount of the budget." Mr Singh said the government has finally agreed to purchase new wheelchairs. "It is coming very late and will not be in time for the Commonwealth Games, but they can be used for all future international events."
"If there was no money available, then I could understand the problem," said Javed Abidi, director of the Disabled Rights Group in New Delhi. "But when all this money has been allocated and not spent, there is no excuse. It is appalling. What is missing is basic awareness, sensitivity and understanding on the part of officials. Disability is not on the radar screen in this country." Mr Abidi said he faces a constant struggle trying to explain the importance of Paralympic sports to officials. "Ever since the last Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, disability sports have been an integral part of the event. There are 45 medals up for grabs in these events - the nation's prestige is linked to disabled sports. This is not known to Indian officials."
The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports says it is in the process of investigating complaints concerning the PCI, but that it has yet to find legitimate reason to take disciplinary action. "It is true that many of the sports federations in this country have problems," admitted Rahul Bhatnagar, joint secretary in the Department of Sports. "Many of them are not well managed and this explains why they are not able to spend all of their budget. We are currently investigating criticisms of the PCI and will take action if appropriate, but the important thing is we do not want the athletes to suffer at all."