‘Fiefdoms of individuals’: Why this lawyer is waging court battle to hold sports bodies accountable

New Delhi: Sports bodies have become  “fiefdoms” of individuals who enjoy uninterrupted tenures, senior advocate Rahul Mehra has said. The central government must ensure the implementation of its own law for national sports federations (NSFs) to avoid judicial intervention, argued Mehra, who has been campaigning on this issue.  

On 3 June, a Delhi High Court bench headed by Justice Najmi Waziri, pronouncing its order on a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Mehra, stopped the central government from providing financial assistance to NSFs that didn’t comply with the National Sports Development Code of India (NSCI). 

Mehra’s 2020 PIL asks NSFs to comply with a 2014 judgment of the court that declared the NSCI the law of the land for sports bodies in the country.

Known simply as the Sports Code, it’s an amalgamation of orders that the Government of India has issued for NSFs in the country since 1975. 

Among the guidelines is a clause that requires sports federations to ensure that 25 per cent of their members are “eminent sportspersons of outstanding merit” with voting rights.

Mehra’s petition claims most sports bodies in India don’t adhere to this provision. 

Speaking to ThePrint in a video interview Wednesday, Mehra said sports was an area where “you could be anybody but a sportsperson” and still be entitled to rule a “sports body and the entire gamut of sportspersons, right from [Sachin] Tendulkar, Abhinav Bindra and Neeraj Chopra to down below”. 

At least three sporting bodies — the Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI), the All-India Football Federation (AIFF), and Hockey India — have come under a court-appointed committee of administrators (COA) in the past five months. 

Asked if judicial intervention was necessary and if courts were equipped to run sports bodies through administrators, Mehra said: “If sports federations [do] their job then courts will not intervene.”

Mehra also accused successive central governments of having contributed to lack of transparency in NSFs.

In 2014, a bench that included Justice Waziri had held that the government could insist on “adherence to these provisions (Sports Code) without the aid of legislation”. The court had said then that the provisions of the Sports Code were “neither arbitrary” nor in violation of “any freedom under the Constitution”.

In April this year, the Union Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports had warned NSFs that were yet to comply with the Sports Code that it would send “only two more reminders” before it took action. 

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‘Ostrich-like approach’ 

The Union sports ministry told the court on 3 June that 15 NSFs had fully complied with the NSCI, six had been exempted from certain provisions of the code and three NSFs were managed by a committee of administrators (COA) under judicial orders.

The government had also said during the hearing that five NSFs needed to carry out minor changes to comply with the Sports Code, while 17 required major measures.

Mehra told ThePrint that judicial intervention in the affairs of sports federations had begun only in the past eight years — that is, since the 2014 order. He also blamed the “ostrich-like approach” of successive central governments for not holding sports bodies accountable. Sports bodies, he said, were not questioned for “70 years”.

 “[The] moment they were, they came crumbling down like a house of cards,” he said. “The central government, and I am not finding fault with one particular party, is culpable, complicit and has allowed [sports bodies] to play the game of favouritism in sports. In some way it has also permitted nepotism to continue.”

His case, he said, was about “protecting a central government code” that the Delhi High Court had declared to be the law governing sports bodies.

“There are dos and don’ts in the [Sports] Code, and if there is a body not following it, then the government knows what it has to do,” he said. “The government should follow its own sports code and implement it without looking at faces (of those who head a body).” 

Mehra insisted that politicians should be kept out of sports bodies. 

“Politicians get attracted to freebies and benefits attached to sports, which you cannot see,” he said. “This (sports) is a very pious area and one cannot play politics here.” 

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

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Source: The Print