Union minister Kiren Rijiju talks about the ‘silent preparation’ for 2024 Olympics, says sports is crucial for ‘alienated’ regions like J&K, N-E, promises action on a sports education board after Winter Session of House, and confirms BCCI will be under uniform sports code.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: Earlier, you were Minister of State for Home Affairs, and now you are Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Youth Affairs and Sports. Instead of visiting borders, you are now visiting stadiums.
How has the change been like?
The change has been very drastic. The responsibility is completely different. The Home Ministry is about dealing with the issues of the nation. You are taking care of everything in the country — from border security to internal security, police, immigration, protocol and intelligence. In sports, it is very specific and target-oriented, covering a very limited segment. (The Ministry of ) Youth Affairs and Sports is event-driven.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: You have been an athlete. Now that you are on the other side, can you tell us about some of your observations?
My ideas about sports have always been very clear. The good thing is that now as a minister I can implement the ideas I have accumulated over the years. Translating the ideas into action gives me immense pleasure.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: What is the big idea? Are you focusing on medals or also the general fitness of the country?
Many people talk just about medals and championships. They don’t talk about the situation that leads to success. My idea is to develop a sports culture in the country. When you talk about a sports culture, you have to also go back to fitness regime, awareness about physical activities etc. You have to go deeper. You cannot just create champions. Many people say that three crore people live in Delhi but the city cannot produce one champion.
So my priority is to make everybody fit, and then the champions will be produced… When I talk of a sports culture, it starts right from the primary stage… Then you can create awareness among parents and the society and the country. Overall, I have set a big target, and I am taking steps to create the right atmosphere for it.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: You are from the Northeast, which is a sports hub. Now that you are a minister, what does it mean for the people of the region?
Sports is very crucial for people who feel alienated. Suppose a Kashmiri cricketer or hockey player is part of the Indian team… You can imagine the feeling it can create. It is similar for a player from Arunachal Pradesh or Manipur. Like Mary Kom is the pride of Manipur. When she represents India, the whole nation supports her. So, symbolically, nothing unifies a nation more than sports. I feel sports is crucial for the Northeast, Jammu and Kashmir and even the Naxal-affected areas. Me becoming the Sports Minister has also sent out a loud message to the Northeast that if you perform and deliver, you will not be denied your position. It is a confidence-building step.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: When you meet sporstspersons, what kind of help do they expect from you?
What is lacking in the Northeast is also what is lacking in the whole country. India needs basic infrastructure for playing. Many people from villages come and tell me that they want stadiums. Even MPs want stadiums. But that is not the way. I tell them to seek sports facilities for children to play instead of stadiums. When you have that facility, you can also scout for talent, select them, put them in academies, where they will be trained professionally. For a 7-8-year-old child, you just need to give them a place to perform. After 10 years, when the child is about 16, talent scouting starts. That is when he is of the right age to be professionally trained.
When I was meeting the sports federations, I set a target. I have been hearing right from my childhood, ‘India should do well in the next Olympics’. But when the next Olympics comes, it’s the same story. Expectations and reality are two different things. Preparation at the ground level is crucial and that is what I am focusing on.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: Are you aiming for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics or the 2024 Paris Olympics?
We have started preparations for the 2024 Olympics… 2020 Tokyo Olympics is clear. I cannot produce champions in one year. We have prepared the existing talent that we have for Tokyo 2020… We have also roped in the private sector. The government cannot drive it alone. We have done a detailed research on every potential medal winner… In the background, silent preparation is already underway for the 2024 Paris Olympics, where we have set a target of double digit (medal tally). In the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, India has to come in the top 10. It is a very ambitious target but we have to achieve it.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: What role do sports federations play in meeting the targets that you have set?
I have been an MP since 2004. There has always been a perceptible tussle between the government and federations. It is unnecessarily at the forefront of news. I see no reason for the tussle. So when I assumed the responsibility, the same day I told them that I am here to assist, facilitate and provide a platform and not to be a part of the sports administration. It is not the job of the minister to decide who should play, who should be given priority… Recently, we had a meeting with the heads of all sports federations and the Indian Olympic Association (IOA). They were extremely happy. I have given them certain directions. Every training or sporting activity has to be athlete-centric. The focus should be on performance of athletes rather than who runs (federations).
The funding pattern is also very transparent. If it is an Olympic sport, it is given higher priority. Then there are sports that are part of Asian Games. There are some sports that are not Olympic sports but are very important for us such as kabaddi, kho kho, mallakhamba. We want to promote them. When we talk about Khelo India, Fit India Movement, creating a sports culture, then we have to focus on the lower segments of society and rural areas. We have started funding traditional games also.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: What is the government’s policy on playing with Pakistan?
There are a few issues when we talk of Pakistan. One is bilateral sporting events, which are not even considered. We don’t want to engage with them. I was in the Home Ministry when we denied visa (to two Pakistani athletes) and we were banned from hosting any international event in the country by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). It was a big setback. So when I became minister, I had to take it up again. And within a few weeks, we had the ban revoked. We will not take any decision that contravenes the Olympic Charter… We are taking decisions in such a way that the sentiment of our country is maintained. At the same time we will also take into account (the rules) of international bodies so that it does not lead to an ugly situation… We will take a balanced stand on such issues.
NIHAL KOSHIE: We have recently noticed female athletes lending support to the government scheme Bharat Ki Laxmi, thanking Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Twitter. Should sportspersons be used to promote government schemes?
Once you achieve a position in society, you are not only a sportsperson but also a pioneer… Once you achieve many things, you also have a social responsibility. If a player wins a medal, that player also has a responsibility to send out a positive message and become an example for society. They should inspire more people.
NIHAL KOSHIE: There are other examples. When Pakistan PM Imran Khan spoke at the United Nations warning of a nuclear threat, Mohammed Shami criticised him in a tweet, and Mohammad Azharuddin, Irfan Pathan followed. The next day Virendra Sehwag also criticised Imran Khan in a tweet. Is it coincidental that cricketers are speaking out in unison on political issues?
Imran Khan is known for his cricketing talent, and so when he says something, cricketers will react. As a citizen you should be happy that our Indian cricketers reacted to what Imran Khan said. Khan is a former cricketer and so he should be more sportsman-like. As a prime minister he is not sportsman-like.
RAVISH TIWARI: But is it a case of the government misusing its sportspersons for political causes?
But how is celebration of a girl’s success political? If the focus is on the girl child and girls, why only sportsperson, everyone should speak about it.
TUSHAR BHADURI: Recently, the IOA president commented on the quality of the Commonwealth Games, and said that there is no use participating in them. It alarmed the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) and a delegation is set to visit India soon. What is the government’s view on it?
The head of the Commomwealth Organising Committee is coming to meet me. I have told them (the delegation) that I will meet them. I am not upset. I am only upset about the exclusion of shooting from the Commonwealth Games. Shooting was always optional in CWG. They have omitted it completely. The Indian Olympic Committee has reacted strongly. A large chunk of the Indian medals in CWG come from shooting. Naturally, there will be a strong reaction.
I have written a letter to the concerned minister in the UK to intervene. The minister has replied. The CWG chief is coming to India. He will look into the situation and then take an appropriate call. Also, my point is not merely about the exclusion of shooting from the CWG alone. I have a slightly larger view. India accounts for about 50 or 52 % of the population of the Commonwealth nations. India contributes substantially to it too. So when any decision is taken, whether right or wrong, India should be a part of the decision. When the governing council took this decision (of excluding shooting), there were no Indian representatives in the committee. So I have said that we will not accept things done in this way. The issue of exclusion or inclusion (of shooting) will be dealt with separately. When the chief comes here, he will meet me, and I will put across my opinion very strongly. But India cannot be pushed over. Today we are not a small nation; we are a big nation. We are more influential, more respected, much more recognised today… So when a decision is taken, India’s views must be taken into account.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: Many changes took place in the Board of Control for Cricket in India following recommendations by the Lodha Committee. Now that you are working towards a uniform sports code, will those changes still stand?
Once we come out with a proper refined sports code, everything will come under it, including cricket. It will be settled. Let’s wait for some time. We will come up with a refined sports code… I cannot give you a timeline, but there is a Delhi High Court order that gave directions to my secretary and other bodies to present a case before the minister, that is me, and then take a call… In the meeting with the IOA and the sports federations, I told them that we will form a committee, take the opinion of all the stakeholders, and then come up with a refined sports code. They agreed.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: But the BCCI is now running on a Supreme Court order which has given them a new constitution. So when the uniform sports code comes, will the constitution go out of the window?
I am not saying that I will not obey the court order. The courts know that they intervene only when there is no solution, no mechanism. If we are equipped, if we are managing things smoothly, why will the courts interfere? So the handling of our internal matters is in our own domain.
DAKSH PANWAR: There were reports that the Sports Ministry has asked for an extra `400 crore for its budget. When Britain was preparing for the 2012 Olympics, they used a national lottery system to fund their sports programmes. Is the Indian government looking at such a system as well?
I also want sports to be funded through sports activities. Why should we depend on the government? Sports is an area where you can generate billions of dollars. Everybody wants to be a part of sports, Bollywood, Hollywood, industrialists, politicians, bureaucrats… This is a field that has the potential to create revenues, it has social impact. So it’s huge. Lottery is a good system. Like the UK, many countries have this system and it has generated a lot of money… I have to discuss the matter with the Prime Minister. Things are at an early stage, and lottery is one of the options that we are looking at as a source of funding for future. But lottery should be thought about in a professional way, not for gambling.
DAKSH PANWAR: What is your view on betting in sports?
I am against any form of betting and gambling. It is illegal and immoral.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: Sports in school curriculum has been a focus for you. What is your roadmap?
Sports has to be a part of education, it is not an extra-curricular activity. Recently, I was at the Education Ministers’ conference, and I told them that the marking system in the CBSE has to be clearly defined. We are going to sit separately with the CBSE. Sports should be the most crucial subject in school. It cannot be done after 2 pm or 3 pm as an extra-curricular activity at school. The Prime Minister has taken an initiative. After the Winter Session we will start acting on the sports education board, for which we need wider consultation .
Then, there is the issue of sports as a career option. I will give you an example. There was a player from Assam. He played for India but did not win any medals. From the age of 15-25 he did nothing else but play. When he started struggling to survive, he warned his children that they should not play any sports. My take here is that, everybody celebrates the winners. When you win world championships, money will come, everyone will celebrate. But how many players win medals? Thousands and thousands of Indian boys are boxing, but only one will represent India. We can’t have this situation where only the winners are celebrated, while those left behind are struggling to survive. If this is the situation, then we cannot produce champions. The base has to be big…We really need to do a lot at the ground level… Once the system takes care of your livelihood, only then can we develop a sports culture. Otherwise, people will continue to say that study, don’t waste time on sports.
AMITAVA CHAKRABORTY: You often travel to the Northeast and put up pictures of roads on social media, tagging the Prime Minister. The distance between Kohima to Dimapur is roughly 70 km, but it takes over five to six hours to cover the distance. These are major urban centres of the Northeast, and the condition of many other roads in the region is the same.
In Arunachal Pradesh, about seven years ago, we did not have even a one km stretch of a four-lane road. Today we have a 20 km four-lane stretch. Ten years ago, we did not have even a two-lane stretch. Today we have close to 600 km of double-lane roads. We have to celebrate that. If I am driving on a good stretch of road, we must celebrate that.
TUSHAR BHADURI: Age fudging and doping are big issues in sports. Have you got any new ideas to deal with it?
We need a technical mechanism for it. Merely discussing it is not enough. We need to have highly sophisticated mechanisms and equipment in place. One wrong test can ruin the future of an athlete. Our administration has to be more robust and, for that, governance in sports has to be enhanced. I have told sports federations that your governance should be of a high standard, and we in the government also have to raise the standard of our governance. We cannot afford to rule sports with mediocrity. It kills everything.
DAKSH PANWAR: We do not have a robust university sports system like, say, America, which has a collegiate sports system where sportspersons are groomed. Are you doing something about it?
From next year onwards we are going to have three layers of games: school games, Khelo India games, and university games. In India, we neither have university games nor school games… Where will the players play,
display their worth? So we have taken a decision for next year. The school games federation will be created with full vigour. Players below 19 years will be part of school games, 25-19 age group in Khelo India, and those above 25-26 will join university games. If we do not have robust systems of school and university games, the institutions will never produce sports stars. The school and university games will be conducted on an annual basis.