SAI Director General Injeti Srinivas admits to many shortcomings in policies. He suggests India should embrace foreign expertise in administration. But the 56-year-old IAS officer may not be around to see the changes he is ushering in as he could be transferred out of SAI any day after being promoted as secretary. Excerpts from an interview with Qaiser Mohammad Ali.
I gather some review has taken place after the disappointing show at the Rio Olympics. How would you asses India’s below-par performance in almost all disciplines, barring wrestling and badminton, in which we won the only medals?
Our performance has very been disappointing at one level, in terms of getting medals. At another level, if you look at the performance -- you may be surprised by what I say -- but there has been some progression. For example, in archery, if you look at the performance across those events and compare it with last two Olympics there was some progression. But the progression loses its relevance because we didn’t win [more than two] medals. We are essentially obsessed with medals; we just want medals.
We are starved of medals.
Yeah, but medals are not hanging on tress that you can pluck them. You really have to earn your medals. But I would say in the few areas we can take some satisfaction. I would say that uncertainty that we have in medal expectations is mainly because we are just nowhere in measurable sports [like athletics etc.] till you have some stature in mother sports [athletics, swimming etc.], which have so many medal events, you’ll always be running this risk [of failure].
After winning just two medals, no heads have rolled, in the sense that no accountability, no big shake-ups have happened so far.
You’ve hit the nail on its head. This is the whole issue of roles and responsibilities. So, today if there’s a disappointment or debacle we’ve had at the last Olympics [and] if I ask the question ‘who’s responsible for it’ what is the answer? Each person will try to deflect it to something other than him. This is the bane of the problem. The role delineation should be crystal clear. The government’s role is largely policy-making, the structural reforms or something like that it has to carry out, and the financial support which it has to give. In many countries governments step in. In the United Kingdom, bulk of the funding comes from UK Sport, which in turn receives it from the government and lottery funds. SAI has a bigger role, operationally, and naturally the SAI will have to take responsibility, in the sense, the training camps for athletes and their preparation. So, [regarding] the 360 degrees sort of attention and result orientation, there are issues within SAI. We have to make it more result oriented and a little more focussed. The national sports federation (NSFs) are, of course, mainly responsible for identifying the talent, honing it and selecting the national teams. So, they’ll have to take the lion’s share of credit as well as [criticism for] failure. The government and SAI can, at best, be the facilitators. And then main actor, the athlete, has a huge amount of accountability. So, it’s ultimately a shared accountability and if there is a failure -- if you go objectively and dispassionately -- you’ll find fault-lines among all these stakeholders. So, we’ll have to sit and honestly identify and admit to those fault-lines and correct them.
Has it been done at any level since Rio Olympics?
It is happening, but perhaps not yet in a convergent manner, because it is happening individually. Some federation is doing something, SAI may be doing something, individually, some brainstorming may be taking place. But all these stake holders coming together and making a very honest assessment and introspection and identifying the mistakes/deficiencies, and collectively trying to address them…that’ll require some sort of institutional structure, which is missing. We’ll have to look at a system that has all the stakeholders on the same page. I really don’t know what that system should be. I know there are global best practices. Since we have a very strong historical links with the UK, maybe we can relate to their system. I’ve seen their system very closely, it works very well. They reconstructed the system from mid-1990s and it has reaped good dividend. That’ll basically involve, to put it in precise terms, creating a strong sport culture at the community and school level, and making the university as one of the major platforms for creating hubs of excellence for sports, so they are able to merge academics and sport together. So, nobody has to leave academics to pursue sport and face problems of financial and job security after the sporting career. That’s something we can look at. They’ve also very good interventions in terms of governance reforms. That means they are at arm’s length from federations, sort of don’t dictate anything to them. But they’ve such a robust performance measurement system and performance-linked assistance. They say, ‘You reach this benchmark, you get this.’ You reach higher benchmarks, you get more funding which is not tied funding; it’s flexi funding.
Also, SAI today has a very safe environment. Ninety per cent of the federations have no option but to come to us. So, we’re not bothered. We don’t have to earn that whereas under the UK Sport there’s an English Institute of Sport (EIS), which is doing some of the activities that SAI does, like holding national camps and preparation of athletes. There it’s left to the governing body whether they want to select the EIS for holding camps or do it elsewhere. So, EIS has to survive if those guys [its employees] have to get salaries, they HAVE to give a product acceptable to federations.
Which is not case with SAI at the moment.
Perhaps [SAI is] failing because of its monopoly. I am being very, very honest. I’m not saying we are deliberately failing; I’m saying the sense of security is so much, the comfort level is so much that you [federations] can’t go anywhere else, so [SAI sort of tells them] ‘this is what we have, take it or leave it’. Everything doesn’t come out of the goodness of heart and magnanimity. Survival is the strongest motivator. So if an organisation has a survival issue – ‘if not us they can go to some other person’ – it will improve. It’s not a question of SAI; it’s a question of architecture being changed. The federations should also realise that if they don’t fall in line with good governance practices they’ll get no funding and they will just evaporate. If SAI doesn’t deliver then SAI can't sustain. So, there’ll have to be some compelling circumstances.
After having worked for the sports ministry and now at SAI, are you leaving SAI any formula or plan on the table when you leave SAI, as a posting is due to you after being promoted as secretary?
I really don’t know when I’ll leave SAI. Coming to the point, that’s what [I’ve said above] is the bane of our system. Throughout it has been my effort that whatever learnings have come, effort is to work in a team and institutionalise it. I think we institutionalise bit by bit in SAI, and people before me have done their bit too. So, be rest assured that we’re moving in the right direction; not that we’re in an ideal sort of standard right now. I’m confident we’ve streamlined a lot of things and they’ll hold us in good stead.
PM has said a task force be formed for the next three Olympics. When can we expect this task force in shape and what changes do you foresee or should be there for these Olympics or at least for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics? Will there be a change in our approach?
I think the latter part of November should see the task force in place. There has to be a change in approach. We all are working on those lines only. One is there has to be a long-term approach; there can't be ad-hocism and, therefore, there is no option but looking at a 12-year cycle. You can't look beyond 12 years because it’ll be too difficult. But looking merely looking at 2020 Olympics doesn’t take you anywhere. So, 2024 is a must and 2028 is equally important. What we are really looking at is -- and to put it in simplistic terms – some of the star performers of today, in a relative sense in the Indian context, who have the age advantage and can be seen podium-type-finish athletes for 2020 will become your prior priority. Obviously, you’ll have to see how best to support them. Then, you need to have the bench strength. This is where we have failed to some extent. We’re happy that somebody is doing very well, but we don’t realise that somebody can be injured; there can be so many other uncertainties. So, you need to have three people standing behind who can replace that somebody. For 2020, our biggest effort is that for each star player there should be at least three people, at par with him, standing behind. And the third is the development group, under-16 essentially, who may participate in the 2020 Olympics but may stand some chance [of winning medals] in 2014 and thereafter. So, for this long-term and specialisation approach, we can't play with 15 disciplines. If there’s an outstanding talent in any discipline identified as a specialisation discipline you can support the athlete but you don’t have to focus on the discipline. Focus should be on four and an upper limit of six disciplines.
Would there be changes in the categorisation of sports, which are currently divided into ‘high priority’, ‘priority’ and ‘others’?
That will be dynamic; that’s not set in stone. I think one of the first responsibilities of the task force would also be, in a scientific and objective manner, at [selecting] those four to six sports. Then, naturally there will be a change in the groups also.
There are some sports like kho-kho and kabaddi, at which we are the Asian and world champions, but they are not in our ‘priority’ list.
That may be because kabaddi is not yet an Olympic discipline. But your point is well taken. Literally, we should strive hard to make it an Olympic discipline. When sports like taekwondo and golf are getting into Olympics, why not kabaddi? Remember, in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, kabaddi was a demonstration sport. A demonstration sport typically graduates into a full-fledged discipline. So, we have missed something, otherwise if kabaddi was there one or two medals would have been assured, like it was in hockey in olden days.
What is our current policy with regard to foreign coaches, and will there be a change in policy post-Rio?
Today hiring foreign coaches, basically, means that in certain sports we don’t have the competency required for competing at that [global] level within our domestic system. Indian coaches just don’t have that exposure of the high-performance level. So, in those sports we have to look for foreign coaches. That situation in the global world is not peculiar to India and coaches are very mobile. So, I don’t think we really need to really worry so much about foreign coaches because if you want to have the best, or among the best, in the world, they could be India or may not be in India. So, you’ll keep looking at foreign coaches. The policy would be open. But when you are engaging a foreign coach, you would certainly be short sighted if you don’t look at improving your own domestic coaching development structure, with or without their [foreigners] help.
The numbers of domestic across the country are much short of requirement, the sanctioned strength of 1,524 for the entire country. There are only about 1,000 coaches at the moment.
There are 983 regular coaches, 139 on contract, one on deputation. Plus, around 200 are on contract for national coaching camps, excluding those on deputation from the Railways, CPSUs etc. We will recruit around 200 regular coaches by this December.
That is not the issue. The issue is that SAI coaches are like a drop in the ocean as far as the requirement of this country is concerned. SAI coaches are basically for the national camps and SAI’s own schemes. Please understand, if every state were to identify their high priority sport and if they were to have some nursery/academy, can you imagine the transformation it could have brought in? SAI is an entity and what can one entity do in such a large country. Everybody has to plug in.
It’s not SAI’s fault completely as the recruitment was banned by the government for almost 20 years, from 1994 to 2014, and every year many coaches retired or died.
Now we have rectified that and in 2014 we recruited 127 regular coaches. Now, the recruitment process has been further strengthened and fine-tuned. Now, we’ll have computer-based test, so there is no possibility of any manipulation. We have totally outsourced it.
One grouse of coaches for many years has been that their promotion is much delayed or doesn’t happen at all. Designation- wise they might be promoted, but not grade wise. Another grouse is that there is no criterion for promotion.
I will go by facts because anybody can say anything. We’ve a rigid system; unfortunately a rigid one. There’s nothing like an out-of-turn or fast-track promotion. So, even the best coach and a very, very ordinary coach will, unfortunately, get promoted at the same time. We run a system where we are open to people challenging us in courts and tribunals. So, I think that is one of the problems with our system whereas in a private system, maybe, you can incentivise the guy who is doing well and he can overtake everybody. In our system they can't.
I do agree that there has been some stagnation. But we’ve taken up a drive and in the last six months about 200 promotions have been given. About 300 people will get the benefit of this promotion. This has been done after many, many years, and in spite of lots of limitations. I agree that people cannot be stagnating because then their motivation levels come down.
About Top Of the Podium Scheme (TOPS), some federations say that as athletes now get the money straight from the sports ministry, they were not listening to them and going to places of their choice to train. Is there a rethink on TOPS’ procedure of allotting funds to athletes?
These are the teething problems. It was the first time you had a scheme with money where you allowed customised training. And you had some reasonably good criteria for selection of people so that there was no nepotism and wrong selection. By and large, a system was a put in place. It is true that we went by the wishes of the athlete and maybe we bypassed -- I am not getting a better word than that right now – the federations or did not factor their viewpoint. Partly that can be explained that sometimes it was coming out of federations’ rigidities. They had very coloured perceptions and sometimes they were very outdated. And you had no time – about six-to-eight months were left for the Rio Olympics – so you had to take a call. But now with hindsight we feel that the architecture should not be changed.
Work on restructuring of SAI is going on for the last couple of years. What is the current status?
We’ve reached a stage where in the next couple of months we may see it approved. SAI badly needs to be restructured. The organisational structure, what it had in 1984 [when it was born] and its objectives don’t match anymore, so it has to change.
Managerial level was not even 25 per cent and bulk of it was C&D (Construction and Demolition). Those things can be outsourced. You actually need domain expertise. Of course, there is no question of hurting the interests of the existing employees and they will get whatever they had to get. But certain cadres will become dying cadres. And right now if you want the best talents from outside, you are not able to get people on deputation. The new structure will also have some slots where you can get the best people for deputation, internationally also. If we are taking a foreign coach, we can also take a foreign director for development. That is being envisaged and can be a reality. For example, suppose we get a person from UK Sport on deputation for two years and pay him whatever he gets there, or more, you can gain hugely from that person. Then he goes away and naturally we develop in-house strengths and expertise and take over that function.
And presently there is a lot of stagnation in SAI and it is demotivating people. With better promotions people will become more satisfied. Coaches’ promotion was one thing, but the problem is more acute in the administrative side.
How long are you there in SAI?
I have no clue. Right now, they have upgraded me here.
A shorter, edited version of this appears in print