Wednesday, September 14, 2011

It’s the government’s job to build Hockey (and other sports) in India….

Yesterday’s drama with respect to the reward and recognition for a successful Indian hockey team gives us an opportunity to discuss what the role of the government in building sports in our country should be.

Without doubt, the Rs 25000 given as a “token of appreciation” was indeed just that – a small token. In a world where cricket stars win crores of rupees as reward and salary, this was like a slap on the face of the winning hockey team members. It’s not very often that the Hockey team wins an international tournament and a suitable reward would have been motivating to the team. The treatment of the Hockey team however is just one of the manifestations of how the government is failing in its duty of building a culture of sports in this country. The government often forgets that it’s the government’s job to build the sporting infrastructure in the country. It cannot hope for corporate investments to do that. It cannot wash its hands off this important duty. In fact, this should be the core part of the new sports bill that Maken wants to introduce.

Some very funny arguments were being floated yesterday on TV. Atul Wassan (average cricketer….now avid commentator) kept on repeating that there are no “free lunches” and that if Hockey India did not have the money to pay, how could it have paid more than Rs 25000 per player? In my view, he’s taking a very “technical” view of the matter. Of course, the money cannot be simply created out of thin air and paid out. But this is where the government has to take responsibility. It’s simply not correct to say that if the corporate sponsors are not there, then the sport should suffer. It’s simply not enough to say that if the sport doesn’t attract monies, then it must languish. It’s the other way round. The government must nurture the sport to a level where corporate interest is generated. After that, the government can withdraw and focus on something else. The job of the government is to build infrastructure and culture when none exists. After that, it can quietly exit.

That’s the whole idea even of the private-public joint model of economic development we have adopted. In the early years of India’s independence, when the private sector was too small to invest the kinds of monies that were required in building massive steel plants, power plants, fertilizer units etc, it was the government that had to step in. Many people believe that India “chose” the socialist model of economic development where the state controls most of the economic activity. Fact is that at least partly, the reason for choosing this model was that the private sector simply wasn’t capable enough to make any impact. The government had no option but to step in. It was the duty of the government to step in. A country’s economic development is squarely the responsibility of its government. Imagine if in those days, the government had just sat around complaining and said that the private sector was not doing its job and it was not the government’s job to develop the economy. The private sector was not capable of doing this job. But today, the government must get out of the sectors of the economy that have developed well and let the private sector take over. The private sector brings with it many efficiencies – better capital allocation, better work productivity and so on. The government must play the role of the catalyst in the early stages….after which it must reduce its role. I am not saying that the government must not recover its investments or make a profit on the same. It must. All I am saying is that the government must withdraw at the right time. Till that right time, the government must take the onus of development. Take the telecom sector for example. Many decades back, there were only two government telecom companies BSNL and MTNL. They provided lousy service but at least they had the money to invest to provide us some basic telephony services. Today, both these companies are irrelevant in the telecom sector. Our complaints today are not that the government got into BSNL and MTNL so many years back…..but that the government did not get out of these companies in time. If it had done so in time, it would have made a healthy profit on its investment.

It’s no different with hockey. These are early days in hockey’s development. What was once a developed sport in India has today become a forgotten one. At present, there is hardly any corporate sponsorship available for this exciting sport. It’s my belief that if the game were given a good chance to develop, then it has the potential to turn into a big game all over again. I have seen some great India-Pakistan hockey matches and they are thrilling. The best part about hockey is that it doesn’t need to change its format to be interesting to TV broadcasters (like cricket had to). The game is just 70 minutes long – the ideal length for a TV event. A night match can attract a lot of audiences in the stadiums also. Besides, hockey is faster paced that even football and it has the potential to arouse great nationalistic feelings. Most of the countries that play hockey are the same as the ones who play cricket and we’ve seen that a lot of national pride can be created while playing with these countries.

What the government needs to do is to nurture hockey for the next decade or so. Spend money on building international quality grounds and stadiums. Go to the schools to spot raw talent. Incentivize schools to build hockey grounds. Push our cities and towns to build more public hockey grounds. The government must sign on talented players; give them decent salaries so that good talent may consider taking up hockey as a career; rather than just as a casual pastime. It must organize tournaments in the country. It must spend money on TV production; even buy out TV time if required so that the matches can be telecast. It must get in foreign coaches, physios….the works. It is also not impossible for the government to start league hockey – again something that will raise the interest in hockey to above threshold levels. Net net, the government must play an important role in building the appropriate “environment” which encourages hockey to develop.

In less than a decade, the game of hockey will become self sustaining. The moment India starts doing reasonably well internationally – let’s say by first entering the Olympics top 16…..then by reaching the last 8 or last 4…..corporate interest will start. Once the audiences come, corporate sponsorship will follow. Once that happens, the government’s job should really be one of a regulator, a facilitator. It must make sure that the hockey federation does its job decently; there is no politics (like the one between HI and IHF) etc.

It’s not different for the other sports. Why is India just a single-sport country? Why can’t we do better in football? This is one of the most exciting sports in the world. Surely, it’s not our point that we don’t have the talent? Small countries like the UAE, Cameroon and Honduras have made an impact on the game. Why can’t India? My point is that it is not to do with talent; it is to do with the absence of an appropriate environment. And that’s squarely the job of the government to build. If the government did its job well, we would see a much bigger sporting culture emerge. At present, India has done reasonably well in sports which require less infrastructure. India has produced world-beating champions in chess, badminton, snooker, shooting and the like because these sports don’t require too much investment in creating facilities. It’s the bigger sports – hockey, football, swimming, gymnastics – which require big grounds, stadiums, flood lights etc that we have languished in. And unfortunately, these are the sports in which most medals are awarded at any international event like the Olympics. No surprise then why India performs so poorly at international sporting events.

The real truth is that Maken should not stop at giving away Rs 1.5 lacs to each player. That’s a pittance. The issue really is not about individual compensation. The issue is about the infrastructure in hockey. The issue is about too much of politics and the lack of investments; the lack of talent spotting; the lack of facilities; the lack of international exposure. This is what Maken should commit to doing next. This is what his bill must address. We’ll be waiting to hear from him…..

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