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Legislative agenda for the new Sports Minister

27 May 2014, 16:55 IST
Sarbananda Sonowal
Sarbananda Sonowal

Like millions of other citizens, I too followed this year’s General Elections and the cabinet allocation thereafter with considerable interest. This year’s elections mandate is significant in many ways and there is great hope and optimism in the country after five years of corruption, scams and slow decision making. In the process of allocation of the ministries, one area which I followed with considerable interest was the Sports and Youth Affairs Department.

In my opinion, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, the former Olympic medallist and BJP MP from Jaipur Rural, or Rao Inderjit Singh, the MP from Gurgaon (and recent entrant to BJP) who is incidentally another former shooter who had won accolades for India, had the best credentials to take charge as the next Sports and Youth Affairs Minister (which carries a Minister of State rank with Independent Charge). Surprisingly however, BJP’s face in Assam and Lok Sabha MP Sarbananda Sonowal was given charge of the Sports and Youth Affairs Ministry.

Again, like many other ministries, the mandate of this Ministry has also been broadened and the Ministry has been rechristened as the Skill Development, Entrepreneurship, Youth Affairs and Sports Ministry. In all probability two more departments, i.e. Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, are going to be added to the existing Ministry.

Given the BJP and the Prime Minister’s focus on skill development for youth to generate employment and their focus on creating a conducive business-friendly environment for entrepreneurs, these two new departments are likely to add significance to an otherwise light-weight ministry, which has generally been known to restrict itself to framing a few sports schemes, building some sports infrastructure and earmarking grants to the Sports Authority of India and few other organisations.

However, apart from the thrust on skill development and entrepreneurship, the new Sports Minister has a few other critical issues to focus on. Mr. Sonowal will have to decide whether to aggressively push for passage of the National Sports Development Bill in the current form or allow Sports Federation bosses including the powerful BCCI to continue functioning in an opaque and arbitrary manner. (As noted by me in an earlier column titled ‘<Lessons from the BCCI affair, The Statesman, 3rd April 2014, the National Sports Bill takes important steps to clean the rot in sports bodies and provides for regulatory oversight over elections of national sports federations, bringing sports bodies under the ambit of the RTI Act and creation of an independent dispute resolution mechanism).

One key impediment to this task of passing the National Sports Bill is opposition from within the party. Since legislation on sports is a state subject according to the Constitution of India and given opposition to Sports Bill by many in the BJP claiming that the proposed legislation is an affront to India’s federal structure (indeed, top BJP leaders including PM Narendra Modi, Arun Jaitley, Amit Shah and Anurag Thakur hold key positions in BCCI or its state affiliates and it may be argued that it is in their interest to keep sports bodies autonomous and outside the ambit of the state), it remains to be seen whether the new Sports Minister will be able to pass this critical Bill in its present form.

Another important task of the new Sports Minister is to check the increasing problem of fixing and cheating in sport. The current legal framework does not provide clear criminal liability for match-fixing (the nearest offence that various cricketers and bookmakers have been charged with is cheating under the Indian Penal Code which does not envisage manipulation of sporting events) and the likely penalty is disciplinary action including suspension from sporting activities by the concerned sports federation.

To remedy this situation, the Sports Ministry has introduced the Prevention of Sporting Fraud Bill in 2013. The Bill defines the offence of sporting fraud, making any manipulation of a sports result (irrespective of its impact on outcome), wilful failure of an athlete to perform to his true potential or disclosure of inside information influencing the outcome of a sport punishable by imprisonment up to five years and with fine of up to five lakh rupees or the equivalent of economic benefits derived by the person from sporting fraud. The Bill has yet to be taken up for passage by both the Houses of the Parliament.

Along with the issue of cheating is the related issue of betting in sports. The IPL betting and fixing scandal and the Supreme Court’s intervention in the matter have initiated a debate on the need to legalise betting. It has been argued that Indian laws on gambling and betting are archaic and prescribe only minor penalties for gambling offences. The offence of betting on sport events has not even been clearly defined in most state gaming statutes.

Thus, it is suggested that the government comprehensively amend the gambling legislation to legalise sports betting (and other forms of gaming) and set up an independent regulatory body to monitor gaming activities. It is argued that legalising betting and gaming will fetch huge revenues for the government by way of taxes (which could be earmarked for many developmental projects and improvement of sports facilities) and also stop the flourishing underground satta bazaar.

It remains to be seen whether the new Minister has the political will to take a call on this controversial subject. Again, since all matters relating to sports, entertainment, recreation and betting fall within the domain of state governments (although it may be argued that online betting and some other aspects of gaming have an inter-state commerce angle bringing the Central government into the picture), it remains to be seen whether the new Sports Minister can tackle these contentious issues both within and outside the party.

It would be important to build a cross-party consensus taking Chief Ministers of various states on board if the government is serious on initiating long-term reforms in the sports industry.

The author is a final year student of the WB National University of Juridical Sciences Kolkata and runs http://glaws.in/, India’s first and only website on gambling laws. The author has written extensively on the issue of gaming laws and has been quoted as an expert in the field by various media houses and can be contacted on jay [at] glaws.in

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