Usha seeks revamp of award guidelines

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM AUG. 10. P.T. Usha, during her illustrious career lasting a little over two decades, has been the winner of many prestigious honours including the Arjuna Award in 1983 and the Padma Shri in 1984.

But now, if the much decorated former Asian track queen feels that these awards — especially the National sports awards — have lost much of their lustre, she has her own reasons to believe so.

Speaking to The Hindu at her Payyoli residence on Saturday, a rather distraught Usha was emphatic. ``Over the last few years, we seem to have typically perfected a system to dilute the prestige which had been associated with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna and the Arjuna Awards in the past, by raising one controversy or the other. In fact, I don't think this would happen elsewhere but only in India. It only shows on what little consideration that the Government and the powers-that-be have for our sportspersons and their achievements".

Elaborating further, the ace athlete said, "Take for instance, the controversy which surrounded the finalisation of this year's awards itself. I think, the Government would have been better placed had it accepted the collective wisdom of a committee which it itself had appointed. Given the fact that 2002 had been an exceptional year for Indian sport as such, I don't think there was nothing wrong for the committee to have recommended two athletes for the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award and more than the stipulated 15 for the Arjuna Award".

Usha felt the sad spectacle of the committee members being reconvened back to New Delhi to rework on their recommendations could have been avoided. "You cannot have hard and fast rules for everything. Especially so, with the distribution of awards. I think by returning the initial recommendations back to committee, the Government was just passing a no-confidence motion against itself."

The former athlete said she was still to understand the reasons that prompted the Government to insist that the initial list be pruned. "I don't think it was the case of money alone. If so, it is just ridiculous, especially when we take into account the kind of money we spend unnecessarily year after year. I think, there could be some other reason, which I am yet to figure out. That money alone should be the deciding factor behind the distribution of these prestigious awards cannot be simply accepted as a valid reason. Particularly, after the Government had gone out of the way to announce special cash awards after the Indian contingent had returned with a record haul from the Manchester Commonwealth Games".

Usha said though she was happy for K.M. Beenamol, on being finally recommended for the Khel Ratna, she would have been far happier if Anjali Vedpathak Bhagwat too was jointly honoured with the Kerala athlete.

"It is just a imaginary situation. But I would like to know what the Government would do next year if two of our athletes returned from the Athens Olympics with an identical achievement, say a gold medal each. How would the Government be able to stick to its policy that the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award would be given to only one athlete each year? What would be the yardsticks it would then apply? This year's case too was an identical one, though in a different way. Both Beenamol and Anjali had performed well and consistently through the whole of 2002 and both richly deserved the award".

The unending controversies, Usha said, was the result of many loopholes which existed in the current guidelines framed by the Government. "The first and foremost change which I would like to advocate is that we should take steps to revamp these guidelines as quickly as possible. In my opinion, the prestige of these awards could be restored, if only it came as a surprise to the awardees. And as such, the facility now available to the athletes, to seek the award by applying for it in a printed form should be taken away immediately".

Usha said it was her refusal to apply for the Khel Ratna which had cost her the coveted award. "I could have very well got it a few years back. But then, I thought it would be more befitting if the award came my way, without applying for it. I don't understand the rationale behind applying for an award, especially one that is said to be the highest honour any sportsperson in this land could aspire for. It should be awarded and it, I would like to repeat, should come as a surprise to any athlete"

The great athlete said the prerogative to nominate athletes for the Khel Ratna and the Arjuna awards should solely be vested with the National federations. "I think, they are best suited to nominate athletes from their own disciplines for these awards. Because, it is the federations which oversee the year-round activity of the top athletes in the country. But here again, there should be some checks and a balance to see to it that favouritism does not creep in. Side by side, the SAI should have a permanent set-up to monitor the performances of our athletes of each discipline so as to ensure that its assessments tally with the recommendations from the various Federations".

"The criteria that the Khel Ratna award should be given to only one athlete and that only 15 Arjuna awards could be awarded in a calendar year should also be modified. What if the committee does not find suitable entries to fill up these awards in one particular year? Would they still be forced to make up the numbers? That is why I think that the Government should have approved the recommendations of this year's committee".

Usha also called for more powers to be given to the selection committee: "I myself was a member of the selection committee last year. We were given a booklet for each of the awards and then asked to select suitable names. We never had the freedom to go beyond this booklet or to crosscheck the details given in it. Otherwise, we would not have found ourselves in the embarrassing situation in which we were finally placed in the end, particularly in the case of I.M. Vijayan, who had the same credentials as that of Bruno Coutinho, but was forced to be overlooked for the Arjuna award. I am happy that his name is finally there in this year's list".

Concluding the lengthy exclusive interview, Usha added, "I think these are enough reasons to revamp the guidelines for the awards and I hope the Government will seek suitable suggestions from all concerned before it chalks out a general set of rules which would be appreciated by all sections of the sports fraternity. We should earnestly work together to see to it that the prestige of these awards are not diluted in any way".