New Delhi,Chander Shekhar Luthra: The death of a promising rower at a Sports Authority of India-run centre in Kerala's Alappuzha district on Thursday has highlighted the need for reforms. For starters, none of the 100-odd centres run by SAI has a sexual harassment cell or redressal forum.
SAI may now finally wake up to this menace. “Forget sexual harassment cell, there is not even a mental counsellor or psychologist in any SAI centre across India,” an official said, adding, “This incident would certainly put pressure on SAI to address this long pending demands of athletes.”
India’s top shuttler Saina Nehwal on Thursday demanded that centres be set up for athletes’ help. “SAI centre should have an anti-sexual harassment cell. This is the need of the hour. It would help the athletes,” said Nehwal.
Even long-jumper Anju Bobby George, who had spent quite a lot of time at the SAI centre in Bangalore during her heyday, was hurt. “We are really shocked. The SAI institutions are generally safe for women. I have been part of the training, but this incident has made me feel scary,” said the former Commonwealth Games champion.
According to estimates, approximately 11,000 athletes have been training in these 100 SAI centres. And going by a conservative estimate, around 6,000 are females. “Even a small office these days constitutes harassment cells to address issues related to women as per the Supreme Court’s Vishaka Guidelines. But SAI has still not woken up and was waiting for such an extreme thing to happen,” said the insider.
“This has come as a shocker to me. We should investigate how these girls got hold of a poisonous substance. There was no one to listen to their problems, this is where SAI should work to make its system strong. Those girls felt helpless,” former athlete Ashwini Nachappa echoed Nehwal’s sentiments.
Olympic bronze medallist boxer MC Mary Kom, too, was shocked with the incident. “This incident is shocking. As of now, we don’t have a grievance redressal cell. A warden should be able to deal with such kind of situations where an athlete can approach him or her. We have to look into this matter seriously.”
On the other hand, SAI director-general Injeti Srinivas promised to look into this matter. “As a national body which is entrusted with the task of identifying and nurturing young talented sportspersons, we consider it as our responsibility to see whether any deficiency is there in our system which enables such an extreme thing to happen. We will certainly look into that, we will also look into what are our standard operating procedures to deal with such kind of situation. We have to work out a mechanism to deal with these situations which we don't have as of now.”
'Athletes were under pressure'
Family-members of the deceased, 15-year-old Aparna Ramachandran, said the four athletes were “under pressure” from warden and other senior players.
“They were physically and mentally harassed. Aparna suffered injuries in an attack two weeks back when the coach thrashed her with an oar,” a family-member said of Aparna said.
Hostel warden denied the allegations and said the four were reprimanded after they were caught consuming alcohol. She said they may have taken the “extreme step” fearing further action.
The incident has already taken political colours with the students’ wing of the CPM staging a march to the SAI centre on Thursday and demanding strict against “errant” officials.
SAI director general Injeti Srinivas said strict action would be taken if there was evidence if “official apathy or involvement”.
“Kerala police are investigating the case. And a sub-divisional magistrate has taken the statement of one of the girls who was able to speak. A suicide note left at the site was jointly signed by all four. This is the most tragic incident in SAI since its inception,” he said.
Union sports minister Sarbananda Sonowal also said that he was “deeply aggrieved” by the incident and sought a “factual report” from the SAI director.
“If anyone from SAI is found guilty in connection with this tragic incident, strictest possible action will be taken against him or her,” Sonowal said.