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Perspective

A Tribune Special
People have right to know
RTI underlines accountability, says Virendra Kumar
President Pratibha Patil, while addressing the joint session of Parliament on June 4, has laid down the road-map for the new UPA government. Noting that creativity, innovation and enterprise held the key to people and nations realising their potential, she observed that the “dreary desert sand of dead habit” must be left behind.

Poor children need money for surgery
by Anjali Singh
W
hen tragedy strikes children of underprivileged homes whom do they turn too? Victims of unfortunate circumstances they are forced to be deprived of the their basic right to survival. Their families have no answers to questions like where do poor families who cannot afford treatment seek financial help? Who is responsible for the welfare and protection of such sick and hurt children? Does the state do its job as seriously as it should?







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OPED

Taking care of security
Get priorities right to face challenges
by Maj-Gen Pushpendra Singh (retd)
I
NDIA’s strategic environment has altered dramatically. In a perilous situation, we face three tough challenges (China has played a conspicuous role in two of them). First, Pakistan has been adding quantitative and qualitative teeth to its nuclear arsenal with two Chinese supplied plutonium reactors in its Khushab facility, indicating success of its efforts to produce advanced compact warheads. A US Congressional research service report now credits Pakistan with developing parity with India, even as it continues expanding and accelerating its nuclear weapons programme.

Profile
Sinha for Kamaraj Plan in BJP
by Harihar Swarup
A
resignation a day keeps chinta (worry) and chintan (introspection) away. This applies aptly to the present state of affairs in the BJP. After Yashwant Sinha and Arjun Jaitley quit their party posts, former Uttaranchal Chief Minister Bhagat Singh Koshyari resigned from the Rajya Sabha and then withdrew it. Sinha was first to raise the banner of revolt, attacking the BJP leadership for shying away from a proper chintan and asking others to follow suit.

On Record
Promoting inexpensive games
by M.S. Unnikrishnan
D
r Manohar Singh Gill has been a proactive Sports Minister. His hands-on approach has helped solve many knotty issues, particularly concerning the 2010 Commonwealth Games. A retired IAS officer, who had a long stint as the Chief Election Commissioner, he knows the pulse of the bureaucracy well and deftly manages to get his job done.

 


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A Tribune Special
People have right to know
RTI underlines accountability, says Virendra Kumar

Illustration by Kuldeep DhimanPresident Pratibha Patil, while addressing the joint session of Parliament on June 4, has laid down the road-map for the new UPA government. Noting that creativity, innovation and enterprise held the key to people and nations realising their potential, she observed that the “dreary desert sand of dead habit” must be left behind.

Pursuing the same strand, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his communication to his Cabinet colleagues, gently reminded that “equity, innovation and public accountability must be the watchword of our government”.

One of the conspicuous and perhaps the most critical areas where the ‘dead habit’ continues to be the de-railing factor of democracy is the absence of accountability of public functionaries at different levels of governance. This bureaucratic culture of non-accountability is not only protected but also accentuated by the ‘dead habit’ of ‘secrecy’ which continues to derive its sustenance from the survival of the Official Secrets Act of 1923. This is so despite the neutralising effect of the Right to Information Act of 2005.

For ushering in an era of accountability, the RTI Act acts as a powerful catalytic agent. For, its clearly stated objective is to confer the right on every citizen “to secure access to information under the control of public authorities in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority.”

The underlying objective of both the carefully chosen and closely connected concepts of ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’ is reinforced by resurrection of the fundamental right to information under the RTI Act.

This Act has been hitherto hailed as one of the biggest achievements of the UPA government. Lest the revelation of any information to an individual should come in conflict with or be prejudicial to any “other public interest,” like “efficient operations of the government,” “optimum use of limited fiscal resources,” and “the preservation of confidentiality of sensitive information,” the mode of their reconciliation is provided: conflicting interests need to be harmonised “while preserving the paramountcy of the democratic ideal.”

For avoiding the sad spectre of any anticipated conflict situation, public authorities are specifically obligated under the Act, even without being asked, to “publish all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing decisions which affect public,” and to “provide reasons for its administrative or quasi-judicial decisions to affected persons.”

In the discharge of this bounden duty of public servants, if any person desires to obtain information from the concerned public information officer, he or she is not required to give any reason for requesting the information or any personal details except those that may be necessary for contacting him or her. Such is the strategy for strengthening the right to information for augmenting accountability and transparency!

However, since the enactment of the RTI Act on June 21, 2005, we have unfortunately witnessed some sporadic, but systematic, attempts to undermine this right to information at least at two most critical levels.

At the constitutive or legislative level, an amendment to the Act was sought to put the notings of bureaucrats and Cabinet notings outside the domain of citizens’ right to information. This was done by seeking the approval of the Union Cabinet. Such an attempt was, however, thwarted by the national press by raising the public opinion against such a move.

Recently, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati purportedly acting under the framework of the RTI Act that entitles the state government to refuse any information “for strategic or security reasons,” issued a notification denying information under 14 heads.

However, in the face of protest threats, she promptly reversed her move but only partially by issuing another notification on June 7, 2009 to deny dissemination of information relating nominations for the Padma awards, rules of government business, complaints against MPs and appointment of the Accountant General, besides all other officially ‘secret’ tasks.

Out of 14, there are still five heads, namely “information relating to appointment of governors, ministers and high court judges, code of conduct for ministers and material for monthly demi-official letter to be sent to the President of India on behalf of the Governor,” about which information would not be made available under the RTI Act. One only surmises how even these exemptions fall within the ambit of “for strategic or security reasons”!

Yet another attempt is being made by the Department of Personnel and Training to dilute the RTI’s impact by contemplating that all decisions should emanate from the CIC’s Full Bench instead of the Single Bench. If accepted, this may make the process dilatory.

The situation is, however, of much more serious concern at the declaratory or implementation level. The irony is that the right to information is impaired, unwittingly perhaps or may be sheer out of ignorance or under the sway of traditional inertia or colonial mind-set, by those very Public Information Officers/Commissioners who are obligated to honour and protect that very right. It appears that the initial enthusiasm to enforce the provisions of the RTI Act is on the wane.

In 2006, for instance, the Central Information Commission (CIC) did not dither to pull up the Rashtrapati Bhavan’s Secretariat for its “careless” disposal of a citizen’s application under the RTI Act. In that case, the Public Information Officer (PIO) of the President’s Secretariat refused to accept an application of the complainant and instead directed him to approach the relevant department of the government directly for redressal of his grievance.

The CIC curtly reminded the PIO of his commitment under section 6 (3) of the RTI Act, which provides that the public authority to which the application is made shall transfer the application or such part which may be appropriate to that other public authority, which either holds the information or is more closely connected with the subject matter of the application.

This stance may be compared with the most recently decided case on April 27, 2009, involving the equally exalted office of the Prime Minister. In this case, an appeal to the CIC was eventually “dismissed,” although with lot of “sympathy” for the complainant and his “concerns” considered of “considerable moment.”

The CIC has strongly resented the summary disposal of the RTI application and the first appeal in the PMO that had been so “painstakingly prepared by a conscientious citizen exercising what he perceives as his right.” He deprecated the response of the Joint Secretary in the PMO – the appellate authority – who considered the appeal in the first instance even without attempting to address the issue.

Notwithstanding the appreciation of the applicant’s genuine concern, the CIC disposed of the second appeal by observing that though it is “unsustainable under the law,” “it is open to appellant to make representation to the Prime Minister in this regard in which he may use the response received to his application under the RTI Act as support.”

Clearly, the dismissal-response of the CIC in the instant case tends to defeat the very objective of the RTI Act at least in two principal ways. First, it unnecessarily prolongs the agony of the information seekers by directing them as if to try their luck at different counters even though they may be falling within the same umbrella. The PIOs are duty-bound to transfer the application made to them if the requested information falls within the domain of some other public authority and inform the applicant immediately about such transfer.

And secondly, it encourages the PIOs to become lax and remain ambivalent in the discharge of their statutory obligation. Even if the matter on which information is sought may not strictly be a matter of record and yet PIOs are statutorily required as a matter of course to provide information “in the form in which it is sought.” n

The writer is a former Professor and Chairman, Department of Laws, and UGC Emeritus Fellow, Panjab University, Chandigarh
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Poor children need money for surgery
by Anjali Singh

When tragedy strikes children of underprivileged homes whom do they turn too? Victims of unfortunate circumstances they are forced to be deprived of the their basic right to survival. Their families have no answers to questions like where do poor families who cannot afford treatment seek financial help? Who is responsible for the welfare and protection of such sick and hurt children? Does the state do its job as seriously as it should?

For children like baby Bitta, a five-month-old victim of a brutal acid attack, the wait seems endless to get financial assistance for the long and cumbersome treatment by doctors of the Department of Plastic Surgery, Chhattrapati Shahuji Maharaj Medical University, Lucknow.

Having to undergo skin grafting and surgery for the next 15 years, the child’s parents are at their wits end. The cost being too high, they have no means to manage Rs 1 lakh every six months for the treatment. Ironically, appeals for help from the relief funds set up by the government, the Welfare Society Fund of the hospital and even the Chief Minister’s Discretionary Fund are in vain.

Though Saaksham Foundation, an NGO working for the rights of children, has been trying for funds, it is tough with no consideration being given to the child on humanitarian grounds. But then, Bitta is not alone who is suffering on account of lack of money for treatment.

Sri Ram, a daily wage labour and his disabled wife, have just had a daughter. But their joy on becoming parents of seven-day-old Sunita was short-lived when they were told the baby had a huge perforation in the intestines and would die if not operated upon immediately.

Rues Sri Ram, “The estimate given to us for a single operation is Rs 50,000 and that does not include post-operative care and follow-up treatment. When I am not able to manage even one square meal a day, how will I get Rs 50,000 for my daughter’s treatment?”

Both he and his wife, being illiterate, are clueless on how to fill up the cumbersome forms needed to seek financial aid from the state government. The child has been operated upon by the hospital’s doctors after some social activists managed to collect donations and fund the operation. The rest of the amount for treatment of the child is still not arranged for. But why are these parents up against a dead end when their BPL (Below Poverty Line) status makes them eligible to get access to all treatment free of cost?

Explains Dr V.V. Brigeetha, Chairperson, Child Welfare Committee, Lucknow, “I have not seen a single BPL patient availing himself of free treatment for a serious medical condition or being given immediate financial assistance. So what does one do when they are faced with a crisis? Medical treatment does not just end after the operation, the patient needs blood, medicines, post-operative care and number of things to manage the malady. Yet there is no emergency funds for children that can be tapped for providing financial aid within 24 hours in case of accidents and or life saving operations if required.”

The situation is not surprising as the condition is deplorable when it comes to the budget allocation for children. Ironically, when it comes to the health sector, a dismal 0.61 per cent has been allocated on an average between 2005 and 2008.

This despite the fact that there has been an increase in the allocation of the health sector from Rs 402.1546 crore (in 2004-05) to Rs 612.0040 crore (in 2007-2008). In addition, there has been a fall in the allocation of health sector for children as compared to the allocation in other sectors like social sector.

Though the state government agrees for allocation of a budget exclusively for children in distress and who need immediate medical help, no initiative has been taken till date. While child rights activists feel that creation of such a fund should be the government’s responsibility, they maintain that the fund should be managed by NGOs working in the field.

Nonetheless, Dr Brigeetha stresses that though appeals for help are sought from the CM’s fund, in most cases, the poor don’t get access to it as the procedures are cumbersome and they have no way of fulfilling it.

She says, “The cases that we pursue as well don’t get 100 per cent relief. They get only 50 per cent or even lesser which does not solve their problem. Thus there is a need to develop an emergency fund that can be created by funding NGOs who can collaborate with each other and raise a few lakhs from institutional or individual donations.

“This fund can then be used to provide financial aid to children who really need it. The aim should be to cut down paper work and try and release the money for treatment with 5-6 hours after the application from patient’s family is received.”

Agrees Chandra Kishore Rastogi, President, Hari Om Sewa Trust, an NGO that works at CSMMU helping arrange funds and medicines for the needy free of cost, “The situation is quite serious as our society has become quite insensitive. It is of utmost importance that an alternative funding source be developed for children who need emergency care or else a lot many innocent lives will be lost.”

This is corroborated by S.K. Jaitley , Executive Member, Kalyanam Karoti, an organisation that provides the handicapped free medical aid and helps funds eye and limb operation of the underprivileged. “To expect that the government will do everything is just wishful thinking. If children facing an emergency situation have to benefit from any kind of financial aid on humanitarian grounds, it should reach them within six to seven hours of placing the request. This is not possible in the present government set up. So an alternative system has to be devised.” But then, who will take the initiative for such a fund is a point to ponder.
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Taking care of security
Get priorities right to face challenges
by Maj-Gen Pushpendra Singh (retd)

INDIA’s strategic environment has altered dramatically. In a perilous situation, we face three tough challenges (China has played a conspicuous role in two of them).

First, Pakistan has been adding quantitative and qualitative teeth to its nuclear arsenal with two Chinese supplied plutonium reactors in its Khushab facility, indicating success of its efforts to produce advanced compact warheads. A US Congressional research service report now credits Pakistan with developing parity with India, even as it continues expanding and accelerating its nuclear weapons programme.

The report says, Pakistan achieved this through concealed and hardened missile silos complemented by mobile missiles, all under upgraded air-defence shields. These revelations do have a ring of authenticity.

Meanwhile, North Korea called the West’s bluff to emerge from the nuclear closet as an overt Nuclear Weapon State (NWS) and exposed the West’s’ toothless threats. The efficacy of UN-imposed sanctions rests critically on Chinese enforcement – a doubtful proposition. Can Iran now be far behind, if Ahmadinejad’s resounding re-election gets confirmed?

The Asian landmass is fairly bristling with NWS actors. Our nine-year-old nuclear deterrent remains ‘work-in- progress’. Our Scud-type liquid-fuelled missiles can only reach Pakistan whose missiles of Chinese and North Korean origin are decidedly superior. China has stepped forward its India-targeted missiles to Tibet, minimising our reaction time for detection of launch and for taking defensive measures. In response, our retaliatory second strike cannot reach even close to China’s heartland.

A pre-requisite for a no-first-use policy – which we have declared – is a credible second-strike capability. This remains only a wish. Our nuclear submarine, the backbone of a second-strike against China, is still to undergo many months of sea trials. There is thus a definite urgency to rev up the induction of China-capable missiles and credible, SLBM-equipped nuclear submarines. Concomitantly, our recessed nuclear posture needs a review along with a reliable C4I2SR structure in place.

The second facet relates to the US policy in our region. Analysts consider that its Af-Pak policy has ignored India’s legitimate security concerns. The Bush Administration had reversed the traditional US tilt towards Pakistan and forged a closer relationship between the oldest and largest democracies. Now, the Obama-people seem to have reverted to type by blind-siding India’s legitimate security interests. While Obama meticulously avoided using the K-word in conjunction with its Af-Pak formulation, limiting the war on terror to Afghanistan and Pakistan while going soft on Pak-exported terror to India, is unlikely to succeed.

Then again, yielding to Pak pressure and giving it unconditional and substantial aid ignores the 40-year history of such aid being utilised against us. Therefore, UPA-II has its task cut out in placing our legitimate regional concerns on the US radar. No lasting solution to the ‘jihadi’-terror can ignore its Kashmir-centric facet.

Even as Pakistan grapples with its internal devils we need to remain alert to any attempts to divert public attention from its problems by raising the India-bogey and attempting yet another military misadventure against us. Ee must have contingency plans in place to preclude jihadis’ access to WMDs. This calls for enhanced intelligence efficacy and a plan for plugging gaps in our conventional capability.

The final facet concerns the newly revealed pugnacity in China’s gheraoing of India. In addition to the string-of-pearls naval bases designed to control Indian Ocean’s nodal sea-lanes, China has moved to undermine India’s ties with Nepal and Sri Lanka besides helping Pakistan enhance its nuclear weapons programme.

The articulation of its now-evident animosity results from success of sustained strategic efforts. The rail link to Lhasa (being extended to Kathmandu), support of Maoists in Nepal and emergence of a strong blue-ocean fleet with sophisticated SLBM-equipped nuclear submarines are all products of a decades-long strategic vision pursued with sustained and purposeful vigour. This is in such sharp contrast to MoD’s failure to produce even a single strategy paper in 62 years – or even to approve, comment on, or reject the 11th Defence Plan, three years after the clock for the Plan started ticking. Time and events do not await MoD’s convenience!

Consequently, India’s defence and strategic preparedness has been irresolute and patchy and simply unequal to the severe challenges confronting the nation.

Last week, China bared another of its fangs at the Asian Development Bank when it moved to block $2.9 billion credits to India ostensibly because they included development assistance for some Arunachal Pradesh projects. This recalled the relevance of Chanakya’s wisdomin Arthashastra: “it is the Mauryan soldier (read military strength) which alone enables the nation to prosper and grow economically”.

We can break the dragon’s gherao by now looking ahead and starting energetically to meet current challenges; assigning due priority to defence and strategic issues; and above all, reversing decades of sidelining professionals from strategy formulation.

There must be a subtle but sustained diplomatic effort with China’s other neighbours to assuage their nervousness at its Middle Kingdom syndrome. Central to this endeavour must be cementing deeper economic and strategic cooperation with Japan. Others would include Central Asian Republics and ASEAN, specially Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines.

UPA-II should engage the Obama administration to regain some Bush-era warmth and attain some convergence between respective strategic perceptions. Given Clinton’s Indian friends, getting our message across would be simple but achieving a degree of congruity will need much hard work, considering the administration’s declared priorities. Some insurance will need to be taken out by fostering closer understanding with Russia, UK and EU countries.

While UPA-II sets its priorities in restoring double-digit growth and poverty alleviation, it would be fruitful to recall Chanakya’s ancient wisdom and also propel India to strategic security, militarily and diplomatically. But the big challenge may lie in finding the will to boldly confront strategic challenges facing the nation.
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Profile
Sinha for Kamaraj Plan in BJP
by Harihar Swarup

A resignation a day keeps chinta (worry) and chintan (introspection) away. This applies aptly to the present state of affairs in the BJP. After Yashwant Sinha and Arjun Jaitley quit their party posts, former Uttaranchal Chief Minister Bhagat Singh Koshyari resigned from the Rajya Sabha and then withdrew it. Sinha was first to raise the banner of revolt, attacking the BJP leadership for shying away from a proper chintan and asking others to follow suit.

He veered round to the view that the party’s electoral defeat is a collective responsibility. When nobody came forward to take the responsibility, he was the first person to tender his resignation from party posts including that of the party vice-president’s office.

Sinha felt that some sort of a "Kamaraj Plan" may be formulated for reforming the party structure. He shot off an angry letter to BJP President Rajnath Singh saying, "It appears, as if, some persons in the party are determined to ensure that the principle of accountability does not prevail so that their own little perch is not disturbed". He suggested that let the party implement its own "Kamaraj Plan" under which all office-bearers of the party and parliamentary party should resign from their posts.

Like many important leaders, Sinha does not have RSS background. However, he held important positions in the BJP and the government. He held key portfolios of Finance and External Affairs in the Vajpayee government. He was the spokesman when the BJP’s leadership drafted him to contest the Lok Sabha election from Hazaribagh in his erstwhile home state of Bihar.

Sinha was a resounding success. He says his precept has always been that "you should tell the truth or hang on by the very verge of truth". Among the spokespersons of political parties, Sinha was undoubtedly regarded as one of the best.

Unlike other BJP ministers, Sinha comes altogether from a different background. He neither belongs to the RSS cadre nor has a very long association with the BJP. He joined the party towards the fag end of 1993 and before taking the step he resigned from the Rajya Sabha membership. He was then a member of Chandra Shekhar’s party.

Sinha is a latecomer in politics having given up his 24-year long career as an IAS officer of the Bihar cadre. He joined the Janata Party as late as 1988 and was elected to the Rajya Sabha. When the Janata Party merged with the Janata Dal, he became JD’s general secretary. Come 1989 elections, V.P. Singh became the Prime Minister and he offered Sinha to join the government as a Minister of State. Sinha declined but when the JD split after two years and Chandra Shekhar became the Prime Minister with the Congress’ outside support, Sinha became the Finance Minister. His term lasted barely for seven months.

Jayaprakash Narayan has left an abiding impact on Sinha. In fact, he wanted to bid goodbye to the IAS much earlier but the Sarvodaya leader dissuaded him from taking such a course of action. Sinha first came in contact with JP when he was the District Magistrate of Santhal Pargana in Bihar. He was transferred following a tiff with the then Chief Minister Mahamaya Prasad.

Sinha decided to meet JP and it was after that meeting that the Sarvodaya leader issued a statement that ministers should stop misbehaving with officers.

When JP went around the world after the Bangladesh war explaining India’s case as emissary of Indira Gandhi, Sinha was posted at Bonn. He looked after the Sarvodaya leader’s itinerary and accompanied him during his visit to Germany. JP was impressed by the young officer’s drive and the relationship continued till the lifetime of the Lok Nayak.

As India’s Consul General in Bonn, Sinha handled, among other things, India’s relations with the European Economic Community. In his long career in IAS, he acquired wide experience in finance and industry. Initially, he had a stint in Bihar Government’s Finance department and then shifted to Delhi on deputation to work with the Ministries of Commerce, Industry and Surface Transport.

Sinha had also the opportunity to work with two Chief Ministers of Bihar —Karpoori Thakur and Ram Sunder Das. Besides JP, Karpooriji had influenced him a great deal and paved the way for his joining politics.
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On Record
Promoting inexpensive games
by M.S. Unnikrishnan

Dr Manohar Singh Gill
Dr Manohar Singh Gill

Dr Manohar Singh Gill has been a proactive Sports Minister. His hands-on approach has helped solve many knotty issues, particularly concerning the 2010 Commonwealth Games. A retired IAS officer, who had a long stint as the Chief Election Commissioner, he knows the pulse of the bureaucracy well and deftly manages to get his job done.

Interestingly, he would not take no for an answer. He speaks about his plans for Indian sports in an interview to The Sunday Tribune.

Excerpts:

Q: Is there any change in your work after elevation to the Cabinet rank?

A: Elevation does not change anything. I had greater control of the Ministry when I had independent charge, except of course I had to go to the Cabinet for greater funds or to the Prime Minister for something. The Cabinet rank gives me the privilege to sit in the highest policy-making body of the country on a regular basis and try and contribute something to issues beyond sports.

My policy will be to promote inexpensive sports and games, which could be played on any surface, in all-weather conditions, in six lakh villages across the country. The Government has earmarked Rs 1500 crore to promote rural sports in the 11th five-year Plan. Last year, we distributed Rs 300 crore on this head, and Punjab got Rs 12.5 crore. Football is No 1 on my list. I am doing everything to revive it. Punjab has a great tradition in football, which has produced Jairnail Singh, Inder Singh etc. The greatest football stars come out of the poverty of Brazil. Last year, I managed to assemble nine of the players who played in the Melbourne Olympics, and gave them financial incentives.

Hockey touches the heart of the country, and we have plans to revive it too. We had a great record in athletics during the times of Milkha Singh, P.T.Usha...but we have not gone beyond that. We have to revive athletics too.

Q: What are the main issues confronting Indian sports?

A: Lack of infrastructure and misplaced priority. Earlier, major games like football, hockey and athletics were put in category B while lesser games were in category A. I changed all that.

Q: How do you plan to improve the sports infrastructure?

A: I have sanctioned a new astro-turf to the Guru Nanak Dev University (Amritsar). Another turf will be laid at Jalandhar’s Punjab Armed Police Centre. Punjab Police has a great name in sports, hocky in particular. A synthetic athletic track will be laid at the Government Stadium at Taran Tarn. We will lay 20 training turfs, which will be half the size of a full hockey turf, across the country.

Q: What about Commonwealth Games infrastructure?

A: We have made tremendous progress in the construction of seven stadiums under the control of the Sports Authority of India, including the building of a bridge connecting the Games Village across the Yamuna to the Nehru Stadium. We have also sorted out the technical problems regarding the construction of the shooting range, the velodrome and the swimming pool.

Q: What are your plans on training our sportspersons?

A: The Centre sanctioned Rs 678 crore last year. This will work out to nearly Rs 300 crore a year up to the Commonwealth Games. About 1400 sportspersons have been selected by various federations for best training facilities, including foreign exposure. The swimmers are being trained in Europe for 75 days.

Q: Are you keen on improving hockey?

A: We have got a new foreign coach, Jose Brasa of Spain. We will give him the facilities needed to improve hockey. We will also set up a democratic hockey body as India will host the 2010 World Cup Hockey Championship in Delhi. We will resolve the hockey issue sensibly and democratically.
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