Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Gulmarg Nostalgia-XI (First National Winter Games-I)

The Winter Games Federation of India was constituted in 1984 under the aegis of the Indian Olympic Association, to promote Winter Games, enhance India’s standing by encouraging competitiveness and imparting opportunity for excellence to the promising skiers. With this view in mind, the 1st National Skiing Championship was held at Gulmarg in the year 1986.
The 1st National Championship in 1986 was instrumental in India’s participation in the 1st Winter Asian Games held at Sapporo in Japan. These games were organised by the Winter Games Federation under the presidentship of Admiral Jain. We had been aiming for these games in 1984 itself immediately after the setting up of WGFI but there were some handicaps. First was the right kind of ski equipment and a lift to the starting point of the racing slopes. Most of our international standard racing slopes were above Khilanmarg. So the conducting of these games involved two aspects. One was the equipping of Gulmarg with requisite implements to hold the games and second was the logistics during the conduct of these games such as preparation of slopes and rescue arrangements. I convinced General Prem Hoon who was the Army commander and Admiral Jain that we will arrange equipment from abroad. General agreed to provide the logistic support. On this the Winter Games Federation of India decided to hold the First Winter Games in Gulmarg in March, 1986.
Immediately after the declaration of hosting of winter Games in Gulmarg, we started plans for importing the equipment. The import of equipment in itself was an interesting exercise. In order to speed up the process, we consulted our French friends regarding the type of equipment needed as well as its quantity. We would need at lest 200 sets of ski equipment, electronic timer gates, and rescue equipment like ski-sledges etc. After some deliberations, it was decided that the quickest mode to import equipment would be through the State Trading Corporation of India. They had telex connections with most of the trading capitals in Europe and could invite offers on telex. After finalising the list of equipment with requisite specifications we forwarded it to the STC. They immediately invited global tenders and consulted us after preparing a detailed comparative statement. Following selection of the most suitable and high quality equipment, we asked them to place the orders. However, they asked us to place the entire amount at their disposal before they could place the orders. The cost of the equipment including its freight by air to Delhi was estimated at rupees one and a half crores. It was not an easy job to get an advance sanction for placing such a huge amount at the disposal of STC. However, we got the needful done in a week’s time. G M Shah was the Chief Minister and he was very keen for holding these games. After this we had to get the necessary foreign exchange released from the Ministry of Economic Affairs. Those days Surjit Singh Bhalla, who had been a ski instructor was posted in the J & K Tourist Office at New Delhi. Due to some neck injury while skiing at Gulmarg, the government had posted him in Delhi as the in charge of the Tourist Office to enable his medical treatment. He informed me that Mr. Madhav Lal, a J & K cadre IAS officer (present Chief Secretary, J & K) was Director in the Ministry of Economic Affairs in charge for releasing foreign exchange. We needed a recommendation from the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, before the release could be effected.
The Union Secretary Tourism those days was Dr. Nitish Sen Gupta, a fine gentleman and a positive officer. I called on him and explained our project for importing ski equipment for Gulmarg to enable holding of National winter Games. He asked me how he could help. I told him that we needed a letter of recommendation from him to Economic Affairs Ministry. He offered me a cup of coffee and called his stenographer to dictate the letter. By the time I finished my coffee, the letter was handed over to me. I went straight to Ministry of Economic Affairs to call on Mr. Madhav Lal. He too offered me a cup of coffee and asked for the letter which I handed over to him. He marked the letter to one of his sub-ordinate officers. I asked him how many days it would take to get the sanction for the release of the foreign exchange? He asked me to relax and enjoy the coffee. After only half an hour his man came with the release order. I was utterly surprised and asked him how it was possible? He smiled and told me that in the Central Government every officer has his defined delegation. The amount required by us was within his delegation. During my various visits to Delhi I found the J & K Cadre Officers posted in Central Ministries very helpful. One had only to approach them and they would try their best to solve any problem faced by us.
Next hurdle was the custom duty. We would be attracting a duty of almost two crores at the rate of 140% of the value. We had engaged Balmer & Laurie, the Government clearing agency for arranging the clearance and despatch of the equipment through customs. Mr.Dharam Vir senior executive (now head of the company) asked me to get a letter from the State Chief Minister to Union Finance Minister for granting exemption from custom duty as similar exemption had been given to Himachal Pradesh. We arranged this immediately and Bhalla followed it up in the Finance Ministry. However, after a couple of weeks we got a letter from the Finance Ministry stating that it was not possible to grant the exemption. As usual, the double standards. But there were other people with good will for Kashmir. Dharam Vir informed me that there was a Finance Ministry notification that all sports goods meant for National Games were totally exempt from custom duty. We needed a certificate to the effect that the ski equipment being imported by J & K was meant for National Games. Bhalla got the requisite certificate from the Winter Games Federation of India attested by the Sports Authority of India. Armed with these certificates we approached the Controller Imports who luckily happened to be a Kashmiri, Mr.M K Zutshi, a smart, honest and a dynamic officer! He entertained us with tea and coffee and was thrilled to know that we had arranged import of the most modern ski equipment. He had been sledging in Gulmarg on wooden planks! He ordered clearance of entire equipment without payment of any custom duty immediately on arrival at Delhi airport. Thus we had saved Kashmir Government over rupees two crores and had got the latest equipment. Once we had the equipment in Gulmarg, we began preparations for the Games which I will describe in the next episode.

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