I have been frequenting multiple Pune sports clubs over the past two decades. So I have kind of been a witness to how sports establishments seem to have moved from being open, sports centers to elitist recreation clubs. It seems like it will only be a matter of time before a “Dogs & Indians Not Allowed*” kind of board gets put up at these clubs. Through this blog, I hope to highlight what I think has gone wrong and some possible solutions.
This blog is primarily based on Deccan Gymkhana and PYC Gymkhana in Pune, as those are the clubs where I have spent most time over the past 20 years. However I believe most of the points below would apply to many such clubs across India.
To begin with, and to give credit where due, Deccan Gymkhana has significantly improved sports infrastructure, especially with tennis and swimming (Tilak Tank). PYC hasn’t fared anywhere near as well as regards sports, but yes the PYC ground (what’s left of it), is now green unlike the dust bowl of the past.
For those who think that this is a “grapes are sour” post from a sulking non-member, absolutely! I too wonder if I would have written this post if I had secured a cheap life membership 10-20 years back. Even so, I write this post in the spirit of reform and not as an attack on these revered institutions. I hope it is received as such.
This article is primarily an examination of the new culture and approach of these “clubs”. It’s not about wanting freebies. Charge whatever is fair, but don’t create modern India’s equivalent of “restricted temples and wells*”.
I know that there are many well-meaning, sports-loving people still actively involved with these clubs. So it’s with great optimism and hope that I am writing this piece. It can happen that even the well-meaning at times lose perspective and get drawn into the flow. Hopefully this piece will get them thinking and I hope they will forgive me in case any of the following seems offensive.
The sports facilities at these clubs are great assets to the neighbourhood, and I do hope that these institutions thrive and produce many Olympic champions in the years to come.
Evolution Of The Clubs
The membership at most reputed sports clubs costs about a million rupees or more these days. I really can’t figure out why any sports person would spend that kind of money for a mere club membership. There are probably a million better ways for a sportsman to spend a million rupees. So the fees are obviously not for the sports, but for the supposed status associated with the membership and any status-boosting privileges.
Many of Pune’s sports clubs are per-independence and in some cases over a century old. So it would be unfair to judge them without delving into their history and the ideals on which these clubs were founded.
Q1. Were they founded for social good or as a business enterprise?
Q2. Who were the founders? Were they altruistic sportsmen/social workers or local businessmen?
Q3. Were the clubs formed for improvement in sports or as social hangouts / networking places?
Q4. Were they created for use by the British or for use by the “natives” / commoners?
You find that most of these clubs were founded by altruistic Indians, for use by the ordinary Indian. Also the clubs were formed not just “primarily”, but “solely” for the promotion of sports.
Deccan Gymkhana had the great “Lokmanya Tilak” leading the charge. The PYC website says “A few young and enthusiastic cricketers formed ‘Poona Young Cricketers’ Hindu Gymkhana’, a club for promoting cricket and other sports.”
Most Punekars today would find it difficult to believe that PYC is actually a sports organization named “Poona Young Cricketers” and not primarily a restaurant, bar and community hall.
PYC’s tag line today reads “Membership that spells class“. I do not know the origins of this line, but it really would have been difficult to come up with a worse line for a sports organization. That PYC is so blatant about promoting itself as a prestige institution and not a sports organization, surely does not augur well for the future of sports at PYC.
The PYC membership page goes even further, as there’s not one word there about sports. It says: “Permanent membership is granted to the eminent persons of the society who has a standing for themselves in the field of business and / or profession and who enriches the PYC membership.” .
To add to it, almost all these clubs are run as charitable organizations/ trusts, and as far as I know, are located on land procured for a social cause. Even if the land was procured pre-independence, the reason for procurement still matters.
The websites unfortunately do not disclose any specifics of the land holdings or even the annual reports. I was unable to locate relevant land info online. Please add a comment if you have any additional info, either way.
As for PYC, it’s also disappointing that even in India of 2015, the club members did not find it appropriate to drop the religion from the name, so as to come across as welcoming to all. I would be very surprised if the club membership data does not vindicate my theory.
So if the intent of the founders was altruism and sports for the masses… What’s gone wrong?
It’s only natural human tendency to look to build as high an entry barrier as possible, as soon as they themselves get in. That seems to be exactly what’s playing out at these clubs.
Most of the old guard are perhaps thankful that they are already in, and that the million rupee members are subsidizing their luxury. The million rupee members would want to guard the club status at all cost, including at the cost of sports.
Also for the non-sports inclined members, it makes sense to want the clubs to move from being sports bodies to prestigious recreational centers and in some cases fancy restaurant-bar / business networking centers.
Try this: Call any club and ask them about using any facility there. You are either refused point blank / actively discouraged / told that all the reasonable slots are reserved. If you still persist, you are asked to pay an obscene amount for the most inconvenient day & time possible. Most usually give up at this stage.
Facilities will often lie grossly underutilized/unutilized, and yet “reserved” !
Unlike the west, Indians do not have the luxury of public sports amenities or public exercise centers. I am not saying that makes the clubs responsible for it. But to highlight that these clubs do matter, not just for Indians to excel at sports but even for public health and well being.
I cannot see how someone from an underprivileged or even a modest income family can possibly make it in sports in India today, if every sports center is going to restrict access and get morphed into an elitist club.
The clubs have even discontinued basic things like the humble “Day Pass” for non-members and even the monthly pass in many cases. This ensures that the members feel privileged to have “exclusive” “anytime-anyday” access while non-members are either turned away or forced into pricey quarterly/yearly passes.
Such “prestige” enhancing policies might make good business sense if these clubs were 100% businesses run by private companies. But these clubs are not companies, but trusts/ societies /charities. Considering the stature of the founders and the original goals, these clubs should not be run as mere profit-making businesses for a select few.
To reiterate, I am not suggesting that the clubs should dole out freebies. They should certainly charge whatever is the fair price. It’s the restricted / outright denial of access that’s the issue here. Expecting people to pay a million rupees and become an insider, is far-fetched, to say the least.
While the lack of access is greatly bothersome, the humiliation inflicted on non-members is probably what causes most pain.
It’s not like non-members weren’t humiliated in the past. I distinctly remember how in the 90s, I had to wait for endless hours for an arrogant official to interrogate me and then “approve” my temporary gymnasium membership at Deccan Gymkhana. Ridiculously enough, we had to get his “approval” even for every renewal.
So while the sarkari attitude and red-tape was just as bad back then, today we have not just loads of red tape but also remarkable snobbery being inculcated in the system, in what seems like an attempt to build an elite image for the club.
I would have played hundreds of hours of table tennis at PYC in the 90s, but I don’t recall ever being bothered because I was not a permanent member. These days they either shoo me away at the door or interrogate me before they even let me step into the premises.
They don’t frisk non-members as yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if even that practice is initiated under the guise of security.
At every step you are reminded of your “inferior” status, at every corner you are wary of a guard shooing you away.
Only a few days back my wife was asked to vacate a seat in an unmarked,uncovered open space (Figure 1) at Deccan Gymkhana, as that was supposedly reserved for permanent members. Arguing with the security is futile, so the best option is usually to carry yourself and your hurt ego elsewhere.
Even sicker is (Figure2) . These “non-member” moms accompanying their kids to tennis coaching, had to sit on the canteen floor, as canteen seating is members-only. So even if non-members buy stuff from the canteen, they have to either stand or sit on the floor and consume it!
If you occupy a canteen chair, you are supposed to pay a Rs.50 per person fine for your transgression!
I was disgusted when I learned of this a couple of days back. If you thought Gandhi at Pietermaritzburg station or Rosa Parks on the bus, are historical references with no relevance today, think again!
To me, this is like the 2015 avatar of the British Raj and the Caste System. Instead of color / race / caste , you are now humiliated based on on your financial worth.
I am no socialist, but there’s a limit to what one can justify under capitalism / consumerism.
That the women tolerate such policies is actually almost as shocking and disappointing.
No one expects any sports facilities or any other facilities free of charge, but ensuring human dignity is certainly expected. A chair is pretty much as basic as it gets.
Entry Mystery: Some members have got back saying that Rs.50 is supposed to be an entry fee at DG. It’s not only strange that this supposed fee is levied only if you occupy a chair,but it’s even stranger that there is no sign or board at DG that mentions the entry fee (as of March2015).
Also if charging for the chair is so critical for the club, it could still be done in a dignified manner. Put up a board, ask the canteen operator to inform before serving and to collect the chair fee. Security guards swooping down and fining “offenders”, is just not done.
If prestige policies are so very important, the clubs at least need to be transparent about them.
Figure 2 is possibly what got me to finally put down this long pending post.
Even the club toilets are marked as ‘members only’. I am not aware of what’s the penalty if a non-member is caught using the prestigious loo.
6 year old security threat
My 6yr old son has been utilizing the tennis coaching facility (as a temporary member) at DG for almost a year, yet when I once forgot to carry his entry card along, the security (who see us all the time) insisted that we walk around the ground (10 min walk) and enter from the back gate. While temporary members are just about tolerated at the main gate, non-members I was told were only allowed entry from the back gate !
The staff wouldn’t budge even when I suggested that they at least let my son enter, so that he does not miss his batch timing and that I will comply and walk to the back gate. They had “orders” he said (to not use common sense?) .
What remarkable hospitality in the land of Atithi Devo Bhava!
While I was initially very annoyed, I was later also amused to note how power has this remarkable ability to corrupt one and all. How rude is refusing entry to a public place to a human being, especially a child! And the guards thought absolutely nothing of it.
About the 50 rupee entry fee argument already mentioned above a) I was not aware of the secret 50 rupee thing at that time b) The guards didn’t ask me to pay for entry passes, but refused entry and asked me to head for the non-member back door.
So along the walk, I wondered if this was the capitalism equivalent of untouchables being denied access to wells and temples. I wondered if the under-privileged are the new untouchables in India and if modern day Ambedkars and Sawarkars would have to fight for access to modern amenities instead of temples and wells!
In my opinion, justice and equity demands that all humans who have any business at a place should have access from all entrances. It’s anyway become a shamefully common practice for residential buildings to have a separate servants’ entrance and servants’ elevator. This non-member back gate is pretty much the same thing.
We did walk over to the other side. I am not sure what my son thought of the humiliation inflicted, but I hope he grew wiser from the experience and the discussion that we had along the way.
I have fond memories of the vintage gymnasium at Deccan Gymkhana (circa late 90s) that had old style gym equipment along with a few modern machines. IMHO it had more than adequate exercise equipment for anybody serious about health and exercise.
The best part was that the members included all kinds, from auto-rickshaw drivers to millionaires. I suppose the auto-rickshaw driver would be terrified to even step anywhere near the club today.
Back then, all users of the clubs could park their vehicles inside the premises of the clubs. So even a rickety scooter was just as welcome as a swanky car.
However these days, hundreds of vehicles belonging to visitors and non-members, jam the tiny bylanes in the area, while the internal parking lots lie grossly underutilized for most of the day. Again, a parking charge is perfectly fine.
Alcohol & Sports Don’t Mix
I really don’t see how alcohol and health/sports can go together. I am not aware of any scientific research that recommends alcohol for sports, however there’s a truck load of research that recommends the opposite.
Alcohol also seems to attract a different profile of people to sports organizations, which slowly but surely transforms the culture of the place.
There’s no dearth of restaurant and bars in any Indian city. So why force alcohol on the few centers of health and sport that we do have.
India has a law that says that alcohol and tobacco cannot be sold within 100 meters of a school or college. I believe that we need something similar for sports establishments as well.
My father is a founder member of a reputed sports center in Mumbai. I can now better appreciate why he & the other founder sportsmen constantly refused to serve alcohol at the club. The argument in favour of alcohol was that alcohol will bring in huge revenues that could be used for sports. Fortunately the founders could foresee the effect of alcohol.
Spin out types of memberships: a) “Sports” memberships that get you access to the sports facilities but no preferential access to the restaurant, card rooms, community halls, cultural events… b) If the clubs have to retain the non-sport services, spin them out into a separate “Prestige / Elite / First-Class” memberships. Hail the prestige members as royalty if you wish, give them preferential access to the restaurant, card rooms, community halls, lounges and cultural events. But no preferential access to sports facilities and core services.
I suspect a lot of people would go with the “prestige” membership and would be happy to not have to pay the “sports” component.
Stand Out: Another argument is that this is how most clubs operate these days. But because that’s the norm, does not necessarily make it right. The clubs could be trendsetters by choosing to stay open, welcoming and sporty.
Stick to duration memberships: Although this won’t work for the established clubs, newer sports centers could look at just sticking to duration based (daily/monthly/yearly) memberships.
Cut back on security: Most clubs are currently wasting fortunes on security. There are guards teeming all over the place. You would think these clubs were casinos with multi-million transactions happening all day. It is ok to guard against misbehaviour / theft, but in reality an overwhelming majority of security staff is in place only to stroke egos and supposedly enhance the prestige of the club! I appreciate that maintaining a hygienic, litter and spit free facility can be challenging, so keep whatever staff you need for a safe and clean environment, but no more.
Prestige / Sports: The clubs could perhaps try categorizing expenses as sports” and “prestige” on a trial basis. I am fairly certain that the results would be shocking.
Transparency: If at all the prestige policies are so very critical to the clubs, at least decide a definte list at a members meeting and put up signs all over the place about precisely what is allowed/ to whom/ charges… Keeping it open to interpretation and at the discretion of admin / security, only makes matters worse and prone to abuse.
People Friendly: Until a few years back, these clubs were open to all, they actually weren’t even known as “clubs” but just grounds/courts with some other facilities. I have spent a lot of time just watching up close many of Maharashtra’s top cricketers practice at PYC. The players didn’t mind and were even happy to talk after practice. Fortunately there was no security guard menace back then.
I don’t get how letting sports enthusiasts watch some sports or just feel the buzz, is somehow detrimental to the clubs? You could certainly stop them from misbehaving or from “using” the court / ground or any sports facility, but not letting the layman even enter the premise, is IMHO unbecoming of institutions that were formed on the noble ideals of sports promotion.
I appreciate that sports clubs morphing into prestige badges is not a Pune or India only problem. I recently read Ilie Nastase’s autobiography, where he mentions how the “Lords” at Wimbledon won’t grant him membership despite being a past Wimbledon finalist!
It’s really up to the rational and equitable in these clubs to decide if they want the club to take an open, sporty and welcoming approach to the future or adopt a modern form of apartheid based on wealth and status.
— Update 25th March 2015.
- The argument that I am asking for facilities for free, is IMHO an intentional distortion of the article, so as to not have to address the core issue of the clubs’ culture. Charging fair price for services is perfectly fine. It’s the restriction / denial of access that’s the issue. Please revisit the piece.
- Some readers have found the “Dogs and Indians” title offensive. Please note that there’s a historical context to “Dogs and Indians” <– Link
- Some have argued that Rs.50 is supposed to be an entry fee at DG. However for unknown reasons, there is no sign or board saying so (as of March 2015).
- Even if we presume that Rs. 50 is actually an entry fee, expecting the parent accompanying the child (“paid” temp member) to pay Rs.50 every day to drop/pick/watch the child, would pretty much be the end of kids’ sports at the club.
- Also unlike a school, the club takes no responsibility for the kids (i am not saying that it should), so there’s no way any parent is going to leave his/her kid/s unattended at the club. Also many parents travel for hours from remote corners of Pune to these clubs.
- As for my comment on the PYC name, there’s nothing “wrong” with it. I have said that I am “disappointed” to see it being retained, as I think it’s important that sports organizations come across as caste,creed,religion… neutral.
- Yes, I will be submitting this blog to the office of DG and PYC.
— Update 22 April 2015
- Was amused and pleasantly surprised to read in Pullela Gopichand’s biography (Pg. 274) that while Gopichand was was looking to setup his badminton academy in Hyderabad, “Gopi would simply not allow liquor, gambling, bars or normal restaurants inside the academy. He did not want the center to be mistaken for a club or a gymkhana.”