Sat Singh | Apr 19, 2019 | 7 min read
Sonipat: If Haryana is the handsome hero bringing in medals for the country, Sonipat district is his trusty sidekick, because here, every second village has an akhara. However, Sisana village has the lone sports stadium, located on Sonipat-Kharkhoda road.
The biggest village of the prominent Dahiya khap in Sonipat Lok Sabha constituency, it will likely play a key role in deciding the fate of this general election. Reason: Khaps give a lot of priority to sports in the district’s rural areas.
Spread over two acres with a three-foot-high boundary wall, as I walk in, the stadium is abuzz with the shouts of wrestling, kabbadi, and athletics players in the age group of 5 to 35.
Wrestlers in red langot (loin cloth) can be seen grappling on freshly dug earth, as a 50-something coach circles, shouting instructions on the basics of power sports. Meanwhile, a group of young boys look on fascinated, cracking Haryanvi jokes at intervals to lighten the mood.
It’s a muddy mess, all right!
I walk up to national-level wrestler Narendra Dahiya (47), who introduces himself as the caretaker of the akhara. He says the government had made many promises of promoting sports, but at the ground level, precious little has been done.
“Aspiring players are the ones who suffer the most because of an indifferent system. For getting one wrestling mat, we have been running around local authorities’ offices for more than a year; and we have been royally ignored,” Dahiya adds.
He says that though players like Olympic medalist Sushil Kumar, Yogeshwar Dutt, and Bajrang Punia put the spotlight on the sport, facilities or benefits for the young crop of players are none. “A grant for gymnasium-like equipment for the local village stadium was approved around three years ago, but it still hasn’t been released.”
Rakesh Kumar (21), a wrestler, says he is among the hundreds who come to the stadium daily for practice. “I aim to enter the Indian Army through the sports quota and have been coming here to prepare for the physical test as this is the only place available. During rainy season, players have to suspend practice sessions because the ground is wet and there is no indoor facility. We have to wait for days on end for it to dry to restart practice,” he laments.
Son of an armyman and another regular at the village stadium, Anil Kumar (22) says there is only one hall here without ceiling fans and with crumbling walls.
“Government officials siphon off funds sanctioned for sports equipment before they even reach the players, most of whom are from an economically weak background,” says Anil, who is preparing to join the Indian Army, to follow in his father’s footsteps.
Another, Deepak Kumar (21), says they don’t even have a drinking water facility. “Either we have to bring our own water bottle or stay thirsty during the intense physical exertion.”
Deepak adds that summers are the worst, when the mercury touches 40 degrees Celsius and it becomes almost unbearable to keep sweating it out without water.
“Sometimes, players lose consciousness during rigorous training; there isn’t any first aid available either, in case someone sustains an injury,” he fumes.
Who’s the strongest of them all?
It was the success stories of Dutt and Punia that gave the sport of wrestling a shot in the arm, with more and more parents enrolling their wards in private akharas run by veteran wrestlers having name and fame in the vicinity. Here, an aspiring wrestler needs to cough up Rs 5,000-7,000 a month for diet, training, rent of room, and other expenses. The less fortunate, on the other hand, have to battle it out in village akharas without coaches or facilities. Those who get training from both private and local akharas participate in open bouts to make some quick bucks—if they win, they make money; if they lose, they gain experience of wrestling in an open arena with an audience.
The indoor stadium of the famous Pratap Sports School in Kharkhoda — a sub-division of Sonipat district — is one such that is sought after by aspirants for its name.
The multi-story campus running since 2000 has produced hundreds of international-, national-, and state-level wrestlers. People from Haryana and neighbouring states enrol their children here for power sports — wrestling, boxing, judo, and weight-lifting.
A wrestling coach at the school, Sunil Kumar (39) says many of the problems sportspersons face have been addressed since Olympic medalist Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore took charge as Union sports minister. “A regular politician won’t understand sportspersons’ pain as well as a minister from that background will,” he remarks.
However, Kuldeep Malik (52), national coach of the women’s wrestling team at a training centre in Lucknow, opines that political appointments of affluent personalities in sports are more a compulsion due to the huge budget demand for organising national- or state-level championships.
“The government provides only 10-15% of the total budget; the rest is managed through affluent personalities inducted in sports federations,” he says, adding that as long as there is this ‘budget deficit’, this practice will continue.
Nonetheless, Malik gives credit to the current government, saying sports infrastructure at the grass-roots level has improved drastically from earlier.
All play and no support
But Harsh Kumar (24), who won a silver medal in junior wrestling championship, begs to differ. He says national gold medalists used to get Rs 5 lakh earlier for their international achievement, but the current government has reduced the amount to a paltry Rs 25,000.
“How do you expect players to win medals at Olympic level without financial support? This reduction has caused a lot of resentment among wrestlers,” he adds.
And the voice that seconds him is of none other than Babita Phogat, who won the gold in the 2018 Common Wealth Games. She says Haryana has brought more medals for the country at the international level than any other state, and yet, players at the grass-roots level face step-motherly treatment.
“The government had approved a wrestling hall for my village Balali several years ago; petty politics, however, shelved the plan even before it could take shape,” says Phogat.
“So many children take inspiration from us, but we were able to do it only because of our parents’ hard work; there was no outside support. That’s the story of every wrestler in the state.”
She says political parties must include sports-related issues in their manifestos.
When politics is played more than sports
When contacted, Sonipat district sports officer Nirmala Devi says they provide facilities to wrestlers in villages depending on funds from the state government. “Sometimes, the gap in demand and availability of funds makes the situation worrisome; but the sports department is trying its level best to deal with it.”
On non-availability of drinking water, mats, and gymnasiums in Sisana village, she assures that a department team will make a visit and ensure provision of all the missing facilities.
Kharkhoda MLA Jaivir Balmiki from the Congress says the government made promises of nurturing sporting talent at the grass-roots level, but the fact of the matter was that Kharkhoda didn’t have a single stadium.
“Three years ago, Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar had announced that the government would build a stadium in Kharkhoda; not even one brick has been laid. Parents taken on a huge financial burden to admit their sons and daughters in private sports school; those who can’t manage that watch their dreams die in facility-less village akharas,” he adds, claiming to have written to the state government several times to make resources available but to no avail.
In defence, Khattar’s media adviser Rajeev Jain says the state is turning the only government sports school in Rai into a university hub. “The state government will ensure that all requirements of sportspersons are met on a priority basis. It will thoroughly investigate lapses, if any, on part of the district administration.”
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