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The Tragedy Of Being A Sportsperson In India: Once Olympic Winners, Now Vegetable Vendors

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By Arati Nair

Amitabh Bachchan’s ‘Le Panga‘ theme song for the brand new season of the Pro Kabaddi India League tournament has taken the Internet by storm. As one of his die-hard fans, I bobbed my head in sync with the peppy beats too, though I’m hardly a kabaddi enthusiast. With the advent of such leagues for cricket, football, kabaddi etc., the sports industry has grown into a behemoth with passionate fans throughout the nation.

But erstwhile sportspeople of the country could care less about such glamorous developments. They are more concerned with the crushing poverty that haunts them and the means to get two square meals a day. India has had a chronic propensity for selective amnesia with regard to sportspeople of yore. To name a few:

Shanti Devi

Then – Kabaddi Player

Shanti Devi was once a pro kabaddi player in India. Making her debut for Bihar in the 25th National Kabaddi Championship in 1976, Shanti represented the state in ten national tournaments, serving as captain during 1983 and 84. She also won the silver medal in the Guwahati National Kabaddi League.

Now- Vegetable Vendor

But her feathered hat is useless today, for all her long forgotten historic achievements can do little to feed her and her family. The fall from grace became complete when she was compelled to sell vegetables at the local market in Jamshedpur to make ends meet. Married to a labourer with few fulfilling job prospects, Shanti continues to struggle to keep her family afloat.

A story in The Telegraph in 2004 highlighted her plight, but a decade later, the situation remains largely unchanged. Shanti Devi remembers her kabaddi days with bitter resentment. Numerous assurances made to her for a job by politicians, bureaucrats and activists have all turned out hollow. It is little surprise then that the catchphrase ‘Le Panga’ fails to enthuse her.
Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav

Then- Wrestler

khashaba jadhavNicknamed ‘Pocket Dynamo’, Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav was the first Indian to win an individual medal at the Olympics. At the 1952 Helsinki Games, Jadhav brought glory to his motherland by winning the bronze medal in freestyle wrestling. His journey to the Olympics was fraught with difficulties, but persevering against the corrupt officialdom, he eventually emerged victorious.

Now- Police Inspector

KD Jadhav joined the police force as a sub-inspector and retired as Assistant Commissioner. In his old age he was even denied pension and died in a road accident in 1984 with none the wiser. But another battle for dignity continues to rage after his demise. While all medal winning Olympians in India have been conferred with the coveted Padma Award, a glitch in the rules for awarding the same posthumously has deprived India’s first individual Olympic medallist of the honour.

K.D. Jadhav’s son, Ranjit, angered by the snub to his legendary father, has even talked of throwing away the bronze medal that has long been forgotten.

Rashmita Patra

rashmita patraRashmita Patra, a busy wife and mother, had her glorious football career snuffed out even before it could take off.

Then- Footballer

From the young age of twelve, she had been an ardent footballer with many accolades to her credit. Rashmita participated in many state and national level tournaments. Her team represented India internationally in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for the under-16 women’s qualifier at Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia in 2008.

In 2010, the Odisha team won the national women’s football for under-19 in Cuttack, courtesy of her awe-inspiring performance. One year later, she again played for India in the senior AFC qualifying round and won the country an invitational series in Bahrain.

She was also part of the Odisha team that won the senior women’s football championship in Bhillai in 2012.

Now-Betel Shop Owner

But that is all ancient history now. Pitted against adverse conditions of poverty, she started a betel shop in Atul, Bhubaneshwar, detached from her favourite sport.

Rashmita’s past plaudits robbed her of an education when she took up football, forgoing her matriculation exam as well. Inept for a job herself, and married to a man without a fixed income, Rashmita was rewarded the short end of the stick with few takers for her cause. In an interview to the Hindustan Times, she candidly expressed how her passion for football was thwarted by financial constraints- “Football is in my blood but poverty has nipped my career in the bud.

Sarwan Singh

sarwan singhFor a man who made his country proud, Sarwan Singh’s fame is mostly unrecognizable. Today, many of us would flounder if asked about his athletic achievements.

Then- Hurdler

Swaran won the gold medal for 110m hurdles at the 1954 Asian Games. He crossed all 13 hurdles over the 110m track in a historic 14.7 seconds.

Now- Cab Driver/Agricultural Labourer

This hurdler, however, failed to jump across the tallest of hurdles in his life – poverty. Humiliated and distraught, Singh drove a taxi rented out by one of his friends to support his family. After a while, he took to farming to sustain his finances. His coveted Asiad gold remained a relic with no material benefits.

Offered a monthly pension of 1500 rupees, Sarwan Singh struggled to survive by doing odd jobs, working even at the ripe old age of 70.

Shankar Laxman

ShankarLaxman-486041A long time after retiring from hockey, Shankar Laxman did not feature on the media radar. But his death in 2006 left all news portals in a tizzy to draft the most heart-wrenching obituary.

Then-Hockey Player

Laxman was the star goalkeeper of the Indian hockey team during three successive Olympics (1956, 1960 and 1964) and also captain of the team which won the gold medal, trouncing arch rivals Pakistan, at the Asian Games in Bankok in 1966.

Now- Ex-Serviceman

However, Laxman’s acumen on the field was of little consequence in his life after the game. In those days, financial rewards were unheard of. In his final years, suffering from gangrene, this great player succumbed to the ailment with no money for proper treatment.

His prowess on the field could be replicated by few others and even in death his game spoke for him.

Sita Sahu

Then- Sprinter

sita sahuA spirited teenager who won two bronze medals at the Athens Special Olympics in 2011, Sita Sahu did the nation proud after securing third place in the 200m and 1600m race at the Special Olympics.

Now- Golgappa Seller

Amidst the jubiliation of having won those accolades, Sita was also desirous of some assistance from the government to help uplift her from poverty. Left to her own devices though, she now assists her mother make a living by selling golgappas at the local market.

This young girl from Rewa, Madhya Pradesh was promised an award of 1 lakh rupees for her achievement, but nothing has materialised thus far. The government and the bureaucracy are embroiled in a blame game of epic proportions to pay heed to her plight.

The ever-sensible mother of the girl did not wait around for non-existent monetary benefits. She deems it fit to train her daughter in other trades that may serve her better than her speedy run ever did.

Asha Roy

Then- Sprinter

asha royAsha Roy became the fastest female athlete in India when she clocked 11.85 seconds at the 51st National Open Athletics Championships in Kolkata in 2011. She also had impressive speed in the 200 m and 4X100 m relay competitions. A resident of Singhur, West Bengal, Asha is also a budding sprinter and her athletic routine includes a nutritious diet as well.

Now- Vegetable Seller

However, her dietary regime takes a backseat when her family toils to earn a livelihood for itself. The only breadwinner, her father, earns a mere 3000 rupees every month as a vegetable vendor, leaving her bereft of choices.

With varied unfulfilled promises from different political circles, Asha’s dream run has screeched to a halt as a result of abounding apathy and neglect.

Inder Raj

The dichotomy of sports in India is such that the even most revered game of all, cricket, has had an occasional casualty stricken by poverty.

Then- Cricketer

Inder Raj once admired by the legendary Gavaskar for his explosive batting style on the field, is bed-ridden following the amputation of his gangrene-infected leg. Having shared the pitch with the likes of Sunil Gavaskar, Mohinder Amarnath and Syed Kirmani, this star of the 1960s also played for the state Ranji teams of Andhra and Hyderabad.

Now- Bank Job

Such is the cruelty of fate that this talented sportsman was recuperating in a city hospital in 2013 with none of his then famous teammates or the state authorities offering help. He quit the bank job he had taken up after cricket.

His brother, Govind Raj ran from pillar to post at the Hyderabad Cricket Association (HCA) for some economic help with little success. Following reports in the media, the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister of the time, N. Kiran Kumar Reddy stepped in to offer aid to Inder Raj.

The emerging fan-clubs for popular sports and their vehement advocates have only been privy to the limelight of influential sportspeople. The tale of woe of helpless sports legends like the aforementioned has very few takers. While we passionately hunt for sporting talent in the by-lanes of our country and feverishly pray for future Olympic medals, a consideration for the dignified existence of the real unsung heroes of Indian sports would not be amiss.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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