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

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

Nicknamed ‘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 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

For 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

A 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

A 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 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.