As Haryana brings sporting glory to country, youth rue political apathy, seek grassroots support, better resources

Sat Singh

Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings €" straight and raw from the ground €" will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.

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Sonipat: Sports academies are to Haryana what colleges are to the rest of the country. Nonetheless, they are in a state of neglect and the state's youth are miffed that the issue is not even on the radar of netas this election season.

In every global sporting event, Haryana's gritty youth win laurels aplenty for the country. The medal tally of this tiny state alone dwarfs all the other states' combined haul. So much so that Haryana has earned the moniker of India's medal magnet, with wrestlers in particular routinely finishing up on the podium. From Yogeshwar Dutt and Bajrang Punia to the Phogat sisters, Haryanvi grapplers have won big at every event, be it the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games or world championships.

However, these accolades come despite the government, not because of it. Having to grapple with administrative apathy remains a major pain point for sportspersons.

Babita Phogat, who has won two gold medals and one silver in the Commonwealth Games and a bronze in World Wrestling Championship, bluntly says that she and her sisters owe their achievements only to their parents, not in the least to the government. As a case in point, she shares that the government had approved construction of a wrestling hall in her village a few years ago but petty politics saw that plan getting shelved.

Stressing upon the fact that Haryana fetches the country a bunch of medals at every international tournament, she says the government ought to have a mechanism to support the athletes. She adds that political parties must state in their manifesto how they plan to complement sportspersons' endeavours. She laments that players at the grassroots level face step-motherly treatment.

President of Haryana's unit of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Naveen Jaihind, acknowledges that this is indeed the case. He says the state grants financial aid to athletes only after they win big at an international event; their road to the top is paved entirely on their own.

He had contested the Lok Sabha election from Rohtak in Haryana in 2014 and is contesting from Sonipat this year. He says AAP is in favour of giving priority in government jobs to players who have competed at district and state-level tournaments €" not just national or global-level ones €" so that they can focus on honing their skills instead of having to worry about funds.

Sports, social fabric

For many Haryanvi families, sporting achievements are a stepping stone to a government job. State government jobs have a 3 percent quota for sportspersons. Radhey Shyam of Gohana in Sonipat district says his son got a job in Haryana police due to his sporting skills and seeing this, tens of his relatives put their boys in wrestling.

Virender Kumar, a farmer from Rohtak district, is one such parent. His son Rakesh, now 18, has been training for wrestling in Sonipat for three years now. Virender says his son is not good in studies but has a flair for sports, so he put him in a wrestling school. He is now hoping his son does well enough in the sporting arena to secure a job in the police or army.

Kumar owns six acres of land and pays about Rs 25,000 every month for his son's coaching.

In Haryana, dangal (as wrestling is called here) and akhara are a way of life. Middle-class and lower-middle class families with a decent agricultural income pay thousands of rupees every month for their child's wrestling training, hoping that it will act as a launchpad for a stable job later on.

Panchayats and khaps (informal organisations of related clans) promote wrestling by regularly organising bouts at the village and block level. The public that comes to watch pools in money, ranging from as low as Rs 10 to Rs 100, and the winner takes home the prize money. Winning these bouts can make an up-and-coming wrestler richer by Rs 10,000 to Rs 50,000.

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Wrestling has been entwined with Haryana's culture since time immemorial. Those promoting the sport are accorded respect for keeping the tradition alive and are seen as its torchbearers. Such is the importance of dangals that politicians often preside over them as chief guests and announce a big amount for the winner to score brownie points with the crowd.

Political support (lack of it)

However, wrestlers believe political parties, and therefore governments, are not serious about extending any systematic support. Mahavir Singh Phogat, the father and coach of the Phogat sisters, had shot off a letter to Haryana's sports minister in 2016, lamenting how the state government hadn't released the prize money it had declared for their medal-winning performances over the past four years.

State governments over the years have often boasted about their self-proclaimed contribution to the sports culture in the state but sportspersons dismiss it as mere oratory.

Former national-level wrestler Narendra Dahiya, who is now the caretaker of a stadium in Sisana village, says governments have made many promises but have done precious little. Sisana is the biggest village of the prominent Dahiya khap in Sonipat Lok Sabha constituency and is known for its passion for sports, especially wrestling. Dahiya alleges that a grant for equipment for the stadium was approved about three years ago but hasn't been released yet.

Twenty-one-year-old wrestler Rakesh Kumar, who is among the hundreds who practice in the stadium every day, says his aim is to get into the army through the sports quota. He laments that they have to halt training whenever it rains as the stadium doesn't have an indoor facility. Fellow athlete Deepak Kumar, also 21, says the stadium has neither drinking water facility nor a first-aid kit.

Sunil Kumar, 39, a wrestling coach at the famous Pratap Sports School in Sonipat's Kharkhoda sub-division, opines that these problems can be solved only when a sportsperson-turned-politician such as Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore is given the charge. He says a regular politician can't empathise with an athlete's woes.

Kharkhoda MLA Jaivir Balmiki of the Congress blames the state's BJP government of reneging on its promise of nurturing talent at the grassroots level. He says Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar had announced three years ago that the government would build a stadium in Kharkhoda but not even a brick has been laid. He claims to have written to the state government multiple times to make resources available, but to no avail.

In defence, Khattar's media adviser Rajeev Jain says that the state is turning the only government sports school in Rai village into a university hub. He says the state government will ensure that all the requirements of sportspersons are met on a priority basis.

For athletes, such assurances mean little. After all, not long ago, the state government had asked them to give 33 percent of their income to Haryana State Sports Council for development of sports. Even as sports remains an integral part of the state's social and economic fabric, politicians are yet to accord it the seriousness sportspersons believe they ought to.

(The author is a Rohtak-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters)

Also See: By pushing for alliance with Congress, AAP risks upsetting its own chances in Haryana; should focus on partnering with JJP

Rahul Gandhi making excuses for not forming alliance with AAP, says senior leader Gopal Rai on tie-up with Congress in Delhi

Congress says it is willing to fight alone in Delhi but is open to tie-up with AAP only in national capital

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