Zero Hour | Let’s enjoy IPL but not forget Vinesh Phogat crying at Jantar Mantar

From Vinesh Phogat to Poulomi Adhikari, there are many examples of sportspersons who did India proud, but ended up in penury. They deserve better

They showed spine: Olympic gold medallists Abhinav Bindra and Neeraj Chopra. Tokyo Olympic silver medallist Ravi Dahiya. World Championship medallist Deepak Punia. Former hockey captain Pargat Singh. Kapil Dev, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh, and Irfan Pathan. Sania Mirza. Farmers from neighbouring states. Students from Delhi University. Chief ministers and senior leaders from Opposition parties.

They looked away: Sachin Tendulkar. Sourav Ganguly. PT Usha. Mary Kom. Amitabh Bachchan. The Khans. The Women and Child Development Minister. The Prime Minister.

The adversities faced by sportspersons in India is a book waiting to be written. There is the sickening plight of our champion wrestlers like Sakshi Malik, Vinesh Phogat, Sangeeta Phogat and others who are currently protesting sexual harassment. Other issues include proper scouting of talent, scientific training, and ensuring sports can become a viable career.

How many of us had heard of Hrishita Basu, Titas Sadhu, or Soumya Tiwari last year? They won India the inaugural edition of the U-19 Women’s T20 World Cup. This led to lucrative WIPL contracts for many of them; Sonam Yadav was bought by Mumbai Indians for Rs 10 lakh, Titas Sadhu by Delhi Capitals for Rs 25 lakh, Shweta Sehrawat by UP Warriorz for Rs 40 lakh, among others. But not all sportspersons are that lucky. In the words of one of my favourite poets, Thomas Gray, “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air”.

One such is sportsperson Poulomi Adhikari. After representing India in several international football tournaments, she had to start working as a delivery person to earn a living. It was only after her plight was reported in the media that several organisations and the Bengal government came forward to help her out.

In a most tragic incident, Rajashree Swain, a 26-year-old cricketer from Odisha, was found hanging from a tree two days after she was rejected by her state for an all-India tournament in Puducherry. She had won the best bowler award in a senior women’s trial match just 10 days before her passing.

There are many examples of sportspersons who did India proud, but ended up in penury.

Take the case of Shanti Devi. She had won two consecutive National Kabaddi championships in 1982 and 1983. Devi also won the silver medal in the Guwahati National Kabaddi League and bronze in the All India Women’s National Kabaddi Championship. Financial constraints forced her to take her children out of school. She became a vegetable vendor to sustain her family.

Then there is Rashmita Patra, a footballer from Odisha. She represented India in Malaysia, Bahrain and Bangladesh at international championships. Poverty forced her to quit football. She could not sit for her class 10 exams as they clashed with her coaching camp. Her lack of educational qualifications meant jobs were almost impossible to get. She was distraught and had to eventually start a paan shop in her village to look after her family.

Four national-level judo players from Rajasthan were forced to take up jobs as labourers. Two among them, Harjinder Singh and Gurvinder Singh, had won gold medals at the national judo championships. Financial distress and lack of administrative support left them no other option but to become labourers.

Nisha Rani Dutta represented India in Bangkok and Taiwan in archery, and brought home many medals. She came from a very poor family and lived in a mud house. When her house got damaged, she was forced to sell her archery equipment worth Rs 4 lakh, gifted by her trainer, for just Rs 50,000. And with that died her hopes of a successful sporting career.

Shame on us.

Retired sportspersons must be offered respectable pensions, and prioritised as coaches or mentors in sports bodies. Public sector undertakings (PSUs) in India have had a long and productive relationship with sportspersons. PSUs provide financial stability to promising young talent. From MS Dhoni and Mirabhai Chanu in Indian Railways, Dhanraj Pillay and Parimarjan Negi in Air India, to PV Sindhu in Bharat Petroleum, and her coach Pullela Gopichand in Indian Oil, the list might well run into tens of thousands. But with the rapid privatisation of PSUs under the current regime, there is a legitimate concern that sportspersons might soon lose this safety net.

Let’s go ahead, enjoy the IPL. No problem with that. But in all the hoopla, let’s think long and hard about champion gold medallist Vinesh Phogat, sobbing at night on the street outside Jantar Mantar: “If you want to kill us, then kill us. Did we win medals for the country to see this day? We are not criminals. We do not deserve such treatment.”

[This article appeared in The Indian Express | Friday, May 12, 2023]