As kids, the five siblings swam in the mighty Narmada to grab coconuts that devotees would offer to the river flowing down its course in south-central Madhya Pradesh. The three sisters and two brothers would then resell the stony-brown seed-fruit on the banks—a routine that earned their family money for two square meals.
In the process, the Silawats of Hoshangabad district became decent swimmers—four of them good enough to compete at the state and national levels. Yet, the teens from Balaganj locality fear about a bleak future, courtesy governmental apathy. Their neighbourhood has swimmers with no permanent jobs despite creditable performance in the pool.
Prem Narayan Kahar is one among them. A former national bronze medallist water polo player, he now ekes out a living by painting walls and assisting electricians in Hoshangabad town, 75 km from Bhopal.
Then there is Ravi Kahar. A 17-year-old state gold medallist, he is haunted by memories of his elder brother Anil, who committed suicide by consuming poison in 2013 out of frustration over joblessness and implication in a false theft case.
Anil’s demise prompted friend and state silver medallist Ashwini Pandey (28) to shun swimming. He is now a part-time priest living on the banks of the Narmada around Hoshangabad, which has churned out an array of long-distance swimmers and became the state’s swimming hub in the last four decades.
The Madhya Pradesh Swimming Association head Piyush Sharma says the district primarily needed a high-facility pool. A private pool was started by Sharma’s family a year-and-a-half back, which has now been taken on rent by the sports and youth welfare department of the state to start a swimming academy.
“Talking about the past all the times doesn’t help; we need to work for a great future,” says the top official, a nephew of Assembly speaker Sitasharan Sharma whose family has de facto patronised the sport in the state for a quarter century. “Swimming in the Narmada can at best be a right start.”
The state swimming body is for long been centered in Hoshangabad. Piyush’s father Bhawani Shankar Sharma headed it for two dozen years, but little has that helped to elevate a swimmer from one’s nursery at Sethani Ghat to the national or international level.
If anything, things have of late worked adversely for the Hoshangabad swimmers. MP has made it mandatory that a candidate wins the state’s Vikram Award along with three senior national medals for three consecutive years to get a job through the sports quota. The specifications have dashed the hopes of Hoshangabad swimmers and triathletes (swimming, cycling and running in immediate succession).
Hira Silawat (17), recalls how swimming for a living gave her a chance to train under Umashankar Vyas. “But we may get no job. Possible, we end up swimming just to grab coconuts in Narmada,” she adds, standing along with sisters Jyoti (19) and Diksha (15) and two brothers Mahendra (16) and Lucky (14), who have together won 30-plus state swimming and triathlon medals.
Adds Diksha, who won two gold medals at latest edition of MP State Swimming Championship: “On dull days, we’ve to feed ourselves with food distributed to the needy at riverside temples.”
Diksha Silawat and Dipak Kahar (who also won two gold at the state swimming) are among the six teenage swimmers selected to represent MP at next month’s school nationals in Ahmedabad.
According to National Games bronze-winning triathlete Arti Patwa, the Narmada has given 75-100 promising swimmers to the state in the past two decades, but only seven of them managed to get government jobs. “These include the 1986 national champion Manoj Karaiya, Jai Verma, Vidya Raikwar, Mohan Mansooria, Kavita Verma, Anuj Mewari and Gaurav Rathore,” recalls the 23-year-old, a contractual coach with the Capital Project of MP government in Bhopal. “The rest are often forced to work as life guards or as an ad hoc coach in schools or private pools.”
With no big jobs in sight, Arti relies on the Rs 7,500 monthly salary for rent and ensures that her widowed mother doesn’t work at houses and hotels.
Sohagpur legislator Vijay Pal Singh, who has been heading the state triathlon body since last two years, disagrees. “Our association has already been funding the swimmers aspiring to turn into triathletes. The results are for all to see. Our boys and girls have been dominating the state’s triathlon scene,” says the leader of the ruling BJP. Singh says the association provides them everything possible, spanning from meeting their travel expenses for competitions to providing them bicycles.
Stuck in rear view
Coach Vyas isn’t convinced. He points out that it was sans equipment, infrastructure and funds he could produce champion swimmers — some of them being 1986 national championship gold medallists like Manoj Karaiya and Ravi Shankar Kewat, who has been dominating state triathlon circuit for the last five years. Learning in the river makes them best bets in long-distance swimming, he adds. “They excel up to school and varsity level as their schools/colleges fund their travel to competitions. But once into open competition circuit, dearth of money forces them to fade away,” adds Vyas.
Karaiya, who was a 50-m butterfly national champion, is employed with the state government in Bhopal. “Many swimmers fail at a later stage of the career because of inadequate training,” he notes. Vyas believes MP requires a state-of-the-art swimming pool that is government-owned and allows entry of talents from humble backgrounds. “Even the youth and sports welfare department hasn’t built a swimming pool,” he notes. “Instead, private swimming pools are hired, virtually imposing a check on their use by swimmers from poor families.”
There has been a subtle positive change in the last few years after MLA Singh constituted a separate state body of triathlon. Since 1997, Hoshangabad is the undisputed champion in state triathlon. “Arti is a product of this effort,” points out Vyas. “She was among the three girls who helped MP win the bronze medal at the 2015 National Games in Kerala.”
Unfortunately, Hoshangabad has had no swimming pool. In the last year-and-a-half, its swimmers have been provided with a private pool. “The sports and youth welfare department has started using the pool; we have already put in place a swimming academy,” points out Piyush Sharma.
The academy will aim to channelise swimming talent from the Narmada to the pool, he says. “It will help them get jobs,” he adds.