India won two silvers and a bronze in rowing at the 2006 Doha Asian Games and there is hope that the sport will be a major medal grosser in the years ahead.
But if you happen to drop in to watch some of India’s present and future train at the Chhawla drain (commonly known as the Najafgarh naala), it not only isn’t inspiring, it will probably make you want to throw up. Literally.
On Thursday, 30-odd rowers, most national level, from the Rajputana Rifles, did what they do for six to eight months of the year: Braving a constant, terrible stench, they trained surrounded by floating sludge and rubbish — lots of it potentially toxic given that effluents from across the Capital flows into this naala — to prepare for the National and Inter-Services championships.
“We used to feel very sick earlier… even wear masks at times, but now we have got used to it,” one of the rowers told HT, asking not to be named. “During summers though, it’s hellish with all the decomposing sewage, so while we have to train in some part of the summer, we try and do most of the training during the rainy season when the drain fills up.”
Doctors were horrified when asked about the health risks of training in a naala. “The rowers will be susceptible to countless bacterial and viral infections,” said Dr. Sushum Sharma, Senior Consultant Internal Medicine and HoD, the Preventive Health Programme at Max Healthcare. “The water will be full of toxins, possibly some industrial waste too as we really don’t have any foolproof preventive mechanisms in place in India. There could be lead toxicity, arsenic poisoning… even if the men aren’t in the water itself, they could be splashed from the oars. You would have skin infections, inhale toxins, if something goes into the eye, nose or mouth, it could lead to anything from eye infections to intestinal infections.”
A guard standing outside the Border Security Force centre in Chhawla suggested we go no further: “Kya jaa kar karoge…bahut kharaab halat hai (Why do you want to go there…the conditions are really bad).”
Interestingly, another rower said that two Raj Rif rowers, who trained here, recently won gold in the double sculls event at the National championships (February 12 to 17) in Hyderabad.
“Bhawani Singh and Karamveer Singh won gold, while another rower, Rajbir Singh, bagged bronze representing Delhi in the single sculls,” he said.
On being asked why on earth they had to train in a drain, the rowers said they had been told there was no choice. Given the number of water bodies in India, that made no sense and it remains a mystery.
Chief coach Dalbir Singh told HT that he was not the “competent authority” to speak on the issue and asked us to speak to the officer in charge. The G-1 (Training) Raj Rif, Col Surinder Kumar, also refused to answer questions. “Talk to the Army headquarters,” he said, giving no further details of any contact person.
Meanwhile, Delhi Tourism is promoting this as a potential canoeing, kayaking and rowing centre and even organised a state-level tournament here on September 30 last year. This is India, life goes on.