There is no doubting that this sleepy town nestled in the hills of the Idukki district is beautiful. But that's about all it's got going for it — tranquil beauty is not enough to host a prestigious, demanding event like the National Shooting Championships.
The Nationals have gained added significance in the wake of Abhinav Bindra's gold medal-winning performance at Beijing and Gagan Narang's becoming the world record holder in the 10m rifle — India has suddenly come of age in yet another sport. So it's bizarre, even ridiculous, for the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) to award the event — which will play host to more than 1,500 shooters over the next fortnight — to Thodupuzha.
The town is in the middle of nowhere. It is two hours by road from both the nearest railway station (Ernakulum) and the nearest airport (Kochi). For many shooters (competitors pay their own way) on shoestring budgets, the taxi fare itself is prohibitive.
"We had to pay Rs 2,500 per taxi from Ernakulum," said an Eastern Railway marksman from Kolkata. "I'll end up spending around Rs. 10,000 from my pocket despite the Railways arranging the accommodation."
For hundreds of others, it's worse. One tourist lodge HT visited had five marksmen from Uttar Pradesh staying in a small room with water from the bathroom gushing into the room. The lone female in the team had been accommodated in the lodge's office, her bed vying with office almirahs, files and furniture.
"There is an acute shortage of rooms. We ran from pillar to post for one full day before we got this. But there's no hot water, no security, no restaurant. We eat at a roadside dhaba… I don't even feel like competing," said a young UP rifle shooter.
At the range, it's the same sad story. Although the local association has done a decent job, it is not national championship worthy — at best it's a training range. “The 10m range accommodates 19 shooters, while the 50m range has around 24 lanes. All this when numbers have doubled since the last Nationals. The Shiv Chhatrapati Complex range at Pune has 80 lanes for each event," said another Railways rifle shooter.
At the 50m range, shooters and spectators vie for space. "How are we expected to concentrate?" asked an Army shooter. "There are no baffles to cut off the sunlight, not enough shooting stations, or space to keep spectators at bay. It's chaotic, cellphones ringing everywhere, people talking during competition."
Interestingly, though there are only 18 shooters from Kerala, National coach Sunny Thomas hails from the adjacent district. "We have pooled in all our resources. We wanted to make the sport popular here," said Thomas. "Those who approached us for accommodation in advance got it. The ones who delayed are complaining."
But these are the Nationals, not a 'first come, first served' basis event.