On a fateful September evening in 2007, Amit Kumar Saroha’s life changed forever. A road accident left him with severe spinal injuries, confining the sturdy youngster to life on a wheelchair. But Amit, a former junior national hockey player, was not willing to let fate have the final say.
Amit soon found his calling in para-sports, short for ‘parallel sports’ for people with disability. As he dished out a series of medal-winning performances in discus and club throw, including at international events, awards and accolades followed. His disability was no longer a burden and he was financially independent.
Amit, 31, is now an assistant coach in the Haryana sports department. The state government awarded Rs 4 crore to him for his achievements and in 2013, he was conferred the country’s highest sporting honour, the Arjuna Award.
Across India, para-sport has allowed hundreds of people with disabilities to take control of their lives, giving them economic freedom and respect in a society that generally looks down on the physically-challenged. State governments are also acknowledging their achievements and rewarding them with cash and jobs.
“There was a time disabled people were a burden on their families, but para-sports has changed all that. Now, the same families take pride in their achievements,” said Amit, from Bayanpur in Sonepat.
“No longer are they dependent on their families. Rather, they are contributing to the family’s income.”
In Haryana alone, para-athletes have received cash awards worth Rs 20 crore for their feats at national and international events in the last five years.
Para-athletes from Punjab, Rajasthan and Karnataka have also shown their mettle in national events and the Paralympics — the special Olympics held alongside the summer games.
“Now, disabled people are encouraged by family members to pursue sports seriously,” said paralympian Girraj, secretary-general of the Haryana Paralympics Association.
Digambar Singh, from Alawalpur in Palwal, remembers being abused and assaulted by his father and brothers because of his dysfunctional left hand and leg before he was thrown out of his home three years ago. Since he discovered para-sports, Digambar has won 12 national medals, including eight golds, besides more than R6 lakh in cash.
Twenty-five-year-old Laxmi Sharma, winner of the state’s highest sporting honour, the Bhim Award, said para-sports gave her an identity and made her feel “part of the mainstream”.
Last year, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) too started employing paralympians as coaches.
Jagseer Singh of Rajasthan, an Arjuna Award-winning paraathlete, is now an inspector in the income tax department. The Madhya Pradesh government too gives a job to the winner of the state sports award every year and so far 10 para-athletes have found employment.
“The pride and money associated with para-sports have given me a new lease of life. I can take care of my needs and am confident that very soon I will give a comfortable life to my parents,” said Sunil Phogat, 35, from Rohtak.
Double-amputee Pawan Malik, 27, who also works as a tea vendor, is hoping to get artificial legs with the cash award from his medal-winning achievement at the Panchkula national games recently.
Malik’s hopes of improving the family’s economic situation were dashed by a train accident in 2011. Whatever resources the family had were exhausted in his treatment. For the last two years, para-sports has given him hope.
“Because of financial constraints I could not afford artificial limbs as they cost around R3.75 lakh. I am hoping the cash award from my national medal will let me walk again,” said the 27-year-old, who recently won silver in javelin throw at the nationals. The medal will get him a cash award of R2 lakh. “Though money is a motivation to purse sports seriously, it has broken the monotony and given me a new lease of life,” he added.
Reconnecting with the world
Since a road accident in 2006, Manjeet Ahlawat was confined to his room. The introduction to para-sports allowed him to reconnect with the world. He won two bronze in discus at the nationals and was recently selected to the Indian team.
“I was not comfortable being on the wheel chair. Para-sports has changed my perspective and showed the way to live life,” said Manjeet, who hails from village Bhambhawa in Jhajhar district. A few years back, the family shifted base to Rohtak to further his sporting career.
Sunita, an international para-athlete from Rohtak, lost her arms in a train accident, but did not let tragedy overpower her. Rather, her achievements are motivating others to follow suit. At 50, she is going strong and recently won two gold and a bronze in the nationals.
In 1987, Sunita’s world came crashing down. On her way to college, she met with an accident and lost both her arms. Her five-month-old marriage ended after her husband refused to take responsibility. Sunita went on to complete her Ph.D and took up the job of a hostel warden at MD University, Rohtak, in 1990.
“I faced problems while painting as I was not able to colour with my feet. I was looking for some other activity when I developed a liking for the athletics track. The rest is history,” said Sunita, who got the President’s Award twice and was conferred the Bhim Award.
“Disability is in your mind. If you have the determination, you can overcome any hurdle,” said Sunita.
Making a start
After fielding a solitary participant in the 2000 para-nationals, Haryana put together a 124-member strong contingent during last month’s nationals in Panchkula, and won the overall title for the eighth consecutive time with a tally of 163 medals, including 65 gold.
The frequent state meets, coupled with cash incentives, are helping Haryana widen the base of para-athletes at the grassroots. “At the first state championship in 2007, there were only 85 participants. This year, participation rose to 1500 athletes. The increase clearly shows more players in the state are defying the odds of disability and joining sports,” said Girraj. The cash incentives for national and international medals are also playing a key role in widening the base. “Earlier, the cash award for national medals was R10000, 7000 and 5000 respectively. Now, it is at par with able-bodied athletes at R3 lakh, 2 lakh and 1 lakh. This is a big boost for para-athletes,” said Haryana sports department coach Amarjeet Singh, whose trainee Virender Singh recently qualified for the Rio Olympics. Going by form, Virender is a medal prospect in shot put at the quadrennial Games.
Face behind the revolution
Before 2000, there was hardly any awareness about para-sports in Haryana, and the physically challenged were left with no alternative but to compete with able-bodied athletes. At the dawn of the new millennium, Girraj Singh of Faridabad showed the way, and today Haryana’s para-athletes are a force to reckon with.
During the senior nationals at Bangalore in 2000, Girraj was the lone competitor from the state. He went on to clinch bronze in 800m at the 2002 Para-Asian Games in Busan, South Korea, and competed at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Since then, no para-team has left the shores without a player from Haryana.
In 2005, Girraj played a crucial role in forming the Haryana Paralympic Association. “Earlier, I did not have an idea about sports events for disabled athletes, so I used to compete with the general athletes. A former international athlete introduced me to para-sports,” said the 42-year-old Girraj, who is the first para-athlete to receive the Bhim Award.
In 2014, he got the Dhyan Chand Award for his contribution to para-sports. “Earlier, Maharashtra and Karnataka were the powerhouses in para-sports, but since Haryana started taking it seriously, we are the undisputed champions,” he added.
For most para-athletes, the pride of standing on their own feat is their most prized award. Their medal of honour.