As India celebrated PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik’s Rio success, a 20-year-old handball player lay dead in Punjab’s Patiala town, a grim reminder of the reality budding athletes face across the country.
Pooja Kumari hanged herself in her home on Saturday as she was allegedly denied sports quota that would have got her a free-of-cost room in her college hostel and a proper diet – a luxury for her street-vendor father.
Pooja was in the second year of BA at General Shivdev Singh Diwan Gurbachan Singh Khalsa College, which says the national player didn’t ask for hostel facility.
Her suicide note, written in blood, and addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is a desperate cry for help. “Mere parivar ki madad karo PM Modi ji (Please help my family, PM Modi),” reads a line.
As state governments try to outdo each other in promising crores of rupees and other rewards to Sindhu and Sakshi, a monthly bill of Rs 3,720 proved too much for Pooja.
“I have to think a hundred times before spending five rupees but denial of hostel means I spend Rs 3,720 monthly to reach the college campus... which my family can’t bear,” reads the note, a copy of which is in possession of HT.
Her father Prabhu Chauhan, who came to Punjab from Uttar Pradesh’s Gonda many years ago, said Pooja was upset on being denied free hostel and diet under sports quota this year.
A handball player for six years, Pooja represented Punjab in the 2011-12 national games when she was a student of Patiala’s government senior secondary school.
The suicide was a “very unfortunate” incident, college principal Dharminder Singh Ubha said. “She was given admission on August 18 without any fee... She never approached the authorities for hostel facility,” he said. “If she would have, then we would have allotted her a hostel room.”
Pooja has accused the college’s head of the physical education department, Gursharan Singh Gill, of harassing handball, hockey and kabaddi players for failing to win medals in the previous session.
Gill could not be reached for comments but police have filed an abetment of suicide case against him.
Ubha defended Gill, saying “has been serving for the last 14-15 years and has not done injustice with anyone”.
Pooja’s suicide reinforces what many present and former players have been saying -- for sports to take off in India, grassroots have to be strengthened and young talent nurtured.
Sindhu and Sakshi’s historic feats are the result of their personal efforts and those close to them and not of the system, say observers. And, that needs to change.