Army trucks are a common sight in Assam’s Kokrajhar district. Getty images
Pwilao Basumatary stepped out of the ring, shook her head and smiled. She had lost the final of the Senior Boxing Nationals in Guwahati, Assam, but dedicated the silver to her parents, who were spending sleepless nights in a relief camp at Kokrajhar, 150km away from Guwahati.
The bouts drained her physically, but more taxing was overcoming the pain of her parents (from Chairang) being forced to take refuge in a relief camp. "It was tough," said the World Youth Boxing Championships bronze medallist, who was in the national camp, when ethnic violence erupted in June-July and claimed more than 90 lives and rendered lakhs homeless.
Chasing a dream
Though from a family of farmers, Pwilao's childhood was spent struggling for every meal. But once she managed to get a place in the Sports Authority of India's Special Area Games centre in Kokrajhar, she held on to the dream of extricating her family from this morass. The only vehicle she deemed fit was sports.
Like Pwilao, Minu Basumatary's address, as given to the Indian Boxing Federation, is also SAI SAG, Kokrajhar. They moved in as 13-year-olds and now as they get ready to graduate, there is a sense of emptiness. The centre has been more than a home to them. For Minu, a World Youth Boxing gold medallist, it's an institution that has given the opportunity to bail her family out of poverty.
Holicharan Narzary, touted as a future India striker, plays for the Pailan Arrows in I-League and has shifted base to Pune. But Kokrajhar is where the heart lies. It's here that he learnt the craft and grew as a footballer.
Oasis of calm
Called by one ethnic group or the other, the Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) areas witness regular bandhs and blockades, which affect normal life by triggering a shortage of essential commodities, besides hitting business. For the trainees, the centre is an oasis. "There is no fear inside," says Narzary. "Even if there are clashes outside, it is calm." Boxing coach O Geeta Devi, a former national boxer from Manipur, spotted most of the girls and brought them to the hostel. Such has been the success story here, especially in boxing, that when the India youth team was selected in 2011, six of the eight boxers were from Kokrajhar.
Most boxers like Bhagyabati Kochari (Asian bronze medallist), who hails from the small town of Udalguri, 170 km away from Kokrajhar, and Anjali Machahary come from humble backgrounds but they share a common dream - to end the plight of their families. "They know that if they do well, they will land a job and lead a better life," says Subhash Basumatary, director of the SAI Northeast regional sub-centre. "What better motivation do they need to perform?" The Centre is under him. Realising their potential, even the Mittal Champions Trust has started to support Pwilao, Minu and Bhagyabati.
Hub of talent
Boxing is special here. As national women's coach, D Chander Lal, puts it, "Right now, this centre is producing better boxers than even Manipur. If they are trained well, boxers like Pwilao should win a medal at the Olympics."
The Kokrajhar SAG centre began functioning in October 2006, and has since produced internationals who have won medals for the country in disciplines as diverse as women's boxing, archery, football and taekwondo.
The centre has produced archers like Hemanta Basumatary and Sanjoy Boro, who won a bronze at the World Youth Championships in 2009-10.
With a hostel capacity of 202, things do get tight at times. "Players from all over Assam come to participate," says P Brahma, the administrator. There are troubled times, but the centre never gets affected. "Yes, there are occasions when there is scarcity of food and fuel, but we somehow pull through," says Brahma. "The locals also help us. This region is crazy about sports. They will never do anything to spoil the future of the trainees."