Maoist-hit Jharkhand village crazy for hockey, produces international-level woman players
Hesal, a tribal village in Jharkhand, has produced many national and international players since 1990. Poor girls work as labourers and farmhands to buy hockey sticks and train on empty stomachs to realise their dream.india Updated: Dec 29, 2017 08:47 IST
The soil in Hesal produces more hockey players than paddy.
That isn’t an exaggeration, not in this tiny, poor and Maoist insurgency-hit Jharkhand tribal village. Almost every girl here owns a hockey stick and dreams to don the national jersey — or to, on the strength of the game, get a job that means an end to abject poverty and hopelessness.
Since 1990, 55 girls from Hesal and its adjoining hamlets have been selected for national teams in different age groups. Nikki Pradhan, a Hesal girl, became the first Olympian from Jharkhand when she played for India in Rio 2016. She was part of the team that beat China in the Asia Cup this November.
Located in Khunti district, 50km south of Ranchi, the village has produced five international woman players. Many more are waiting in the wings.
Hesal’s sights and sounds belie the hockey hub it is: green fields and trees, muddy roads, thatched huts and old people warming themselves in the winter sun. There’s nothing to suggest this village of around 60 families is anything but a typical slice of rural India.
That is, till you encounter the girls.
More than a dozen teenage girls dash for an uneven playground at the lone government school in the area, 2km from the village, before the afternoon sun begins to wilt in the horizon. Most of them carry tattered sports kits and almost all are barefoot.
The girls come from poor families, which are dependent on the government’s subsidised rice sold at Re 1 a kg. Their parents, mostly subsistence farmers, cannot provide adequate nutritious food, let alone buy them hockey sticks and shoes.
The girls go through a gruelling schedule from dawn to dusk. After attending school from 7am to 2pm, they hit the ground on an empty stomach as there is no provision of a mid-day meal, or free lunch, for students of Class 8 and above.
“We eat rice for breakfast. After school hours, we play hockey for two to three hours because if we go home for food we would miss training, which we don’t want to,” said Rita Kumari, a Class 9 student.
The girls do not complain. They work as farmhands to fund their passion. And their love of the sport (and the hope that it can mean a better tomorrow) keeps them going.
“Mere pitaji kisan hai aur unke paas itne paise nahi hai ki stick kharid sake (my father is a farmer and he cannot afford to buy me a stick),” 13-year-old Mangri Saru said, sweat dripping from her forehead after a workout.
“So, I worked in a field and bought a wooden stick at Rs 400.” Olympian Nikki Pradhan and her sisters did the same to earn and buy hockey sticks.
“My eldest daughter, Shashi Pradhan, was the first from the family to play hockey. When she demanded a hockey stick, I discouraged her from playing the game. I couldn’t say that I couldn’t afford to buy a stick. Poor girl worked as a labourer and bought a stick from the money she earned,” said father Soma Pradhan.
It was schoolteacher Dasrath Mahto, who, back in 1989, started the hockey craze in the village by coaching a few girls. He continued the process for more than two decades till hockey became a traditional game in the village.
“When I joined the school, girls playing hockey was not acceptable in the area. I convinced parents and motivated the girls. Now it is in the blood of the people,” he said.
From 1990 to his retirement in 2016, the school produced 72 national and international woman hockey players. But after Mahto, the school has yet to get a sports teacher.
The role models for today’s girls are those who came before, many of whom have since landed jobs as coaches and managers with the government and private sports institutions.
Hockey coach Jasmani Tiru, who played in national competitions in the 1990s, said the success of rural girls in national and international meets created job opportunities for them. They got hired by the government and this propelled the sport’s popularity in the region.
According to Tiru, six girls from Hesal and nearby villages are with the railways and other government departments and companies.
Still, there’s little recognition by the state. “I wrote to the government for a day-boarding centre for girls in the area but my request fell on deaf ears,” complained Dasrath Mahto.
According to Khunti coach Suresh Mahto, the town could have been a springboard for the rural talent, but the initiative has been lost. The town’s astroturf was not watered for seven years and it’s damaged now.
Not all is lost though. The state plans a sign a deal with Tata Steel for coaching players of the Khunti area, Jharkhand sports director Ranendra Kumar said.
“The Tata Trust is imparting training to budding hockey players of villages. We are planning to set up a day-boarding centre for girls in Murhu block and a separate astroturf ground for girls in Khunti,” he added.
Jharkhand has a glorious hockey tradition, and both boys and girls are fond of the national game. But it’s the girls who have shone on the bigger stage.
“We are confident at least three players from Jharkhand will play in the next Olympics,” state hockey association president Bholanath Singh predicted.
That’s what the Hesal girls are working so hard for.