HT Gets National Award
The Press Council of India gave Mr Saurabh Duggal the National Award for Excellence in Journalism (sports category) for his story on the rugby girls of Saraswatipur in interior West Bengal. Read below:
Rugby gives wings to tribal girls from impoverished Bengal village
Plucking tea leaves is all about dexterity. The target is the bud and the top three leaves. It takes a lot of practice and a fair bit of speed to bag enough leaves to get the day’s measly wages. Rugby, on the other hand, is as robust as it gets, with a huge emphasis on raw power.
The tea gardens of Saraswatipur in interior north Bengal is where the two meet. For doughty teenage girls here, tea plucking provides sustenance and rugby the right to dream. Adivasi families, with hardly any modern trappings, are cheering their young girls who have taken the tough route to the India rugby team.
The long vacation after class 10 board exams is an opportunity for 18-year-old tribal girl Lachmi Oraon to financially support her parents in providing for a family of 10, including six daughters and two sons. She spends most of the day picking tea leaves. A week’s toil fetches just ₹600, but it is a big contribution to her parents’ weekly income of ₹1200.
Surviving on rice and dal — the family can’t even afford milk — doesn’t stop Lachmi from chasing her dream to become India’s top rugby player. Like her, many other adivasi girls are the central figures in the revolution rugby is bringing to the isolated Saraswatipur. Around 40km from Jalpaiguri, it is a cluster of four villages — Gudan Lane, Nirpaniya, Maharpur and Division — surrounded by jungles and sprawling tea gardens, on the banks of Teesta river.
“We have a big family, so it’s not possible for my parents who work in the tea gardens to even meet basic demands. Being older than the others, whenever I am free from school, I work in the tea garden,” says Lachmi, who was part of the West Bengal team that recently won silver in the women’s national championship held in Chandigarh. “ Whatever happens, I have to be among the top names of the sport,” adds Lachmi, who made it to the India team last year.
Only two buses connect Jalpaiguri with Saraswatipur in a day. The second bus stops six kilometres away, which means a trek home through the jungle. But rugby has given the girls wings, as the first from these villages to board a flight. People in the area first heard about rugby five years ago, a year after they got electricity. The first break came in 2015 when Sapna and Chanda from the area made it to the Indian team for the Asian Championships. Since then, no Indian women’s team named has been without a player from Saraswatipur.
The majority of Saraswatipur locals are adivasis with roots in the tribal belt of Jharkhand. They were taken there a century ago as bonded labourers to work in the tea gardens. While life had revolved around the villages for generations, lack of schooling and jobs pushed the young generation to end that isolation. “Had it not been rugby, like other members of our family, we too would not have got an opportunity to look beyond Saraswatipur, or , at the most, Jalpaiguri. Now we are going places, even abroad,” said Lachmi, one of the few girls from the area to pass the board exams after class 10. “Rugby is giving us hope. Otherwise, like our parents and grandparents, our lives too will be confined to picking tea leaves or working on a construction site,” added 19-year-old national rugby medallist Minuka Korowa, who works at a construction site to supplement the wages of her mother.
Tackling child marriage
The first visible change rugby has brought is a mindset among parents towards early marriage.
“Many of our friends in the locality got married in their mid teens. We are lucky, because of rugby nobody is pressing us. Last year, I got a marriage proposal but my parents left it to me and I chose rugby,” said 18-year-old Tanuja Oraon.
While rugby provides a sliver of hope, life throws other tackles. Tanuja’s home was damaged earlier this year by elephants. “We are from the jungle and are not afraid of elephants or wild animals. We have the guts to take on anybody, even the orthodox society that feels girls are meant only for marriage,”Tanuja. “Earlier, people used to object to our training in shorts. Now the same people are part of the welcome procession whenever we return with medals,” added 17-year-old Rushmita Oraon, who too has fended off a marriage proposal.
How it all started
The tribal girls’ rugby story began in 2012 when Father George Matthew was transferred from Kolkata to Saraswatipur to head a local parish.
He spotted the athletic potential of the hardy local kids and approached Kolkata-based NGO, Jungle Crow, which runs a ‘khelo rugby’ programme. “Father George knew Paul Walsh of Jungle Crow and requested him to extend the khelo rugby progamme to Saraswatipur. In March 2013, the game was introduced in the area. Two years later, two of the girls made it to the Indian team. Now they dominate the West Bengal teams and have a sizeable presence in the Indian squad,” said coach Roshan XaXa.
“Now, the game is a hit in the area. Last year on International Adivasi Day – day of the World’s Indigenous People – on August 9, more than 500 kids participated in a local rugby tournament. To encourage kids to get hooked to the sport, the winners were presented live chicken!” Eighteen months ago, a former national-level player from Saraswatipur, Sailen Tudu, started a club Adibasi Rugby, and his trainee Urshila Kahriya has also made it to the India team.
Revolution’s torch bearer
The first big exposure for the Saraswatipur girls came at the 35th National Games in Kerala in 2015. Though the team only finished fourth, rubbing shoulders with top teams helped them shake off their reticence. Since then, at every national meet, West Bengal have made it to the podium courtesy the Saraswatipur girls. The biggest moment for Saraswatipur came in 2017 when five of its girls —Punam Oran (17), Suman Oran (17), Rema Oran (18), Lachmi Oran (17) and Sandhya Rai (16), who was the captain — were chosen in the 12- member Indian squad for the U-18 World Games in Paris. It was the first time anyone from Saraswatipur had boarded a flight. Travel abroad is still viewed with disbelief by people there. “Even today, for many of our relatives it is hard to believe we really travelled by air,” says Sandhya Rai (17), who is one of the five girls from the area among the 25 probables for the Asian Games. Saraswatipur girls are now gearing up to board the flight to Jakarta for the Asian Games.
From orphanage to an ace rugby coach
The only childhood memories Roshan Xaxa has is of working in a tea stall somewhere in North Bengal or roaming aimlessly on Sealdah railway station from where someone took him to the Don Bosco Orphanage in Kolkata.
He has no idea about where he was born and doesn’t recall anything about his parents.
Rugby has given Xaxa his identity, a way of life, and his trainees are making a mark in the national and international arenas. “During my stay at Don Bosco Orphanage I was introduced to rugby. I got fascinated and started pursuing it. It gave me a reason to live and thrive in life,” says the coach.
Xaxa had represented West Bengal and Odisha in nationals before switching to coaching a decade ago.
He started his coaching journey in 2007 with Kalinga Institute of Social Science (KISS) — a free residential school for tribal kids — in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. He shifted base to Saraswatipur three years ago and is working with Kolkota NGO Jungle Crow that runs a rugby programme.
“During my stint in Odisha, I got an opportunity to coach tribal girls and their adversities in life made them stronger to achieve bigger (things),” says Xaxa.
About coaching Saraswatipur girls, he said, “As there was no sports culture, in the beginning we faced a lot of hurdles in convincing the parents to introduce their daughters to the sport. The biggest challenge came when they got selected in the West Bengal team for nationals the first time because initially the parents were reluctant to send their daughters outside their locality. They had odd queries whether their girls might get exploited or they would be sent to some other state as domestic help. Eventually, we convinced them.”