Indian Boxing

How India’s sports administrators are killing the future of boxing in the country

No bench strength, no preparation for coming tournaments, no attempts to build champions.

Indian boxing once again had no parent body – for the second time in four years. An ad hoc body ran the day-to-day affairs, like sending boxers to competitions under the AIBA flag and organising camps, but that was about it. For the bulk of the boxers, there was nowhere to go, nowhere to compete.

While organisations like Olympic Gold Quest managed to send the boxers in their roster, like Mary Kom and Sarita, for exposure trips to Liverpool, the rest weren’t as lucky. “There have been no competitions for four years, where and how do you spot talent?” said Viren Rasquinha, CEO of Olympic Gold Quest.

“For every other sport, we now have a second line of athletes we have identified and want them to get ready for the Olympics in 2020. Except boxing. There is zero bench strength and I don’t see any solution in sight.” It didn’t look like anyone cared. The possibility of India’s boxers not competing under the Indian flag, if they qualified for the Olympics in Rio in August 2016, loomed large.

Sports was never Sarbananda Sonowal’s priority, that was clear from the time he took charge of the Sports Ministry.

The fifty-two-year-old firebrand politician from Dibrugarh – he is now the chief minister of Assam – was branded “north-east’s sports minister” soon after he assumed charge. He pushed for a national sports university to be started in Manipur. Work on it began more than a year and a half after Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced a corpus of Rs 200 crore.

In 2016, he took the South Asian Games to the north-east – Guwahati and Shillong. In hindsight, it seemed like the perfect platform to strengthen his party’s (BJP) youth base in the north-east, and strengthen his candidature as the state’s future chief minister.

But even at the South Asian Games, which took place in Sonowal’s own state, the arrangements and infrastructure were nothing much to write about. There wasn’t a proper games village as such. Participating teams and their coaches and support staff had to make do with makeshift accommodation.

A group of Nepali officials had to spend nights in the banquet hall of a small hotel that was later converted into a dormitory for athletes to stay in. A bunch of Indian sprinters had to stay at a school campus during the event that was about 25 km away from their competition venue. And since the football pitch wasn’t even ready, the venue had to be shifted at the last minute.

It was evident from the onset that while Sonowal built his base for his promotion to post of Assam’s chief minister, sports would fade even further from his concerns. His presence at Shastri Bhavan (the office of the Union Sports Minister) was a bare minimum. He operated largely from his residence in Assam, while the sports secretary (Rajeev Yadav), and director general of the Sports Authority of India (Injeti Srinivas) in Delhi, took complete charge of the ministry.

In multiple press conferences, when Sonowal was asked about the ministry’s plans of clearing the administrative logjam in Indian boxing, he appeared clueless. With journalists and TV cameras present before them, the sports minister was briefed and updated by his secretary, before he made his statement, which invariably was: “The ad-hoc committee in charge of boxing is doing a good job.”

Sonowal had barely visited any national camp, though he always made it to functions and inaugurations involving famous sportspersons and politicians.


Coaches Anoop Kumar and Damodaran Chandralal sat at the dining hall at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium. The two had just finished their evening sparring session with the women’s team that was preparing for the Asia-Oceania Olympic qualifiers in China. Steaming bowls of vegetable clear soup arrived from the canteen, as the two began their SWOT analysis. As Kumar added a dash of vinegar to his soup, he nodded to say, “It’s all going to finish, you understand?”

“What?” I asked.

“Amateur boxing,” he said. “This is the end. We’ve been around right from the beginning, so we might as well see the end too.”

“Our days ahead are very dark,” added Chandralal.

It took time for the two to open up, but when they did, you could sense the disappointment in their voices, seeing the fall of a sport they had built with their own hands over the last fifteen years. It wasn’t just the boxers who suffered as the system declined due to the administrative bickering. The coaches had no goals almost, and no direction.

“This is an Olympic year,” said Chandralal. “Do you know what that means?”

It meant every country was making its boxers spar with those of other countries at multiple exposure trips. It meant everything they ate, everything they drank, every exercise they did at the gym – each little thing was calculated and planned meticulously so that when it was time for the Olympic Games at Rio in August, the boxer would be at their fittest, meanest, best.

The world’s best boxers were hungry. Britain’s Nicola Adams, who won gold in Mary Kom’s weight category four years ago in London said, “I’ve been there, done that, worn the medal, stood at the podium. Now, I want to do it again.” Ireland’s Katie Taylor, who fought in the 60 kg category like Sarita, said, “It doesn’t matter if I am a five-time world champion. To become an Olympic champion again, first I have to qualify for the Olympics, and I’ve got to do that like every other boxer in the world.”

Back in India, Mary and Sarita largely sparred with the same set of boxers, with very little idea of what the competition outside was like. While the two were still India’s best bets, the rest of the world had moved on in their quest to produce fresh champions.

“Why have the standards of the rest of the countries improved?” asked Chandralal. “Because they have a system. They have planning, which we lack. We think only of today, it’s only about the next competition, everything is short-term. Whereas the other countries would have begun planning for the next Olympics. We really should be preparing for 2020. But the future is dark, and this is a fact we have to face. Those who intend to run the sport, but have no knowledge of what the ground reality is, think competitions are like festivals, so they try and show interest. But it’s the phase before the competitions that count.”

The fact that senior coaches were being sidelined left a bitter taste in the mouth. Junior coaches were preferred for AIBA coaching courses abroad, which helped them earn the tag of “star coach” and enabled them to travel with the boxers abroad. “I’ve got nothing against women coaches,” said Chandralal. “But these women who are now turning into coaches have also been our students. So my student is a star coach and I am not? Isn’t that humiliating? My experience of all these years does not count? And these coaches are going to talk boxing with Mary and Sarita? How does that even make sense?”

At Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Stadium, where the coaching camps were conducted, the boxers and their coaches saw lucrative leagues of other sports – kabaddi and wrestling – yet another grim reminder of what perhaps could have been the case for their sport too. "I do the work of a labourer, madam," said Chandralal. "But how long can I continue this labour job? I don’t know," he trailed off, leaving the dining hall for his room upstairs.

The ad hoc body that ran boxing for the moment was headed by Kishen Narsi. In his seventies now, Narsi’s association with Indian boxing went back to the 1970s when he was an official for boxing at the 1978 Asian Games in Bangkok. Since then he’d been India’s representative at AIBA and had been a referee and judge at multiple World Championships, Olympic Games and Commonwealth Games. He is to Indian boxing what Raja Randhir Singh was to the International Olympic Committee – the man with the clout to make things happen and the power to give more opportunities to those of his country.

With his power, Narsi did manage to extend AIBA’s deadline for India to have fresh elections a few times. But even he admitted, ‘Let’s face it, we need an overhaul.’ Till the time of the Olympic qualifiers in Astana, Kazakhstan, the situation remained status quo.

Excerpted with permission from Shadow Fighter: Sarita Devi and Her Extraordinary Journey, Suprita Das, HarperCollins India.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

Play

During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.