Being Indian means a lot of different things for different people, but one thing that is standard is the sometimes overwhelming feeling of being almost weighed down by thousands of years of culture. So when I started thinking about writing this article on the journey and development of parasport in India, I decided to begin at the begining – by looking at the two major Sanksrit epics on ancient India: The Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Historians may not agree on whether this is history or mythology, and the exact dates of origin are unknown, but some scholars have managed to agree on a date of about 5561 B.C. Whether the specific events actually took place or not, these works serve as a study of the evolution of species, and it is said that every emotion concievable to humankind has been outlined and dealt with by the complex characters in these stories. So what better place to start looking at India’s view towards the differently abled?
There are a few major references to disabilities or rather to differently-abled characters – the most important among them being Dhrithrashtra the blind king in the Mahabharata and Manthara the hunchback in the Ramayana, who was the maid to the queen. There is also a story about the scholar Ashtavakra, who was physically disabled but rose to power in the King’s court as a result of his intellectual prowess. All these stories describe how the individual and their abilities were perceived, they play a role in the story just like all others, and their character is full of faults and intricacies like all others (including our Gods!). There isn’t any reference to an over-riding rule or outlook in society on how to deal with any physical or mental impairments, since this isn’t the way the epics are written. However there seem to be numerous references to compassion, Kings protecting the “weak”, and of sages advising people to be kind to people with any disabilities. Albeit with an element of pity or charity as a motive, so far so good, we seem to be doing better than the Romans – who apparently killed disabled children at birth.
The concept of Karma has spread to western society over the years, and here its easy to make bald claims like this article did „Our epics teach us to discriminate against disabled people by portraying them negatively and telling us their condition is because of sins committed in past lives.” But, eh, this claim holds true for everything in our lives. Our epics basically believe that Karma (which translates to the word Action) defines our life (future lives). (Think about that the next time you want to passive-aggressively stomp on the floor to get back at your downstairs neighbour, because you may be reborn as a cockroach in your next life!)
So although I could find no conclusive evidence to the acceptance of or cruelty towards disability in our ancient texts, the only thing I can conclusively say after lots of research is that society has been struggling with dealing with these questions since time immemorial. And if we as Indians were ahead of our times in the Vedic Age, somewhere along the way, we got distracted with other things. In current day, life as a differently abled person is almost as independent as Bran Stark before he recieved his shiny, new wheelchair. India spends more on prevention than on accessibility and opportunities. Only in 2001 did India include people with disabilities in the census. The country’s most iconic monument and tourist attraction, the Taj Mahal, only got permanent ramps in 2009.
The Accessible India Campaign, launched in 2016 seems to be taking a step in the right direction, a direction away from the probably-coloured-by-heritage charity aspect and towards empowerment. 26 million people in the country currently do not have access to public transport, and to the most basic infrastructure like accessible toilets. The initiative has claimed that less than 50% of Indian Government buildings are disabled friendly. A UNICEF report found that out of 2.9 million children with disabilities in India, 990,000 children aged 6 to 14 years (34 per cent) are not in school. The percentages are staggering among children with intellectual disabilities (48 per cent), speech impairments (36 per cent) and multiple disabilities (59 per cent). Sometimes, lots of numbers have less of an impact than a few words, and thats what this blog post did for me. It summed up a complex issue, „Me and 2.21% Indians are “disabled” because our country has failed us, and not because of the disability, itself”. So if we have such a long way to go in terms of providing basic facilities, there’s no hope for us at the Paralympic medal table, right?
India is nothing if not a land of paradox. Indian paralympians at the recent Games in 2016 brought back 4 medals, while their Olympic counterparts 2. What makes some people strive for excellence, when even normalcy is difficult? To answer this question I spoke to Sharath M. Gayakwad, the first ever Indian swimmer to qualify for the Pralympics (London 2012). He placed 9th in the 50m breaststroke event, and he also holds the record for the most number of medals won at a multi-sport event by an Indian. Quite a succesful athlete, wouldn’t you say? Yet Sharath’s beginnings were modest, and he remains down to earth and approachable. Like many of our Indian success stories, Sharath gained major support only after he blew away the coaches at the National Championships. His coach John Christopher had no prior experience of training a para-athlete, and it was only through many trails, lots of research and in-depth discussions between coach and swimmer that his technique and training could be adapted from that of other non-adaptive swimmers.
The Indian Government has a lot of pressing issues to finance before it can turn its attention to „luxuries“ like sport. This is an argument that even the most ardent sport lover cannot deny, when pointed out the number of families living below poverty line, who would not have food to eat if funds were diverted (to put it very simplistically). The most heartbreaking reality of economic development is the amount of wasted potential. Sharath was in a way lucky. Not undermining his struggles, nor the sacrifices of his family and support system, he was lucky because he got the opportunity to swim, and his talent was recognised. But without a talent identification and grassroot system, there are many Sharaths in the far reaches of this vast country, whose talents will never be tapped. The long and ardous path that he and his coach undertook to discover a training plan that was successful has not yet been documented anywhere. We are lucky that Sharath himself has turned coach & entreprenuer and wants to bring the joy of sports to as many differently abled kids as possible. But a process does not yet exist where these investments can be capitalised on, and used to boost the next generation of differently abled swimmers. Wasted potential. Sharath points out that a coach’s role is much more than coaching in India. He is also responsible for talent identification, for emotional guidance, nutritional advice and just about every other need that the athlete has. When asked about one critical improvement that the Government could put in place, he promptly answers that the issue isn’t that facilities, funds and infrastructure doesn’t exist, as most would assume. Rather, it is our age-old struggle with time. He recalls how many times he was only informed before an international tournament, that all the documents had been approved, and he was competing/flying out the next day. I’m not sure I can even mentally prepare to go for a leisure swim on such short notice, let alone compete at an international level.
Where the work of the Government leaves much to be desired, the private sector is stepping in. Sharath himself has started a venture to bring analytics to swimming, and he speaks highly of GoSports Foundation as a core supporter in his career. GoSports helps elite athletes by providing them mentorship, guiding them while applying for awards and to look for sponsors. Everything an Indian elite athlete is expected to look after by themself. GoSports even organises workshops to educate athlete’s parents on how they can best support their budding stars, and about 30% of their athletes are differently abled.
India is the world’s 3rd largest start-up market, beaten only by USA and UK. Its no wonder then that some of these start-ups are turning their eyes to fields like sport for all, fitness, grassroots parasport and some to accesbility. From mobile apps that help you find partners to play, rooftop 5-side football pitches in crowded cities, charitable organisations that develop para-sport curriculums and work with schools to provide opportunities to all kids to play, to beach events organised especially for wheelchair users, its a vibrant and fast-growing country. In a country that is generally inactive, where the effective European-style club system of sport is still in adolescence, and that idolises cricket far, far above any other sport, its not an easy task to bring about change.
Sharath also pointed out that he was disappointed by the uninformed behaviour of most mainstream media, something I had always noted with distaste and even wrote about here. He recounted his personal experience at the London 2012 Paralympics, where the media ran headlines lamenting his „loss“, when in fact he had clocked personal bests in all his 4 events. I am happy to report though that newer, non-mainstream media websites like Sportskeeda however are changing this game too.
In spite of all the trials and challenging realities of being a para-athlete in India, Sharath maintains that things are already different since he started competing, and that the situation continues to improve. On paper, it looks like the formalities are in place. The Paralympic Committee of India came into existence in 1992, and about 2000 athletes took to the field at the latest National Championships. But having lived the reality, Sharath underlines that the only real reason he continued in sport, inspite of facing financial struggles, is for the love of the sport. I for one will be happy when this is the motivating factor, but certainly not the only award for dedicating your entire youth to a risky and challenging profession, and overcoming odds to bring home medals.
Summarizing a vast, diverse, complex, intricate and lively space like any field in India is always difficult for me. However, without sounding too naive I would like to believe that with a lot of work, gradual progress can be made and a path laid to reach the Paralympic podium. It involves setting up structures and systems of early exposure to sports and talent identification, incorporating and incentivising private players to supply additional funds to training the elite, timely provision of infrastructure, support from the media and the lay person, and finally building an active national culture. Not a small challenge, by any standards.