He hails from an obscure village in Rajasthan. He won a gold medal in Athens in 2004 for the javelin throw. Have you heard of him?
Ignored by the media, the government, private enterprise and importantly, by us. Recently, Suchandra Ganguly, her friends Mamta Devi and Monica Pradip Rana caught up with Devendra Jhajharia- the Indian Paralympics javelin throw legend on the phone to learn more about his story. And what they found was worse than we had suspected.
Devendra Jhajharia’s story started in a small village in Churu, Rajasthan. He had only one arm and yet like all true sportspersons, always dreamt of representing India as the best at the international stage. That remained his only goal as he practiced on the ground near his home, through the searing Thar-desert heat. His family supported him as best they could, but did not know much about the sport. From that modest ground in Churu, he went on to practice at the town-grounds in Kasab, where through the sheer weight of medals won at national events he forced himself onto the training grounds at Patiala, Punjab, for his international career.
Devendra remembers his coach, Ripudaman Singh Aulak, a Dronacharya Awardee in javelin throw fondly. He credits him for motivating him through those intense five-hour practice sessions that goaded him onto greater heights. But the lack of support and sheer apathy that he faced from the central and state governments through those formative years still that deeply affects him. The resentment is very evident when he says: “None of them were supportive in anyway.”
The years 2002 and 2004 were watershed years for him and Indian Paralympics sport. The thrill of victory was evident when he described his victory at the 8th FESPIC games in South Korea in 2002:“It was my first international tournament. I was a novice then in the international level. Thus I was nervous initially. My first throw was measured as 55 meters. I won a gold medal there.”
More honors would soon follow for Devendra in the 2003 British Open. In his own words:
â€˜On 15th August, I participated in the British Open and bagged the gold medal. Here also I made a world record. Moreover this championship has not been won by any Indian except me till date.” Apart from the world record at 59.7 meters he also won a gold medal for the triple jump and silver in shot put over the two-day event organized by the London based Disability Sports England.
By now a seasoned international professional athlete, a gold medal in javelin throw beckoned in the 2004 Paralympics at Athens. And he did not disappoint. His progress from trepidation to confidence on the international stage is evident as he talks about Athens 2004: “By this time my initial nervousness about representing the country at the international level wasn’t there at all. I was more confident and this resulted in winning the gold medal.”
But the saying that success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan, evidently does not apply to Indian Paralympics sport. Even success was an orphan as far as Devendra was concerned. His disappointment at the general state of Paralympics sportspeople in India is evident as he recounts the events that followed his victories and the apathy of the government: “There was no response or reaction from their (the government’s) part. Nothing at all. I approached everyone even I wrote letters to the Prime Minister, the President besides the Central Sports Ministry and Human Rights Commission but to no avail. It wasn’t a personal issue rather an issue that represented the condition of the Paralympics sportsmen all over the country.”
What followed was a pitched battle for recognition between him and the government that lasted between 2004 and 2010, sucking the best years out of him, while he held on to a job as a fourth class railway employee. A cash prize of a few lakhs- pittances in a sport where other countries spend millions and an Arjuna award was reward for his persistence with the government and for defying the odds. Yet he still managed to bag another international gold medal in that time-span.
The railways have been kind to him, allowing him to practice throughout the year. But the private sector you ask? Nonexistent. His despair- the despair of many athletes that are left behind by an increasingly successful corporate India that cannot see beyond cricket and IPL is very evident when he states:
“I asked for sponsorship 3-4 times but they weren’t much responsive. So I left pursuing them. I think that the private sector has more money and resources to invest in sports unlike the state and central governments but unfortunately the former hardly reciprocates when we approach them.”
He laments the current state of Paralympics sport in India, despondent that even victories and gold medals haven’t done enough to wake up a pathologically somnambulant India to Paralympics sport. Meanwhile, in a move that rubs more salt in his wounds and tacitly blames him for his misfortune and disability, the government refuses to accord equal status to Olympics and Paralympics sportspeople. The fact that he is India’s sole javelin Gold medalist and that Paralympics athletes are also athletes remain lost in the eyes of India’s esteemed civil service and the general public.”
“I am the sole gold medalist in javelin. But the status of this game has not improved yet. To me both the Olympics and the Paralympics share a similar status. But in case of normal Olympics medalist the pension is of Rs 10,000 while the Paralympic winners just get Rs 5000. Moreover there are 101 Olympic winners who are supposed to get pension from the government but around 50 of them don’t get it at all.”
The frustration had even reached a fever pitch and passed as he even threatened to return his medals last year due to the disrespect he received from state and central governments.
Despite all the above obstacles that Devendra faced and continues to face, he remains eager and desperate to see a newer and brighter dawn for Indian Paralympics sports. He has not given up on the sport. Nor has he given up on us- the general public that goes gaga over cricket and ignores such stories of triumph against adversity. As he signs off, he requests us to get in touch with him whenever we want to further discuss this issue. He even volunteers to put us in touch with fellow Paralympics sportspeople, people who no doubt have similar stories to tell as him.
The question remains: How can we at Civilian Force improve the lot of India’s Paralympics sportspeople? How can we haul Devendra and his compatriots out of obscurity and into the limelight that today remains the sole preserve of India’s cricketers? We need action. Your suggestions are not welcome. They are necessary and indispensable.
P/S: Special thanks to Suchandra Ganguly, Mamta Devi and Monica Pradip Rana for graciously carrying out the interview. And to Shuvojit Moulik, Abhishek Kanjilal, Raj Rindhani and many others for their timely inputs and for getting this started.