With only 322 active Covid-19 cases, Fatehabad district of Haryana has remained largely untouched by novel coronavirus. Most of these cases are concentrated in the urban areas with villages reporting only a handful of patients. Even Chief Minister M L Khattar took note of the rural good health during an interaction with The Indian Express. “It may be the diet, the clean air or the level of physical fitness but our villagers seem to have higher levels of immunity,” he had remarked.
Gorakhpur village, which reported its first Covid-19 patient on August 6—a clerk working in Ludhiana—attributes its relatively virus-free status to its robust sporting culture. Take a round of the village with a population of 20,000 early morning, and you will be struck by the large number of youngsters working out or practising a sport, remarks a local.
Manjeet, 20, rises before the sun every day to join the village boys for seven hours of cricket in a school complex. She wants to play for the Indian team some day. Daughter of a farmer, she has already been selected for Haryana’s cricket team (under-23 category). Amid the Covid-19 lockdown, she has been living in a small house built on her father Mahender Singh’s 7-acre farmland.
Around 200 children and youngsters of the village play various kinds of sports, including kabaddi and volleyball. You can see them sweating it out in daily practice sessions at school playgrounds, vacant plots and fields near the Bhakra canal.
“If you walk the streets in rural areas at 6 am, you will find children running and playing. They have the right build and excellent stamina,” says Dr Narhari Singh Banger, deputy commissioner, Fatehabad.
He says the state’s quota for sportspersons in government jobs has played a big role in fostering this interest in sports. “People from our villages have been selected for posts like DSP and in Haryana Civil Services (HCS),” says Banger.
Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar has often described Haryana as a sports hub, stating that while it has just 2 per cent of the country’s population, its share in the medal tally at the 2018 Commonwealth Games was 33 per cent with 22 medals.
Anmol, 30, a resident of Jakhod Khera village, who has a PhD in physical education, got selected for the HCS under sports quota this year. She had won a bronze medal in wrestling at the CWG held in 2009, apart from winning a silver at the Junior Asian Championship the same year.
However, many youth from Gorakhpur talk more about recruitment in police and Army. “Around 20 youths from the village are selected by the police or other armed forces every year. A few others are selected by army schools and sports institutes as well,” says Jaivir Beniwal, a village youngster who trains as many as 60 children in various sports.
The pandemic, he says, hasn’t put a dampener on the sporting activities in the village. “It’s given us more time to practice and hone our skills”, he says.
Word about achievements in sports travels fast in Gorakhpur, and inspires many. Beniwal recalls how four girls from the village were part of the Hisar Government College kabaddi team which won gold in university-level tournaments in 2017-18. Seema Siwach from the village was selected for the Indian kabaddi team at the World Kabaddi Cup organised in Punjab a few years ago.
In February last year, village girl Pushpa was given a hero’s welcome after she won a gold medal in the first national Sambo (martial art) Championship held in Puducherry. She took a round of the village in an open jeep to loud cheers.
Pushpa’s family recalls how she travelled to a stadium in Bhodia Khera village 30 km away by bus every day to train in judo for two years. Now, she lives with her maternal uncle in a neighbouring village close to Uklana town, where she trains in Sambo. Her father Krishan Verma has just one acre of agriculture land.
Manjeet’s story is also one of struggle. She initially practiced boxing and won medals in state and national-level tournaments. Villagers recall how it was then district sports officer Sube Singh Beniwal, who had noticed the talent of this 5 ft 9 inch girl while she would play kabaddi in the village school in 2016
“My father used to take me to Bhodia Khera on his motorcycle every day. Thanks to his support, I won a bronze medal in a national youth championship too,” recalls Manjeet, who used to practice on a punching bag at her home in the fields.
“When I was at the Inspire Institute of Sports, set up by Jindal family in Bellary (Karnataka), a friend’s father took me for trials at the Hyderabad Cricket Academy in December 2018. I got selected, and got to pursue my dream sport,” says Manjeet..
Today, the residents of Gorakhpur proudly talk about children and youth from the village who have won motorcycles, cash awards, and even a cow worth Rs 1 lakh in kabaddi tournaments. Ankit Kumar, a youth who has never lost a race, was gifted a motorcycle by the villagers a few years ago.
To promote sports, Jaivir Beniwal calls for the revival of SPAT (Sports and Physical Aptitude Test) scheme, which was launched in 2010 to identify sporting talent and guide them professionally under the ‘Play for India’ programme. Under the scheme, scholarships were given to children aged between 8 and 19, selected after seven rigorous rounds. As many as 5,000 children were chosen for SPAT-2012. “That year, 52 children from our village were selected for a monthly scholarship of Rs 1,500 to Rs 1,800 as per their age,” says Beniwal.
The village, he says, has so far remained inured from the virus. “Sports inculcates discipline, we have been maintaining the Covid protocol. When you come here, you will forget about corona.”
The village reported its first case on August 6 when a resident, who is a clerk in a government department in Ludhiana, returned and underwent the corona test. He has now recovered but two more cases were reported from the village in the past four days.
The villagers are cautious but optimistic. “They are asymptomatic, they will recover soon. Meanwhile, we are making sure they don’t infect others,” says a farmer.
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