Around 7 am on a Saturday, with hockey sticks in their hands, Rajni (16) and Nazia (12) arrive at Government Senior Secondary Boys Smart School’s grounds in Samrai village in Punjab’s Jalandhar district. A group of boys and girls, about 40 of them between eight and 19 years of age, are already practising and the girls join them. Soon, the group is split into two teams and the match kicks off.
Rajni’s father irons clothes for a living, while Nazia’s is a farm labourer. Three years ago, the girls joined the Pendu Hockey League (PHL), a hockey coaching facility set up by Harbhpinderjit Singh Samra for underprivileged children in rural Punjab. Parents of most of the 70 children at the League in Samrai village are daily wagers, drivers, domestic helps, tailors, barbers, mechanics etc. So far Rajni and Nazia have played at the state-level games in the under-17 and under-14 categories respectively.
“I wanted to provide rural talent an opportunity to shine. At a time when Punjab is battling a drug menace, the PHL children are immersed in hockey. If all the 13,000 villages of Punjab have a dedicated sports facility, no child will fall prey to drugs,” says Samra, 41, president and founder of the ‘Rural Hockey Development Society (RHDS)’, under which the PHL matches are organised.
Set up in 2014, the society has seven centres, in Punjab’s Chania, Seechewal, Dosanjh Kalan, Sarihn and Sindhar Thebalke and Tehang villages. In the last five years, 500 students have got hockey coaching at the centres, and another 900 are being trained currently. The training is free of cost and anyone can join.
The PHL players have been selected for several tournaments, including the National Rural Under-16, Hockey Indian National Under-14, Under-17 and Under-19, School National Games and Khelo India National Games.
“These are children with no means, and now they are playing in inter-school, inter-district, state- and national-level games. In the first two years there were no girls in the League but now 35-40 per cent of the children at our centres are girls. That has been the biggest change,” says Samra, who started the RHDS with the Rs 66,000 ‘shagun’ he got at his wedding. The League’s name ‘Pendu’ literally translates to ‘rural’, but is also used in these parts to mock people from rural backgrounds. “I wanted to prove that a Pendu can also shine,” smiles Samra.
Back at Government Senior Secondary Boys Smart School’s grounds, the children have now gathered for refreshments — bananas and glucose biscuits — after the game.
“Ki karna Player ban ke, log ki kehange, satt lagg javegi (Why become a player, what will people say, you will get hurt)’… This is what my father said when I asked his permission to join the league. My mother said, ‘Who will help me with the household chores?’,” recalls Rajni, a centre-half player.
But her selection in the state-level games changed their minds. “Now I feel proud of her. She has gained a lot of confidence… I don’t worry about her safety either now. I know she can protect herself,” says Kamlesh Kumar, Rajni’s father. She is the youngest of her four siblings. Her three older sisters are married.
Nazia’s family discouraged her from becoming a hockey player because of the high cost of training. “But at the PHL everything, from the hockey stick to coaching, is free,” says Nazia, who studies in Class 6 at Government Senior Secondary School for Girls in Samrai.
A small farmer with four acres of land, Samra organised the funding for the League through sponsorship from companies such as Capital Small Finance Bank. “The initial cost of one new recruit is Rs 5,000. The students get hockey sticks that cost between Rs 3,000 and Rs 10,000, ball worth Rs 150, and a sports kit including uniform, pads, shoes, socks etc. Annually, we spend around Rs 5-6 lakh on kits and PHL matches that are organised in November,” says Samra.
For Navdeep, 19, a Class 12 pass-out, the League helped him avoid bad company and drugs. “My father passed away when I was very young. I work at a hair salon to support my family. The game will hopefully help me get a good job,” says Navdeep, who has played in district- and state-level games in the under-14 and under-17 categories.
Rahul Kumar (16), a goalkeeper, who lost his parents as a child, says the PHL helped him get selected to the Punjab NCC Directorate Camp and to play in national tournaments.
“Many of our students have got jobs under the sports quota. Two of our students, Rajiv Kumar and Sanjiv Kumar, joined the BSF a few years ago. They both played national-level hockey,” says Jatinder Pal Singh, a Hindi teacher, and one of the five coaches at the PHL. “Sansarpur village in Jalandhar district has produced many Olympians. Why can’t we?” he says.
Says former India hockey captain and two-time Punjab MLA Pargat Singh, “I had given the players hockey kits last year and will continue to support them. If they are dedicated, we can achieve our glorious position in hockey again.”