When Ashakiran Barla won the 800m title at the recent Youth Nationals in Bhopal, she wanted to share the joy with her mother back home in Jharkhand.
But the15-year-old had to wait for almost two days to even speak to her mother at their home in Naxal-affected Gumla district. The reason is best explained in Ashakiran’s own words: “Jab bijli hi nahi hai toh phone kaise hoga? (How can my mother have a phone when we don’t even have an electricity connection yet?).
Ashakiran’s home in the Adivasi village of Nawaidh, about 100km from Ranchi, is yet to receive an electricity connection despite several pleas to local authorities. “My mother got the news about my medal from a neighbor and she called from their phone. She didn’t even know that I had travelled to Bhopal for the competition,” says Ashakiran, who trains under coach Ashu Bhatia at his residential academy in Bokaro.
Ashakiran, who is currently the U-18 season leader in Asia, clocked 2:08.45s to bag the gold at the Bhopal Nationals and also seal a spot at next month’s Asian Youth championships in Kuwait.
She was head and shoulders above the other competitors in the race and finished eight seconds (approximately 60m) ahead of silver medallist Laxmipriya Kisan of Odisha. The 2022 Jr Cali Junior World Championships semifinalist’s timings at the competition were better than the gold-winning effort at the 2013 edition of the Asian Youth Championships held in Hong Kong.
“She is a very talented girl and comes from an extremely humble background. Her father passed away when she was very young and her mother raised her and her three siblings in tough conditions. Even before I started training her, she had incredible natural strength that I later realised was a result of backbreaking work in village fields. She is extremely dedicated and never skips training,” says coach Bhatia, a former Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) in the Sikh Regiment of the Indian Army.
Bhatia started coaching Ashakiran four years ago when both were part of the Jharkhand State Sports Promotion Society’s (JSSPS) academy in Ranchi. But COVID lockdowns and restrictions disrupted the programme. Bhatia started his own academy in Bokaro about a year and a half ago and has about 70 students, of whom 90 percent are from Adivasi communities.
As soon as hostel facilities were set up at his academy, he wanted to get Ashakiran, who had gone home to her village post Covid, back to training. In normal circumstances, he could have just rung up Ashakiran’s mother. But Bhatia had to accompany another senior coach on an arduous and eye-opening journey to the athlete’s village. “It’s a very remote place. We had to get down at a stop around 11 km from her village and make it through fields and forest coverings to finally reach her home. When we reached there, we realised how tough their condition was. They just have one room, not even a separate kitchen,” he says.
Ashakiran says that her mother has been running after local authorities for years to provide them with an electricity connection but has now almost given up. “My mother has been trying ever since my dad passed away in 2019, but the officials keep giving us different excuses. Earlier they said we did not have a ration card and kept rejecting our form when we applied,” says Ashakiran whose village, as per the 2011 census, has a female literacy rate of just over 25 per cent.
Her elder sister Florence, 21, is also a promising athlete who won gold medals in the 200m and 400m at the 2022 All India University Championships in Bhubaneswar. For the Barla sisters, athletics is not merely a sport but a chance for the family to escape poverty. Things were a bit better until her father, a school teacher, passed away in 2013 after a battle with cancer.
“I still sit and weep in my hostel room thinking about the state of my family. I remember my mother used to cook just one meal of rice and a watery sabzi in the morning. We have slept on empty stomachs on numerous occasions. Meat was a luxury we could afford just on festivals and special occasions,” says Ashakiran. Things have still not changed yet for her family or the village. None of the households has a running water connection. The village well, about 2km from her house, is the only source of water. The nearest hospital is 25 km away.
Ashakiran doesn’t quite remember what ignited her passion for running. When she started, she had little idea about athletics. When she received her first pair of spikes, a gift from a nun at the local church, she was initially confused. “Isme toh kante lage hai (But these shoes have spikes),” she told sister Divya Jojo immediately.
“I didn’t even know that such shoes existed and that they were compulsory to compete at national meets. When I first tried them on, I couldn’t even stand upright. I had only used flat-soled canvas shoes till then,” she says.
Ashakiran, who has won three junior national level gold medals this season alone, hardly gets time to visit her home these days. But even when she does, there is a lot of planning involved. “We have just one bus that halts at a stop about three kilometers from home. I try to go home during the weekly bazaar at Gumla so that I can hop onto the back of a truck. Walking home from the town is risky since there are bears and elephants in the forest. I have seen them while working on the fields on so many occasions,” she says.
Despite facing such hurdles, Ashakiran hasn’t stopped dreaming big. She wants to represent India at the Paris Olympics. But her immediate and more pressing concern is: “I hope I get an electricity connection soon”.