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India's forgotten children: breaking down barriers through sport

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March 30, 2012
By Gerhard Waldherr
 
Rajasthan, in the north-west of India, is a barren, structurally weak land steeped in ancient traditions.
Here, monsoon rains stay away in seven out of every ten years. The farmers harvest once a year at best. Life here is an endless struggle, accompanied by droughts and recurring famine. In this world, people with disabilities are deemed worthless. An investment in their education is considered a waste as nobody would give them work anyway. They are being hidden away, locked up, and chained. Disabled people are an evil omen, a curse and bring bad luck. Just like Janak Singh, the son of a penniless peasant from the village of Sarecha on the edge of the Thar desert, where there is no electricity and no sewage system. This is a place where people believe that a pregnant woman touching a disabled person would result in her giving birth to a cripple. The cacti in front of their huts are for the rebirth of the lost souls who suffer for the sins they committed in previous lives.
1991. The university professor, Dr. Narayan Singh, who runs a drug rehabilitation programme for opium addicts, founded a school for the disabled in Manaklao, 28 miles north of Jodhpur: Sucheta Kriplani Shiksha Niketan (SKSN). The first class had 20 boys, who were taught under a tree, slept in a tent, ate outside and had no toilet. Twenty years later, SKSN consists of a dozen black and red painted, chunky low-rise buildings, including a temple, a sports field and a vegetable garden. 500 boys and girls aged between five and eighteen are being taught and housed here. There are 14 classrooms, 28 dormitories for boys and 22 for girls, two kitchens, and workshops for metalwork, tailoring and weaving.
The school is headed by Dr. Bairoon Singh Bhati, Narayan's eldest son. Mr. B., as everyone calls him here, studied social work and gave up a lucrative career in the civil service in favour of SKSN. Now he has to fight for donations all the time. The government of Rajasthan bears only 80 percent of the cost of the teachers’ salaries and pays about € 12 a month per child for food, clothing, medical and energy costs. This is not enough. "Without people like Karin," says Mr. B., "we would be lost." Above his desk hangs a picture of her, next to a Hindu god: Since seeing a TV documentary on SKSN in 1996, Karin Demuth's Help for India Association (Indienhilfe e.V) has been supporting the project. The money for the first residential and school buildings came from Ms Demuth, who convinced the German TV channel, Bayerisches Fernsehen, to report on the project in its "Sternstunden" programme; it collected donations amounting to € 100,000.
Mr. B., 37, is a tall, imposing man. His long hair and bushy moustache are streaked with grey. From the outset, he attached great importance to physical training at SKNS. In addition to cricket, pupils also practised Kabbadi and Malkhamb, a blend of acrobatics and martial arts. In 2003, a friend of Mr.B, the film producer Sneh Gupta, had an arguably absurd idea: why should able-bodied and disabled children not work out together? Gupta: "In this way both sides can break down social barriers, rediscover the potential and limits of their bodies, develop understanding and respect for each other and become friends." In Manaklao in 2004, Ms. Gupta started the Indian Mixed Ability Group Events (IMAGE), which has been supported by the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation since 2005.
Nine in the morning. Morning exercises in the schoolyard. The pupils of SKSN are wearing grey trousers and light grey shirts. The students in the red and yellow uniforms are from the state schools in the neighbouring villages. Hands up, hands in front, hands to the side. Disabled people are climbing a rope and a pole to the top. In one corner of the school yard able-bodied and disabled children have started a game of volleyball, while in another, they are playing Kabbadi, the goal of which is to catch the players of the opposite team and make them fall. Table tennis is being played in the community area. The boy with the crutch wins. Kuldeepsingh, 17, who is not disabled and has been attending IMAGE events for two years, says: "The disabled pupils are hard-working, totally enthusiastic and their willpower is impressive." Amar, 17, a polio victim agrees: "First they say: hey, you can't do anything! Then we show them that we can do many things better than them.”
Janak Singh, who loves cricket, came to Manaklao in 2002. In his village, he watched the matches for hours from the stands. Alone and mocked by the players. Now at last he could take part. Not only in cricket. "I suddenly saw the world through different eyes," says Janak, "everyone here has a disability, and I was suddenly no longer the only wreck in the world.” A few weeks later, Mr. B. took him as one of ten students to the Mini Games in London, a smaller version of the Paralympic games. Janak won gold in five contests. When SNSK organised the IndiAbility Games, a copy of the Mini Games, in 2005 and 2006, Janak was SKSN's team captain. "We need more such events," says Tanni Grey-Thompson, a member of the Laureus Academy, and eleven-time gold-medal winner at the Paralympic games. "Through sport, the disabled can prove to themselves and society that they can be constructive, productive and successful."
Nobody has laughed at Janak for a long time. "Before, he was shy and scared," says his brother Bhom, "but not anymore. He has been to London three times already, while most people from our village have never left Jodhpur.” For some time now, Janak has been receiving invitations to visit relatives and neighbours. If everything goes according to Mr. B's plan, he could soon be a national hero. During the British Championships, he ranked second over 400 metres and third over 100, 200 and 5,000 metres. His next destination is the 2012 Paralympics in London. To reach this goal, he trains five hours every day beneath a scorching sun on the country road. Moreover, he tortures himself every day for four hours lifting weights in the gym. Mr. B. says: "Anyone with any knowledge about these things who sees him, says: what an exceptional talent.”
"One can simply imagine what it would mean for the country." says Mr. B., "If a disabled person out of nowhere were to win gold for India, it could change the thinking of the whole country."
Find out more about Janak’s ongoing struggle to reach London 2012, here.