Odisha is famous for it’s art, craft and sculpture and notorious for its communal riots, cyclone and tribal land encroachment by Multi National Corporations. But it’s also a state with lots of sports enthusiastic people living there. It is one of the states where we can find large number of tribes and they constitute 22.1 percentage of the total population of the state and 9.7 percentage of the total tribal population of the country. If you go to the interior tribal districts of Odisha, you can see a lot of local tournaments of hockey, football, cricket (though cricket entered into their lives very recently) and track and field events are being organised by the village heads of that region. So sports play an important role in their life. Because of that we can see sportspersons from this region making good contribution to the society in state and national level. People like Dilip Tirkey who led the Indian hockey team with other hockey players from this region like Ignes Tirkey, Lazrus Barla are few to mention. There are female hockey players as well like Neelima Lakra and Vinita Toppo who set example for many women hockey players.
But apart from Hockey no other sports person made it big to the national level while other sports are being played in equal passion as hockey. According to Suarai Mumru, a former state level athlete “though Cricket is being played everywhere in Odisha but it is mainly by the upper caste, where the level of athleticism is less, so they adopted it easily in this state and also in all over India suiting their historically unphysical lifestyle pattern. The upper caste and class people only get selected because of their contacts in the bureaucracy and governing body of the other sports department. They can influence and bribe as they have money power too.“ He also asked me “have you seen any tribal and Dalit players in Indian cricket team ? “
Ironically all the hockey players are from the district Sundergarh. According to a former track and field athlete named Sonaram Toppo from Rourkela, hockey made it big in this region because it is the only state where it is being played as all the other parts of the state don’t play this game. Historicaly, Hockey entered through the Christian missionaries and evangelist. The great evangelical Lutheran church is the first who entered into their district and opened school in that region. They included hockey as the extra curricular activities in class curriculum for the tribal children. The sports don’t need too much paraphernalia as they use the kendu and bamboo woods to make their hockey sticks and a ball wrapped with cotton clothes. All the players we can see from this region are converted Christians. This region and near by other north west districts have larger tribal converted Christian people in the state.
Hockey players don’t have to face discrimination and competition when it comes to the selection for the state team unlike other sports because competitor from the other district don’t play this game. According to Sonaram Toppo, higher class and caste hegemony comes into the picture while selecting player in other sports. You can find higher caste people in all the big posts in the state machinery. And they are ruling the government since ages. Selection into the state team can earn you state government jobs and other benefits. So all the sons of these so called babus easily get into the other sports team through their contacts and references. But in case of the hockey they cannot manipulate the selection procedure and they don’t have any option as general caste people don’t play much.
According to a veteran state level football player named Jadunath Majhi age 50 from Baripada ( a football playing district head quarter in eastern Odisha): ” the discrimination of other sports selection procedure was very rampant in our time. “ If you see the state level cricket team till now, no tribal and dalit player ever made it. And in soccer also very few tribal players made it to the state level in spite of the sport being played by all the tribal people in the state. When we used to go for our state level selection procedure to Cuttack and Bhubaneswar, we were harassed by the coach and players as they were from the higher caste hindu people. They made us run for longer hours to make us exhausted before the selection game without giving us proper food and water in the sun. They tried to make fun of us by hooting even saying that we are monkeys from the jungle and discouraged us while playing. If by mistake we won the game they gave us other excuses of not selection. Sometimes they asked for hefty amount in return for a state selection. In track and field events too, you will find few tribal and dalit players till now because of the same reasons. But the scenario is changing nowadays because of some sports hostel and non profit organisation are coming into the picture like KISS ( Kalinga Institute Of Social Sciences ) which are encouraging tribal boys and girls to join them and trained under them. Recently the Under-17, 13 girls and boys rugby and football teams of the institute won national and international laurels (in London). He further states if you check all the medals till now Indian won in international level, you will find very few upper caste people involve in it except Cricket. The reason for it is tribals and dalits are hard worker on the other hand the upper caste people lead a luxurious lifestyle which is free of any hard work. The tribals are mainly hunters and gatherers so they have genetically more stamina and endurance. Because of their work culture they are agile too. They have keen eyesight and patience as they can use arrow and bow for their hunting. They have strong legs as they used to climb the mountains and roam around the forest in the hilly terrain.
To know about the truth we went to Baripada sports hostel which is the district head quarters of the Mayurbhanj. Mayurbhanj is one of the schedule district among other six districts and total tribal population is around 60 percent of the total population of it. So when we try to enter the sports hostel the guard did not allow in the beginning because we are media students and came there for research. Later through one of our common friend who is known to the coach accompanied us to meet the players. That day the hostel seemed clean and later we came to know that as we are coming they have cleaned the room with water.
Most player who are staying there belong to Santhal tribe and are from an economically poor background. They are all in between 14 to 18 age group. They told us about their practice session and food habit. Their complaint about the food habits is that they eat one egg in breakfast with 4 breads and some fruits like one apple or orange. In lunch and dinner too their food is nothing different than the common man. Like when they have chicken it is not more than two pieces of chicken and fish. If you see the athletes and sports person from other countries and study their diet chart you will find huge difference. When we talked to the coach about these problems he said the bureaucracy and politician are not paying attention to the problem because everybody wants their share of pie when money comes for any development work. There is corruption and we have to manage with whatever fund we get. Sometimes they are unaware of the situation what a player need the most and take sports related problems very casually.
There is a blatant exploitation going on through the social hierarchy. The Tribals and the Dalits of this country have talent in the sports but the upper castes have made it impossible to flourish in other sports except Cricket. Because huge money and corporate interests are involved in the Cricket. And they don’t want to lose that money by promoting other sports. If the popularity of Cricket decreases then their superiority of caste decreases as they stand nowhere in front of these player in other sports. So they want to attack the self esteem of the tribal and dalit people by not allowing them to bring laurels for their community and India.
The whole media involved in the sports coverage, promotes Cricket in India like a celebration while ignoring other sports. Ironically cricket is not considered as a sports in many countries and many people from those countries have not heard about it too. There are only 14 countries which played for cricket world cup, on the other hand there were 204 teams participating in the world cup football tournament.
The media should highlight these issues and make dalit and tribal voices stronger so that they can talk confidently about their problems and resist this caste hegemony in sports. But media itself is a dailt and tribal free zone. There have to be more government private partnerships to nurture the sports academy. There are some academy like Tata football academy who are doing great job to uplift these marginalised players. Some tribal players made it big after getting coaching from these institutes. Many tribal and dalit youths from interiors are not aware of all these Academy. The village people have communication problems too, so there should be proper counseling not only for them but also for the institutions and state officials. It’s a long way through to make a corruption free sports culture in India, but by reducing the state’s bias, and a better understanding of culture (including food), will pave the way.