The Rio de Janeiro Olympics are fast approaching, but if the history books are anything to go by, India should temper its hopes. For those who fail to understand why India's Olympics medal haul has been so paltry over the years, the tale of the Walmiki brothers should serve as an eye-opener. It's a story that exposes the cavalier treatment and dismal conditions that our players are subjected to despite winning laurels for the country.
A dilapidated 10x10 sq ft shanty situated in darkness below a flight of stairs leading to Marine Lines Station located in urban Mumbai, India's financial capital, is the residence of Devinder Walmiki, currently in the Indian hockey squad for Rio 2016. With him live six other family members, including his elder brothers Yuvraj Walmiki who has also represented India in more than 90 games (such as the World Cup, Asian Champions Trophy etc) and Anup Walmiki, who recently represented India at the South Asian Games. Until 2011, there was no electricity in the house; the only brightness came from the sparkling trophies on the shelf handmade by the men's father, who is a driver.
The kind of back and forth and false reassurances I have been given are gutting. It makes you lose hope in the system.
These three brothers have grown up in extreme poverty. They have endured tremendous suffering in order to realize their dream of representing their country in sport. There have been times when they have just had one meal a day, but they have satisfied their appetite with the hunger to succeed on the hockey field.
In 1928, the Indian hockey team won its first Olympic gold medal and until 1956, the Indian men's team remained unbeaten in the Games, winning six gold medals in a row. India also won the 1975 World Cup. Having won eight gold medals till date, India is the most successful team ever in the Olympics. But that's a tale of Indian hockey's golden past. The present scenario is far bleaker. If the Walmiki brothers were cricketers, they could have been driving sports cars and dining in fine restaurants by now. Unfortunately, they play hockey, which though it is India's so-called national game, offers little in the way of incentives to players. Insult is added to injury when the government reneges on promises made to sportspersons.
In 2011, when Yuvraj Walmiki scored the winning goal against Pakistan in the Asian Championship against Pakistan, he was celebrated as a local hero. The then Mumbai chief minister Prithviraj Chavan promised him a home and a grade II government job. This, of course, didn't quite pan out. Then in 2014, he was invited for the swearing-in ceremony of new CM Devendra Fadnavis. The BJP government reassured him that it would deliver on the failed promise of the previous Congress dispensation in the state. Since then, Yuvraj has made more than 40 trips to various government offices to pursue what was promised to him. But it looks like the new government's words were as empty as its predecessor's.
My brother Devendra has been selected in the Rio squad and hopefully, now is the time when we can convince the government to fulfill their promises.
Yuvraj voices his frustration: "The kind of back and forth and false reassurances I have been given are gutting. It makes you lose hope in the system. My entire family has worked hard so that my brother and I could play and bring laurels to our country. I still live in the same small shanty and lately it has become increasingly difficult for all of us to stay in that little house. My brother Devendra has been selected in the Rio squad and hopefully, now is the time when we can convince the government to fulfill their promises."
Their story has been covered by lot of publications and news channels but the Maharashtra government has completely ignored their pleas.
Yuvraj Walmiki is currently employed by Central Railway. While he is not on the team currently, he is striving hard to earn back his place. He works all day as a ticket collector and then at night he practices his sport. He uses the money from his salary to fund his and his brother's training and to support his family. Meanwhile, Devinder is preparing with the Indian squad to get India a gold medal at the Rio Olympics. He is their brightest hope for a better standard of life.
Yuvraj and Devinder are just two brothers out of thousands of other kids raised in poverty who are taking up sports to change their fortunes. But given the callous system and government disregard of players -- even those as accomplished as the Walmiki brothers -- perhaps their hope is misplaced.