Despite ranked 22nd in terms of geographical area with just 1.4% of India’s total area and 18th with less than 2.1 percent of the country’s population, Haryana has emerged as the numero uno state in sports. Be it the national level or international platforms, Haryana has been a leader in terms of its contribution to the country’s medal tally.
Take the case of the recently concluded 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Haryana contributed half of the individual medals that India won. Neeraj Chopra’s gold, Ravi Kumar Dahiya’s silver, Bajrang Poonia’s bronze medal along with Haryana player’s contribution in the men’s field hockey outweigh the contribution of the rest of the country. At the 2016 Rio Olympics also, Haryana had contributed half of India’s medals. Similarly, Haryana players won about one-fourth and one-third of India’s total medals in the 2018 Asian and Commonwealth Games, respectively.
What could explain such a performance by a small state like Haryana in the arena of sports? In my opinion, the following four factors are important to understand Haryana’s disproportionate and towering contribution to national and international sports platforms. Here, I am focusing on social-systemic factors and not individual factors because personal factors may result in some sporadic spectacular performance here and there but for continuous consistent performances, you need more than just personal motivation and individual brilliance.
Firstly, it is the culture of hard work, fitness, and sports in the state, which is shaped by two key factors:
- Engagement in agriculture and
- A long tradition of joining forces – armed, paramilitary, and police.
Both require a good physique and fitness. Emphasis on good nutrition, regular exercise at school grounds or village akhadas, and participation in competitive sports has been part of Haryanavi culture.
Most households own small land-holdings in Haryana; 83.5 percent of landholdings in Haryana are less than four hectares. Families with such landholdings cannot afford to hire labor. Hence, it is generally the family members who undertake all the agriculture work. Agriculture demands strenuous work in the field with own hands.
Haryana has a long-standing tradition of people joining the armed forces. Several of these people went onto compete and won laurels at national and international levels. Most of Haryana’s early medal winners such as Lila Ram, Ram Mehar, Uday Chand, Hawa Singh, Bhim Singh, etc. were army men. They not only became role models for the next generations of aspiring sportspersons but also contributed directly by mentoring and coaching young players in and around their villages. For example, Hawa Singh, a veteran, and two-time Asian Games gold medalist is behind the surge in interest in boxing in Haryana in general and Bhiwani, in particular.
The second factor is its history. The twin acts of the Punjab Relief Indebtedness Act,1934, and the Punjab Debtor’s Protection Act 1936 ensured the strengthening of the peasant-proprietor system in Haryana by freeing peasants from exploitative practices of the money lenders and restoring the right of the land to the tiller.
This coupled with the lack of big zamindars due to the historical legacy of the mahalwari system ensured that the economic benefits of the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 70s accrued to a large population of these peasants who themselves were involved in the agricultural activities. Economic prosperity, in turn, led to better nutrition and health conditions, among other benefits.
That takes us to the third factor: The economy. Haryana ranks 13th in terms of Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP), with a US $ 100 billion strong economies. But when this is translated to per capita income, Haryana ranks 5th in the country because of its smaller population. And if we ignore the smaller states and Union Territories of Goa, Sikkim, Delhi, and Chandigarh, then Haryana is the state with the highest per capita income.
The Green Revolution, urbanization, industrialization, and expansion of the service sector have spurred economic development across different decades in Haryana. This has led to the increased capacity of people to spend on food, education, and sports training and equipment. Due to high GSDP, the state has also been able to spend more on infrastructure and the social sector. It is worth mentioning here that Haryana was the first state in India to provide electricity and drinking water in each village. Haryana was also the first state in India where every village was connected with pakka tar-coal road.
Lastly, the most important factor is the support and encouragement to sports provided by successive governments in Haryana. Though it was the Om Parkash Chautala government, which first announced a cash award of one crore to every Olympian medalist in 2000 the key credit should go to the Bhupendra Singh Hooda’s government. The Sports Policy – 2006 made the support to sports and sportspersons structural and systemic.
Apart from linking sport with cash incentives and employment in the form of high-level government jobs, made famous by the slogan ‘padak lao pad pao (bring a medal, get a job)’, the government focused on creating sports facilities in the state. We can say that the culture of akharas and school grounds paved the way to more sophisticated and well-equipped facilities in the new era.
The policy has been continued by the current government. It has enhanced the cash award. Making sports popular in schools, opening mini sports stadiums at the gram panchayat level, upgrading the existing stadiums, and opening new stadiums are some of the initiatives of the new Haryana Sports and Physical Fitness Policy – 2016-17. The aim is to provide the required facilities and infrastructure at the grassroots level to spot, scout, and support the large pool of talent.
It is the combination of these factors, which is behind Haryana’s big strides in sports. Of course, there could be other local specific and personal factors as well but we need to focus on the social-systemic factors to understand Haryana’s success so far and to improve it further as well as to promote sports in other states.
About the Author
Devender Singh worked with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) from 2015 to 2021 where he worked on population and development issues, and as part of the UN Team, he assisted the Haryana government in developing its SDG 2030 Vision Document.