Lack of infrastructure, jobs cripple boxing in Punjab

When Varinder Singh landed the 60kg category bronze at the Asian Championship in Dubai recently, it was the first time a Punjab boxer had won a medal at a continental event. The previous medal had come in 2011, when Amandeep Singh had clinched silver in lightweight.

Varinder’s medal is a tribute to his efforts as he has achieved the feat despite the prevailing system in his home state, where the parent body is virtually crippled, financially, and is surviving on contributions from retired boxers. The boxing infrastructure, too, is grossly insufficient.

Varinder grew up in such adversities. His goal to wear the India boxing jersey has been painful — yet exciting. And when he reveals that cricket was his passion at school – he was a member of the school cricket team in Patiala – and that he took up boxing only when his father insisted, he deserves kudos for his devotion to his adopted sport and excelling in it.

“I wasn’t interested in boxing at all. It was my father who wanted me to practice boxing,” Varinder, 24, tells IANS.

“I was even a member of the school cricket team, but I had to obey my parents and quit cricket. My parents would often tell me that I would excel in boxing because I was naturally aggressive,” he disclosed.

Things, however, became difficult for Varinder when his father, an employee of Punjab Police, passed away in 2012. “It was a tough life after that, though I managed to practice boxing with the support of friends and family members,” he says.

Getting employment suddenly became essential for Varinder, though landing a job was a challenge. Despite being an international player, he had to run from pillar to post in search of a job. “Since there wasn’t any job opportunity in Punjab, I joined Eastern Railway in Kolkata in 2019,” said the boxer who won gold at the 2019 South Asian Games in Nepal.

Now, since Varinder has landed the Asian bronze, a few people are optimistically whispering in terms of a possible “revival” of boxing in Punjab. Among the votaries of such a thought is Varinder’s coach Harpreet Singh, though even he is cautious in his assessment.

“The young generation is not coming to playgrounds. Majority of them are flocking to foreign countries, particularly Canada, as there are better job opportunities overseas. They go on student visas thereafter, settle there, and make big money,” said Singh, who recently retired as Patiala’s district sports officer.

He, however, wished Varinder well: “The bronze medal will encourage him to further improve his performance at the international level. Hope he does well next year.”

Amandeep, the 2010 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist, says a lot of work is required at the grassroots level in Punjab to popularise boxing and eventually produce champions.

“There is talent in the state, but there is no system to attract youngsters to the boxing ring. That is why boxers from Punjab couldn’t represent India and win medals at Asian tournaments since 2011,” said Amandeep, who runs a boxing centre in Sangrur.

Santosh Dutta, secretary of the Punjab State Boxing Association, said the unit is making efforts to promote the sport, but candidly pointed out the plight of the parent state body. “Lack of funds is a big issue. We sometimes depend on former international players to chip in. That’s how we are running the state unit,” he revealed.

Jaipal Singh, a well-known former Punjab boxer who bagged silver at the 1986 Asian Games, said the Olympic sport could be revived if good facilities are provided.

“To attract the next generation to boxing there should be good facilities for sports in general and boxing in particular. Out of 23 districts in the state, indoor boxing facilities are only in five or six cities,” the Arjuna award winner underlined.

A renowned boxing coach, who didn’t want to be named, said lack of incentives from the Punjab government is a discouraging potential boxers.

“The Haryana government, for instance, has a good policy for encouraging players. Top athletes get financial rewards and good jobs there. But the Punjab government doesn’t have a similar policy. That is also one of the reasons for the downfall of sports in Punjab,” he said.

Jaipal, however, feels it is the collective responsibility of all the stakeholders to improve the system. “If we continue to blame the government for all the things, it would be near impossible to have another good boxer like Varinder in near future,” he said.

Amandeep, too, is not sure if Varinder’s Asian Championship bronze medal alone would turn things around suddenly.

“It is debatable whether his medal would inspire the next generation to take up boxing as there are fewer job opportunities for elite athletes in the state. Even the infrastructure is inadequate to practice boxing,” he lamented.