In March 2021, Jharkhand created history by winning the 11th Hockey India Sub-Junior Men’s National Championship.

They had, however, already scored a much more significant and crucial victory. Almost every member of the squad had waged a long and grim battle against poverty and hardship before making it into the team.

Manohar Mundu, 17, among the brightest in the lineup, lost his father when he was just a child. Like most kids around him, he started playing hockey with a bamboo stick.

This is all they could afford to pursue their passion. “We would play the entire day; it didn’t matter that we didn’t have any equipment,” he said shortly after their match in the Khelo India Youth Games.

Even after he was admitted into the Jharkhand Awasiya Balak Hockey Prashikshan Kendra in Khunti, the Residential School for Sports that supports 25 budding athletes in each district, Manohar’s travails didn’t end.

He still didn’t have money to buy shoes or a stick. He had to make do with hand-me-downs. Luckily, his coach was a generous man. He bought him his first pair of shoes and a nice hockey stick. His friend’s family too bailed him out once.

Abhishek Mundu’s father is a policeman. But he didn’t earn enough to send his son to an academy for training. Even the expense for daily commute was beyond him. Their coach Manohar Topno somehow convinced Abhishek’s father to not give hope, to send his son to the residential school.

“There is back-breaking poverty in the region. During the Covid lockdown, each player, still just boys, had to work, do all kinds of menial stuff, to support their families. Even adults cannot balance two lives, the way these boys do,” Topno says with a tinge of anger.

Duga Munda came to the residential school very young. “I keep going back home to help my father with farm work. We can’t hire labour. My parents feel happy seeing my progress but making ends meet is still quite a task.”

Another boy in the team from the government-run Awasiya Centre is Bilsan Dodrey. He comes from a village lost deep in the forest.

Poverty has different shades within the state, though. In the same hockey team, the boys in Eklavya Model Residential Schools and Tata Academy live in AC rooms and get a diet worth Rs 450 a day. The boys from Awasiya Centre, however, get a diet of Rs 150 to 175 per day.

Yet they play on the same turf and get medals. They learn about modern facilities and tactics by watching videos and participating in tournaments.

They are now poised to create history in the Khelo India Games too. Both their Boys and Girls teams are already in the semifinals. They are confident of winning at least one gold.

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