RAJASTHAN: Hunjhunu district of Rajasthan has always blessed India with pioneering industrialists. Part of the Shekhwati region in local parlance, it is renowned for the legacy of entrepreneurs like Birlas, Dalmias, Piramals, Khaitans, Singhanias, Poddars, and Morarkas who have earned laurels in India and abroad by establishing well-known brands in trade, business and manufacturing.
However, breaking away from past traditions, the region is now weaving a completely different story whereby a woman sarpanch is helping girls make a career in sports. Seventy kilometres away from Jhunjhunu lies the village of Longheer where the craze for hockey is nowadays almost akin to cricket. Unlike earlier times when young girls were confined to the four walls of their homes, the village is today agog with girls eager to score goals on the hockey field.
Nearly 20 girls in the village can be regularly seen moving around with hockey sticks in their hands, prompting many of the male elders of the village to hail the change as a new sign of women's empowerment and freedom. And mind you, the girls who play are not from rich and prosperous families but belong to households of farmers, peasants and labourers.
The credit for this momentous change goes to Neeru Yadav, the sarpanch of Longheer. Lamenting the fact that traditionally, girls did not have the same freedom to play as boys and were generally married off at an early age, Neeru was determined to alter the social norms and status quo as girls were denied even basic opportunities to play games in the village. After becoming the sarpanch in 2020, Neeru had the power to effect a change and the opportunity came last year when the state government-sponsored Rural Olympics were about to take place. Inspired by the story of the film Chak De India, a few girls in the village expressed to Neeru their desire to play hockey as it was the national game of India.
“Why can’t we play hockey here when boys are allowed,” they said. Neeru says that she was reminded of her own childhood when she could not play the game she wanted, despite the fact that Neeru’s father was a headmaster and her mother was a teacher. Neeru, a post-graduate in Mathematics, says, “I immediately began to plan how I could get the girls to play a sport that had not been played ever before by women in the village. Though she decided to form a hockey team for the girls of her village panchayat, a big hurdle was the lack of hockey kits and sticks.
Determined to see her vision come true, Neeru used her sarpanch’s salary of two years for the cause and bought kits, sticks and dresses for the young female hockey enthusiasts. As there was no playground in the village at the time, she personally arranged for the girls to play at Singhania University, some eight kilometres away, where she would chaperone their care.
What’s more, she also arranged to pay a coach from her salary to teach hockey to the girls of the village, thereby ensuring good results in a quick time. Although the girls formed a team and gave a good account of themselves at the district level while also participating in the Rural Olympics last year, the task of helping the girls form a hockey team was not easy for Neeru Yadav.
She had to coax the girls as well as persuade their parents to allow their increased participation in the playground. Neeru recounts that in the beginning, most parents questioned the need for girls playing hockey. “I had to convince them that just as the girls of Jhunjhunu district were leading in the field of education in the whole country, playing sports was equally important for the girls and they would surely do well in hockey,” she recalls. Neeru’s dogged perseverance paved the way for the girl’s to get freedom to play hockey without restrictions. Recalling that women of the village in the past used to do all the household work, the sarpanch says the scenario has started to change now.
Today, several other girls too are now inclined to take to the playground. Neeru says that when some new girls express fear of etting hurt, it is their parents who motivate them to play fearlessly, citing examples of the forerunners. Neeru revealed that even she herself sometimes played hockey with the girls! Neeru has the complete support of her husband, an ex-Army man and an engineer. She is now actively engaged in improving not just the erformance of her team but also organising a big hockey tournament in the village. She believes this will help many girls reach the national level team as well as make a career in sports. Given such determination, success is bound to follow.