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Dalit kids punch it out

Government jobs, Army jobs, better health—why young Dalit boys and girls have joined Balaji Boxing Academy in South Kolkata

It is 5.15 pm on a pleasant Wednesday evening in July. About 30 young boys and girls dressed in either traditional blue or red amateur boxing attire are warming up by running in a circle. This is part of their training at Balaji Boxing Academy on a ghat located on Madan Pal Lane in Bhowanipore, South Kolkata.

The students, aged from anywhere between six to early 20s, excitedly put on the blue and red gloves and start practising in groups after the warm-up. Some punch the black punching bag in turn while others practise shadow boxing as the coaches egg them on. The passion and intensity can be felt in the intimidating sounds the young boxers make as they punch furiously.

This boxing training happens from Monday to Friday for two hours, beginning at 5 pm. It takes place amidst the unavoidable stench which comes from the Adi Ganga, a 15.5-kilometre canal stretching from Khidirpur to Garia in South Kolkata. A blot on the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, the canal carries a large part of the city’s industrial and household waste.

Even though boxing is an indoor sport, the boys and girls here, the majority of whom come from the Dalit community, can’t avail such a luxury. They are expected to pay a bare minimum of Rs100 a month for the training. Their parents are employed in blue-collar professions such as sweepers, drivers and security guards.

Balaji Boxing Academy was started by former national level boxers Sanjay Prasad and Gautam Tamang and members of the Bhowanipur Dalit Adarsh Yuvak Sangha in October 2017. In December 2018, the academy became affiliated to the Bengal Amateur Boxing Federation, a sporting body recognised in West Bengal by the Boxing Federation of India. Boxing coach Sanjay Prasad says, “Balaji Boxing Academy was started to ensure that children from the Dalit community are able to move ahead in society.”

Both Prasad and Tamang are employed in Tech-3 jobs in the Eastern Railway, securing the jobs more than 20 years ago, due to their success in national-level boxing. Famous amateur and professional boxer and Commonwealth and Olympic medallist Vijender Singh had once said in an interview to NDTV in 2015: “No rich person takes up boxing. Only middle-class or lower-middle-class people take up boxing. Their biggest aim is just a government job. That was my aim, so that I could get a government job.’’ Vijender Singh’s father was a bus driver with the Haryana Roadways.

The story of most of the young boys and girls who come here is similar.

Neha is a 19-year-old boxer at the academy and a first-year-student at Bangabasi Evening College in Sealdah. She’s been boxing since 2013, inspired by legendary Indian Olympic boxer Mary Kom. Neha says, “I have won medals in state, district and inter-state. I have participated in the nationals … I participated in the nationals in Punjab in 2015, Telangana in 2016 and then in New Delhi.”

However, Neha still awaits that one medal at the nationals which could secure her future. She says, “By winning a medal in the nationals, I want to get a government job … That is my main objective.” Neha is hopeful. “Actually, there aren’t many girls in boxing. So, if one boxes well, one can get it,” she adds.

Twelve-year-old Soyam and his mother are dependent on the earnings of his elder brother, who dropped out of school in Class 10 and now works as a sweeper in a Kolkata Municipal Corporation hospital. Soyam says, “My mother told me, ‘learn boxing, your life will be made’. I’ve been learning boxing since then.” He joined the academy in 2017. “I wish to join the Army,” he adds. In the Indian Army, one can apply for the position of a Naib Subedar, Havildar and a soldier through the sports quota.

While boxing one’s way to a secure government job is a way out of a life of financial hardship and social exclusion, there are other reasons the academy’s students are grateful for the sport. Rohit is a Class 12 student whose father drives an ambulance for a living in the nearby Shisumangal Hospital in Hazra. While Rohit also wants boxing to translate to an Army job, he’s glad his health has become better in the process. He says, “Earlier, I used to eat a lot of junk food. The body used to be always weak. Now, that has been sorted due to the diet.”

Then there’s 20-year-old Benoy, an engineering student at Netaji Subhash Engineering College. He didn’t even know that one could get a government job through boxing when he joined. Benoy lives in a slum cluster in Ultadanga in north-east Kolkata. His parents sell fish in a market there. He tells me, “In the slum areas, there is some sort of fighting always going on. Fear used to grip me. So, when I grew up, I thought this fear needs to be overcome from all angles. That’s why I thought these things need to be learnt. Not for earning, but for my own survival.”

As a kid who was bullied in school, Benoy believes boxing has helped since he joined the academy a few months ago. “In these four months, if not anything else, I have become confident.”

Boxing makes major headlines in India only when an Indian boxer wins laurels in the Commonwealth Games or Olympics. However, the story of the sport on a small ghat in South Kolkata, and also in other parts of India, is just that of hope for the young who haven’t been allowed to reap the benefits of India’s highly-marketed growth story.

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