Think Sunday, and you might imagine a long, lazy day of cricket or pick up football games. But end of week afternoons are also for hitting the court and in the case of Jitendra Pathkar, leaving his home town in Uttar Pradesh to practice wheelchair basketball.
Jitendra, from Lalitpur district’s Beerdha block, is India’s first disabled basketball player from a remote area. Afront a line of trophies he’s earned, Jitendra, 26, appears pleasantly serious and comfortable talking to us about his experiences playing. He has high hopes and determination to create a name for himself in the sport, irrespective of the government’s role in providing the support required to make the path more accessible.
In theory, state policy in India encourages people with disabilities to participate in sports and leisure activities, particularly with the National Policies for Persons with Disabilities, 2006 and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2011. One section maintains that the government must establish a National Body for Disability Sports to encourage all people with physical impairments to participate- and indeed, the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India (WBFI), one such national body, has been active since 2014, hosting workshops in Delhi, Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu, reaching an estimated 256 participants.
Jitendra himself was first inspired to play when he saw his friends, from both Lalitpur and Jhansi, take to the court. In an unusual take not oft seen in sports in UP, some of them were in wheelchairs. “When I saw them playing basketball on a wheelchair, it gave me the confidence to play this game as well,” he says.
His first days of practice were spent in a basic wheelchair, mostly used only for moving from one place to another. Soon after he began playing, he was selected for a national team and traveled to Delhi for his first championship, and continued on to play in another tournament in Chennai.
Access to facilities is a prohibitive factor – the wheelchair used by disabled athletes for basketball costs between 33,000 and 34,000 rupees. The relatively low profile in India of basketball is another big reason for the lack of interest and hence, funds in the sport. Domestic competitions are not televised and media coverage is limited, though a scheme launched in 2010 between the Basketball Federation of India and a sports marketing group seeks to bring out new players with a focus on the grassroots.
Since there is no stadium in his village, Jitendra travels on Sundays and on days when he has time to a Lalitpur Authority Ground, about 40 kilometers away.
“It is difficult to commute and no facilities from the government are provided to us,” he says. “Government has not done anything for us although I am the first disabled basketball player from a remote area.”
Meanwhile, the number of people with physical disabilities across India is growing both in urban and rural areas. A total of 26.8 million people surveyed in the 2011 Indian Census had some form of disability. 18.6 million were males, and 8.2 were female, while 15.0 million of the total were in rural locations, and 11.8 were in urban areas. Plus, among males, a disability affecting movement was most common among the types of conditions surveyed; 22.5% of men with disabilities are affected in terms of movement.
“I would like to request the government to provide athletes proper facilities in remote areas so that they make their country proud,” says Jitendra.
Smiling in a semi-circle with a crew of other players, next to a plane, and later pictured on the court with long rows of stadium seats stretching behind him, Jitendra’s got a lot in front of him out of his own passion to play – you could say the ball is in the government’s court to improve access, but Jitendra is already one step ahead of them in pursuing his own hoop goals.
“As a sportsperson, the way I practiced every day on a wheelchair that was used for mobility and not sports should be encouraged by the government,” he says. “I want to earn a name in this sport and I hope the government will continue to support me as I go ahead. I look forward to achieving my dreams.”