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Page last updated at 09:07 GMT, Sunday, 10 October 2010 10:07 UK

India's disabled athletes seek recognition

Prasanta Karmakar
Swimmer Prasanta Karmakar celebrates bronze in the 50m freestyle S9 event

By Vandana Vijay
BBC Hindi Service

India's Para athletes are struggling for recognition despite Prasanta Karmakar securing an historic medal in the pool.

Karmakar came third in the men's 50m freestyle S9 to win India's first-ever Commonwealth Games medal in any swimming event.

Most Indians seem unaware there are 45 medals to be won in disability events in Delhi.

Karmakar and fellow athlete Suvarna Raj have been critical of their treatment by the Indian authorities.

Indian Para athletes are not participating in several events because of a lack of access to facilities. Before the Games, a protest rally was held in front of the Indian Sports Minister's house in an attempt to resolve the issue.

Coming from a humble background, Kamarkar says that winning a bronze medal might have brought him into the limelight but his journey has been far from easy.

We have kept in mind the needs of disabled athletes and spectators with special ramps

H.S. Kingra, Sports Authority of India

As a child Karmakar lost part of his right arm in a car accident. After training for several years in his home town of Kolkata, he travelled to the south Indian city of Bangalore in pursuit of better opportunities.

"I thought I'll work at a swimming pool and earn some money and at the same time I'll also train. But the training schedule was so hectic that I hardly had any time and energy for work," Karmakar said.

"Whatever money I had, it was over in three months. I didn't even have the money to sustain my diet, rent and other basic needs which would be roughly 1,000 Indian rupees (£145) a month. Dejected, I came back home home to West Bengal."

He had almost given up hope but, luckily for him, some organizations and individuals came forward to offer assistance. He didn't let them down and has since won some 30 international medals culminating in a Commonwealth Games bronze medal.

A big worry ahead of the Commonwealth Games was whether Delhi's sports stadiums and athletes village would be fully accessible to disabled athletes.

H.S. Kingra from the Sports Authority of India made assurances that stadiums they would.

"We have kept in mind the needs of disabled athletes and spectators with special ramps," Kingra said.

But athletes such as Suvarna Raj and Prashant say this is not enough as they regularly fail to get sufficient access to facilities.

Suvarna Raj
Indian Para table tennis player Suvarna Raj

To get an insight into what problems Para athletes face, the BBC spent a day with table tennis player Suvarna Raj as she prepared for the Commonwealth Games.

During the day Raj works in a kiosk in the Lady Shri Ram College of New Delhi and in the afternoon she heads straight to her local sports complex to train.

Access to equipment has been difficult and she struggled to buy her own wheelchair.

"I don't have the means to buy a wheelchair. The authorities wouldn't get it for me," Raj said.

"A lecturer at the college where I work gave me the money to buy a wheelchair so that I could train. I had to hire a personal coach for training and the expense was shared by my family and the public sector company ONGC."

The BBC presented these complaints to the Indian Sports Ministry. The ministry initially agreed to meet without recording equipment but backed out at the last moment.

Suvarna Raj reiterates that travelling is a big problem; "Travelling on my own from home to stadiums for training purpose by public transport is a nightmare.

Many a time I thought of calling it a day but then there was this urge to do something for my country, sheer grit carried me through

Prasanta Karmakar, 50m freestyle S9 bronze medallist

"I live in Delhi but haven't even been to landmarks like Red Fort because there are no special facilities for people like me", she said.

No surprise that atmosphere has been gloomy amongst the Para athlete fraternity. Karmakar recalls the moment he almost gave up.

"I used to think what am I doing here, I am not even assured of two meals a day. How long can I keep dragging myself like this. Many a time I thought of calling it a day but then there was this urge to do something for my country, sheer grit carried me through."

Athletes are now hoping that Karmakar's historic medal in the pool at the Commonwealth Games might develop awareness about Para sports in India.

Karmakar is already dreaming of setting up a system whereby Para athletes like him get the chance, facility and opportunity to excel.

"I don't like the world disabled at all. If you see, everyone is disabled in one sense or another, we all have certain shortcomings. It's just that my shortcoming is that I have one hand missing.

"I toiled for 15 years to reach this far. I am sure you all won't take that long… All I would like to say is work hard and never lose hope."

After all he has already set his next target - the Asian Games in November and the 2012 Olympics in London.



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