‘All I want is my old life back.’Also Read - Esports to be a Medal Event at 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou
June 3 is annually celebrated world cycling day. While the coronavirus pandemic means the usual enthusiasm this year around the event was absent, nevertheless, social media was flooded with quotable quotes eulogising the importance of cycling on health and environment. Also Read - Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi to be Redeveloped at a Cost of 7,850 Crore
Far away, in the Baridih slum of Jamshedpur, a 70-year-old Swaran Singh was getting done with his daily chores quickly to catch up on some sleep before starting his 12-hour night shift as a private security guard. Also Read - Living in Abject Poverty, Former India Cyclist Working Night Shift As Security Guard With Daughter Battling TB
Growing up, Swaran wanted to be a professional cyclist. Despite the family’s weak financial condition, he somehow convinced his father to let him pursue his dream. Affording a racing cycle was beyond their means but that didn’t deter his ambitions.
Swaran’s focus and dedication came through. He began winning national events, caught the eyes of authorities and made the trip for the Asian Games in 1970 to Bangkok where he finished sixth.
Life wasn’t a breeze despite what he achieved on the track. However, it was comfortable. After finishing his professional career, Swaran began working with Tata Steel in his hometown Jamshedpur as a senior sports assistant.
Having realised that the position he was employed in the company won’t help him in improving his financial situation, Swaran took the fateful decision of taking VRS in 1994 to start his own transport business.
His life turned for good. The business became mildly successful.
And then in 2005, he started incurring losses. So much so that he had to sell his ancestral property to pay off debts to provide for his family comprising wife, two daughters and a son.
Now, his life is a far cry from what it was even when he was competing with the elites as a professional athlete. He is 70 now and working as a security guard for a private apartment, doing night shifts.
“Financial condition forced me to take this job,” Swaran told India.com. “I work 12 hours a day. Came in at 6 pm and will leave in the morning at 6 am. Then I have to cook and clean up. By the time I am done with the daily chores, I end up sleeping for only two hours.”
Swaran lives alone as his wife is caring for their eldest daughter who has bone TB. He earns a meagre Rs 10,000 per month and around Rs 2,500 is spent on paying the monthly rent for the small room he calls home nowadays.
His son Jagraj Singh also works as a security guard in New Delhi.
Swaran claims Jagraj was promised a job in Tata Steels but denied because he lacked the requisite qualifications.
When prodded further why he chose to become a professional cyclist, Swaran hesitates at first before opening up, his voice quivering.
“My father was the sole breadwinner of the family. I always wanted to do something in life to make him proud,” he said. “People used to cycle around and I used to watch them intently. I developed an interest.”
He continued, “I asked my father to get me a racing cycle, but we couldn’t afford one. So I began practicing on the normal cycle hoping to become a professional cyclist one day. Father warned me about my ambition. Said my dream won’t come true and end up becoming a sad story.”
But he kept his dream alive.
“Racing cycles do not come cheap,” Swaran said. “Try getting one from Italy. The best one will set you back by Rs 7 lakh. And one cycle is not enough. You need at least two – one to practice and the other for competitions. Not everyone can afford to become a professional cycle due to the costs involved. You need a proper daily diet to which again requires more money.”
“I was part of the Asian Games in Bangkok in 1970. I also got selected for the next edition in Tehran but couldn’t go for lack of funds. I got selected for Munich Olympics, but the government said they don’t have funds. Time kept passing by, I kept competing. But I didn’t get anything out of the sport nor receive any assistance from the government,” he added.
It is for this reason he didn’t encourage his own children to pursue the sport and there are times when he admits having regrets regarding his decision to become a cyclist.
“Nobody from the government contacted me all these years to even enquire whether I am alive or dead,” he said.
After reading about his plight, Survivors Against TB (SATB), a movement led by survivors who help patients through their treatment and advocate for policy changes, contacted India.com to get in touch with his family for assistance.
When his story was reported in the local media, assurances began pouring in. So far, he has been contacted by a host of businessman and social workers for assistance.
An anonymous letter was shot to the Indian Olympic Association explaining his dire condition and cry for help. Former cyclists have also decided to contribute.
So is he happy now?
“I haven’t received a penny yet. Let it come and then only I can say something,” pat comes his reply.
But Swaran doesn’t want to live on external help. All he hopes for is a government pension but since he didn’t win a medal at international level, he’s not eligible for one.
“Probably pension,” he replies when asked what he would demand from the government. “I won’t have to spend my nights awake and normal life will resume.”