Climate change adds to impoverished athletes’ stress

In rural India, it can become impossible to train because of catastrophic floods or other natural disasters. This causes anxiety for young people who see sport as a way out of poverty.

When floods hit India in August 2019, long-distance runner Rajendra Kumbhar, 23, was three months from doing his physical fitness test to join the army. But because of the stress and anxiety that followed his family’s house being flooded, he weighed less than the minimum requirement of 50kg. 

“I lost weight and was disqualified. Had it not flooded, I would have been in the army today and my family out of poverty,” said Kumbhar. 

For two weeks after the floods, Kumbhar and his family, who live in Ghalwad village in Maharashtra state, had to make do with one meal a day. “In those 15 days we barely got anything to eat,” he explained. “During this time, I was busy working and saving every rupee for our ravaged house.”

In addition, his parents, agricultural labourers, find it difficult to get work because of devastating heatwaves that have hit India in recent months. “We are all depressed and stressed every day, but what can we do?”

For the first time, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations’ climate change body, has highlighted the mental impact of climate change in a report. “In assessed regions, mental health challenges are associated with increasing temperatures, trauma from extreme weather and climate events, and loss of livelihoods and culture,” it said.

27 April 2022: Rajendra Kumbhar, 23, with his mother, Kusum. The 2019 and 2021 floods devastated their house, making it difficult to survive.

This year, India experienced its hottest March in 122 years. The heat continued for the country’s northwestern and central parts in April and intensified further in May. Many scientists attribute this to climate change. 

Athlete Prajakta Kamlakar, 19, also from Ghalwad, got burns on her leg while running. “We don’t have a ground for training, so we run on concrete roads. But in this heatwave the road boils like water,” she said. Her mother Kalpana, a healthcare worker, said athletes in the village had become much weaker because of climate-induced stress, anxiety, fears of another flood and the inability to cope with the changing climate. 

She gives Prajakta an oral rehydration solution (ORS) daily to survive the heat while training. “We never used ORS daily, but now if we don’t she will collapse,” said Kalpana. The heat also means Prajakta has to take a break of two to three days after an intense workout, which has ruined her prospect of becoming a kabaddi player, an indigenous South Asian contact sport. 

However, she doesn’t miss workouts only during the heatwaves. After the floodwaters receded in 2021, she couldn’t train for two months. Her trainer Yogesh Parit said: “Almost all my 150 students are flood victims, so they are busy working odd jobs or looking after domestic animals.”

27 April 2022: Most of the students who train at Ghalwad’s Bajrangbali career academy are victims of the 2019 and 2021 floods and face the worst consequences of climate change every day.

Sport for food

Prajakta lost her shoes and sports kit in the floods, which had a further negative impact on her. To make ends meet, she now works as a security guard managing the crowd during festivals and political rallies. For a day’s shift lasting between 10 and 15 hours, she gets between Rs300 and Rs500 (R60 to R100). “I hardly get this work for a week every month,” said Prajakta.

She relies on winning sports competitions to earn some money. “I’ve won several 100m, 200m and 800m races and even marathons.”  

Because specialising is a luxury for rural athletes, she also trains for long jump, shot-put, discus and javelin, “The more the sports, the more the chances of winning competitions, which can help put food on the table,” she said. But sport won’t fill her stomach unless she’s the best, which means she has started preparing for police exams. Financial issues often force several rural athletes to take this path. 

Her father, Shankar, who works as a tenant farmer, lost 600 000kg of sugarcane cultivated on three acres of land twice in the 2019 and 2021 floods. “Even if the government gives compensation, it goes to the landowner. So we get nothing,” he says, highlighting the poor land regulations.

27 April 2022: Trupti Dhangar, 21, from Maharashtra’s Kavatheguland village, practising pole vault. She has competed at the national level.

Stories like Prajakta’s are increasing with climate disasters. Between 2000 and 2019, floods affected 1.65 billion people worldwide, accounting for 44% of natural disasters. India, which faced an average 17 floods every year during this period, is the second worst-affected country after China.   

But many people in Maharashtra’s flood-affected Kolhapur and Sangli districts are using sport to overcome trauma. Trupti Dhangar, 21, who has competed in pole vaulting at the national level, said while there was always a fear of floods, sport helped to distract her. “In two hours of training every day, I forget all my problems.” Her father Chandrakant said: “What option do we have? We can’t afford a doctor, so sport is the best way to stay happy.”

Like Prajakta, a lack of resources is a hindrance for Trupti. “She can’t afford a fibre pole and uses the normal bamboo one,” said Parit. “Here we are competing against the floods, heatwaves, drought and financial burden. That’s too much for anyone, let alone these young students.”  

27 April 2022: Every day, students from more than 20 villages gather at Ghalwad village at 5pm to work out and destress.

Providing inspiration

In 2008, Tanaji Thorwat decided to start a sports academy dedicated to helping marginalised rural students. The Bajrangbali academy has helped over 150 students from more than 20 different villages to secure jobs in the police, army, forest department and other government sectors.  

Parit and Thorwat like to invite alumni to provide inspiration to the students. “It does help. When they see someone from their village making it to the army or becoming an athlete, it gives them some hope,” said Thorwat. 

In the past three years, several athletes here have reported breathlessness and a drop in their stamina levels. “There are days when they are extremely sad,” said Parit, which is why he also uses motivational speeches to help his athletes. “Inspiring videos have become an inherent part of my training. We’ll have to accept that floods will be a regular occurrence and start finding solutions,” he said. 

Roxy Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology warns these events are going to intensify. “If there’s proper data (on the impact of climate change), it’s possible to build early warning systems for health disasters at the local level,” he says.

27 April 2022: An athlete doing a workout using a 200kg tyre in the scorching heat in Ghalwad village. 

Sachin Salave, a community health officer from Bhuye village, has seen a rapid increase in cases of hypertension and diabetes in the flood-affected regions. “In my interactions with younger people, too, I’ve found a constant fear of floods that has spiralled into hypertension,” he said.

An example is Akshay Pawar, 23, from Arjunwad village, an athlete who had to drop out of his electrician course to prepare for the army entrance examination. Every day, he spends around seven hours in a library in the town of Miraj town to study. He cycles 20km daily. “By the time I reach the academy for training, I am already tired.” But he works out rigorously, hoping someday it will pay off. “Sometimes I don’t even have the money to pay the library fees of Rs400 monthly,” he said.  

Pawar and Kumbhar, who average an income of Rs4000 (R812) a month as electricians, have become close friends through sport, even sharing a pair of running shoes. 

The academy lost equipment and resources worth Rs200 000 in the 2021 floods. “We don’t even have a proper playground and even lost whatever minimum resources we had,” said Parit. “But no matter what the future, the students are ending this day with a good workout. Be it for 30 minutes, they feel stress-free, and that’s important.” 

27 April 2022: Akshay Pawar, 23, who works as an electrician, cycles 20km every day, first to study in a library for the army entrance examination and then to Ghalwad to work out. Here he is practising the long jump.
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