Eh kise hor nu jita rahe ne, sade agge koi hor kudi nahi si [They are making someone else win, there was no other girl ahead of us].” Athletes Jaspal, Ramadeep and friends are complaining to their coach in one voice. The dozen young runners from Amritsar district travelled 200 kilometres to participate in a marathon in Chandigarh, and they are visibly agitated.

All this is happening even as the name of Jaspal Kaur is being announced from the stage as winner of the second prize in the five kilometre race. They know Jaspal is the winner, not runner-up, as she was leading all the way to the finishing line. But the cash prize of Rs. 5,000 for the winner is being announced in someone else’s name.

Jaspal refuses to go to the stage and accept the second prize, instead she and her coach go from one person to another on and off the stage, questioning the decision of the organisers, narrating their story and seeking help to address the injustice. In the end at the request of her coach Jaspal accepts the second prize, a giant foam board cheque with the figure of Rs. 3,100 written on it.

A month later in April 2023 to her surprise, Jaspal finds Rs. 5,000 has been deposited in her account. Nothing is explained to Jaspal and nothing has been reported in any local newspapers. On the result website of Runizen timing systems, her name appears as the winner on the leaderboard for the five-kilometre race with a guntime (race time) of 23.07 minutes. She is not there in the prize distribution photographs for the year. But Jaspal still holds the giant cheque in her possession along with her many medals.

In 2024 while accompanying the girls to the next marathon, this reporter found out from the organisers that they had disqualified Jaspal’s competitor in the race later that year after examining the video footage. They realised the protesting girls had been right. There was some cheating that had taken place with the race bib. That explained the mystery of the cash prize money that came to Jaspal.

Cash prizes are important to Jaspal. If she can save enough money she can go to college again. Two years ago, Jaspal joined an online B.A. programme in a private university. “But I have not been able to finish beyond the first semester,” she says. “I have to pay about 15 thousand rupees every semester to sit in the exam. In the first semester I used the money from cash awards [given by village representatives and the school for winning nationals] to pay the fees. But after that I could not complete another semester since I didn’t have any money.”

Jaspal, 22, is a first-generation college goer in her family and among the very few women from the Mazhabi Sikh community in her village, classified as most disadvantaged Scheduled Caste community in Punjab. Jaspal’s mother Baljinder Kaur, 47, studied till Class 5 and her father Balkar Singh, 50, has never been to school. Her older brother Amritpal Singh, 24, dropped out after Class 12 to help her father in construction labour around their village Kohali; her younger brother Akashdeep Singh,17, has completed Class 12.

PHOTO • Arshdeep Arshi
PHOTO • Arshdeep Arshi

Jaspal (left) keeps her prized possessions safe in this metal almirah. With her family (right)

The income of the family that now includes her elder brother’s wife and child as well, depends on the frequency of work that the two men find, which is often unpredictable. Things look a little bright when they have work, and they make anything between Rs. 9,000 - 10,000 a month.

The prize money that Jaspal gets often takes care of some of her expenses like entry fees and travel for competitions, and her own education. “We get t-shirts when we register for races but for shorts, tracksuit pants and shoes, we have to ask our parents for money,” she says as she is donning her sports clothes for the practice on the ground.

Around us we see young athletes, some doing  warm-ups, others taking a slow round of the ground and a few are gathered around their coach Rajinder Singh for daily training. All of them come from different villages. Jaspal has been participating in 400 and 800 metres, and five-kms events, and has won many prizes and medals in the last seven years. In her own village Jaspal has come to be an inspiration for many. Her medals, certificates and cash prizes have encouraged many from poor families to put their kids in training.

But for Jaspal, nothing she has won till now has been enough to help the family. Since February 2024, Jaspal has started commuting to do account keeping in a Gaushala near Amritsar for Rs. 8,000 a month. “I took up this job to contribute to my family’s income. But now I don’t even get time to study,” she says.

She knows that with the responsibilities at home even the salary from the new job is still short of the semester fees money she needs.

In March 2024 she once again decides to run in a 10-kms race in Chandigarh. This time she ends up as a second runner-up and wins a cash prize of Rs. 11,000.


She certainly is a ‘star’ in the group of about 70 athletes that Rajinder Singh Chhina (60) is training for free in Harse Chhina village. An international athlete himself in the 1500m event, he has been training young girls and boys from marginalised communities for more than a decade now.

PHOTO • Arshdeep Arshi
PHOTO • Arshdeep Arshi

Jaspal (left) and Manpreet (right) at the training ground at Harse Chhina village of Amritsar, Punjab

PHOTO • Arshdeep Arshi
PHOTO • Arshdeep Arshi

Left: Coach Rajinder Singh Chhina with his team of athletes. Right: The coach at his Ayurvedic medicine shop where he attends to patients for a few hours during the day

A taunt from a senior officer in Chandigarh about widespread drug-abuse among youngsters in rural Punjab, pushed this athlete to start training young kids in 2003. “I brought the kids to this ground first,” he says, referring to the playground of Comrade Acchar Singh Chhina Government Senior Secondary Smart School in Harse Chinna village in Amritsar. “The children that were not in the school – children of labourers, marginalised sections. I got them admitted in the school, started training them and slowly it grew.

“In government schools, there are many kids from the marginalised sections now. They are hard-working and strong. I started forming teams thinking that they should at least go till the state level. I didn’t have time to offer sewa at the Gurudwara. I believe that one should help the children in their education if one can,” says Rajinder.

“I have at least 70 athletes whom I coach. Some of my athletes have done quite well and secured good jobs. Some are in Pro Kabaddi League,” Chhina proudly says. “We do not get any help from anyone. People visit, honour the kids, promise to help but nothing comes out of it. We do whatever we can on our own,” he says.

He holds a BAMS degree and runs his own clinic in Ram Tirath near Amritsar. He says the income from that is enough to cover the expenses of his home and the ground. “I spend some seven to eight thousand rupees a month on equipment – hurdles, weights, lime to mark the ground etc.” His children, three of them, all grown up and working, also contribute from time to time.

“I don’t want any kids to do drugs. I want them to come to the ground so that they become something.”

The coach Rajinder Singh and his team of young women athletes from Punjab talk about their journey

Watch the video: 'Struggles of female athletes in rural Punjab'


Coming to the ground, however, is quite an effort for young Jaspal, whose village Kohali is about 10 kilometres away. “I struggle with the distance. The village is far away from the ground,” Jaspal says sitting in front of her two-room brick house on the outskirts of her village. “It takes me about 45 minutes to walk to the ground each way,” Jaspal says. “I get up at 3:30 in the morning every day. I will be at the ground at 4:30. My parents tell me to be careful, but I never feel unsafe. There is an akhara nearby where boys practice pehalwani [wrestling]. Because of them, the road is never deserted. We practice for two hours, and I walk home around 7.30 in the morning,” she says.

Two years ago, she learnt to ride her father’s secondhand bike. Since that time, she occasionally gets to take the motorbike to the training ground, which is then only a matter of 10 minutes. But many times, on those lucky days, Jaspal has to leave the training halfway and return home urgently, because the men at home need the bike. She has missed a few training sessions like that.

“There are still some villages where there is no government or private bus service,” the coach says. “The young athletes struggle to reach the ground and many of them struggle with their education as well because of this.”  The absence of a college nearby is also a reason why many girls in these villages drop out after Class 12. The nearest bus-station to Jaspal is on the other side of the village. And getting the buses that take her to the ground at the time she needs to reach is another problem, she explains.

Ramandeep Kaur, another young athlete from the same village, also walks 10 kms, twice a day, to attend the training. “Sometimes, I walk five kilometres and then go to the ground on a scooty [gearless bike], with another girl, Komalpreet from Chainpur village. After training I walk back another five kilometres,” she explains.

Darr tan lagda ikalle aunde-jande, par kise kol time nahi nal jan aun layi [I fear walking alone to and fro, especially in the dark but no one in the family has the time to go with me every day],” says Ramandeep. The training and then the extra 20 kms walks take a toll on her. “I am tired all the time,” she says.

PHOTO • Arshdeep Arshi
PHOTO • Arshdeep Arshi

Left: Jaspal learnt to ride a motorcycle two years ago and gets to occasionally take it to training. Right: Ramandeep Kaur (black t-shirt) with her mother and sisters in her family home, along with the trophies she has earned over the years

PHOTO • Arshdeep Arshi
PHOTO • Arshdeep Arshi

Ramandeep bought running shoes with her award money

Also, her work does not end with training for her runs, the 21-year-old also has to help at home, taking care of a cow and a buffalo that the family owns. Right in front of the house beyond a 3-4 feet wide brick road is a small space where they keep their cattle.

Ramandeep is also from the Mazhabi Sikh community. Her family of 10 survives on the income of two brothers, who work as labourers. “They do largely carpentry work or anything else that comes their way as often as it does. When they do find work, each can earn anything around 350 rupees a day,” she says.

She gave up studies after completing Class 12 in 2022, when her father died. “We could not afford it,” she says regretfully, sitting in her two-room house at the far end of the village, with cracked walls. “My mother buys me the sports clothes, she gets the widow pension of 1,500 rupees,” says Ramandeep.

Cash prize jitt ke shoes laye si 3100 de, hun tutt gaye, fer koi race jittungi te shoes laungi [I bought these shoes when I won a cash prize of 3,100 rupees in a race, these are torn now, I will win a race again and then buy shoes],” she says pointing at her rugged shoes she has been using now. Shoes, or no shoes, she runs to get to a better place from where she is right now.

“I run to secure a job in the police force,” Ramandeep says.

And so do Komalpreet Kaur (15) from Chainpur, Gurkirpal Singh (15) from village Kohali, Manpreet Kaur (20) from village Ranewali and Mamta (20) from village Sainsra Kalan. All of them come to get trained under coach Chhina. For each of these young athletes, apart from a changed social status, a government job means financial security for the entire family. But entrance exams for these jobs are yet another hurdle race.

PHOTO • Arshdeep Arshi
PHOTO • Arshdeep Arshi

Komalpreet and Manpreet during a training session at the ground

PHOTO • Arshdeep Arshi
PHOTO • Arshdeep Arshi

Left: Young athlete Gurkirpal Singh, showing the prizes he has won. Right: Coach Chhina in action, coaching the young athletes

The special three per cent quota scheme for sportspersons requires winning championship trophies at the state and national level, which requires access to different kinds of resources. In the absence of those the girls work hard and run five and 10 kms races in various marathons across the state. The prizes and medals they win would help them in the physical fitness tests for the jobs in the police force they aspire to.

There is even a reservation for Mazhabi Sikhs in these jobs. A 180 among out of the total 1,746 vacancies advertised for constables in the Punjab police for candidates in the 2024 state recruitment drive are reserved for this SC community. And 72 out of the 180 seats are reserved for women in the same community.

The 2022 India Justice Report that assesses and ranks each state’s progress in capacity building for its major justice delivery mechanisms, namely Police, Judiciary, Prisons & Legal Aid, shows that Punjab has dropped eight ranks from 4th to 12th between 2019 and 2022. The report adds that “whether it is caste or gender, everywhere there is a shortfall in inclusion and the pace of repair remains glacial. Despite decades of heated debate, while individual states may meet one or other category, no state meets all three quotas across all subsystems. Nor are women anywhere near parity. It has taken fifteen years, from January 2007 to January 2022, for the share of women personnel in police to move from 3.3 per cent to 11.8 per cent.” That number for women in Punjab in 2022 is at 9.9 per cent.

Both Jaspal and Ramandeep have been applying for the Punjab police constable post since last year. In 2023 they both appeared for the written test in Punjabi but did not clear it. "I prepare for the written test at home,” says Ramandeep.

The 2024 advertisement for the recruitment drive mentions a computer-based exam as the first in the three-stage selection process. The candidates from the Scheduled Caste and Backward Class must have minimum required marks of 35 per cent to qualify for second round of physical screening test and a physical measurement test. The physical tests include running, long-jump, high jump, weight and height.

PHOTO • Courtesy: NMIMS, Chandigarh
PHOTO • Courtesy: NMIMS, Chandigarh

Ramandeep (left) and Jaspal (right) at a marathon organised by NMIMS, Chandigarh

Ramandeep’s mother is anxious about her daughter’s performance because she does not eat much, she says. She knows little about The Athletics Federation of India’s guidebook on nutrition that recommends a varied diet of vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, cereals, lean meats, fish and dairy foods to meet young athletes nutrition and energy needs. They cannot afford much of these. Meat comes once a month. “ Diet nahi mildi, bas roti ja jo vi ghare mil janda [We don’t get proper diet; it is chapaati or whatever is cooked at home],” says Ramandeep. “We eat whatever is cooked at home, and soaked chane ,” Jaspal adds.

Neither of the girls know about the computer-based exam mentioned in the advertisement this year. “Last year it was a written test in Punjabi, not computer-based,” says Jaspal remembering her earlier experience. “We do not have access to computers.” Last year Jaspal had spent Rs. 3,000 on coaching for two months to help her clear the written test.

The first round according to this year’s circular will include a paper in addition to the qualifying paper on Punjabi language. It will test the candidates on general awareness, quantitative aptitude and numerical skills, mental ability and logical reasoning, English language skills, Punjabi language skills and digital literacy and awareness.

" Physical test written test clear hon ton baad lainde ne, written test hi clear nahi si hoya is karke physical test tak pohnche hi nahi [Physical test is conducted after you pass the written test, when you are not able to clear the written exam, where is the question of the physical test to be conducted]?" says Jaspal.

“I have the books from last year. This year also I have applied [for the police force vacancies],” says Ramandeep. “Let us see," she adds, her voice choked with an equal amount of doubt and hope.
Arshdeep Arshi

Arshdeep Arshi is an independent journalist and translator based in Chandigarh and has worked with News18 Punjab and Hindustan Times. She has an M Phil in English literature from Punjabi University, Patiala.

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Editor : Pratishtha Pandya

Pratishtha Pandya is a Senior Editor at PARI where she leads PARI's creative writing section. She is also a member of the PARIBhasha team and translates and edits stories in Gujarati. Pratishtha is a published poet working in Gujarati and English.

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Video Editor : Sinchita Maji

Sinchita Maji is a Senior Video Editor at the People’s Archive of Rural India, and a freelance photographer and documentary filmmaker.

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