It was the food that Nandu Jadhav thought of, when the parents of young girls came to meet him. Over the last half-decade, perhaps more, they’d come to persuade him to accept their daughters into a long-distance running programme called the Sunrise Project. So he thought of soya milk and cow milk, four eggs a day, sprouts, almonds, walnuts, and seasonal fruit. These were the components of the protein-rich diet that supplemented the intense daily training the Project put its wards through.
Jadhav is the head of sports at the Sanksriti Samvardhan Mandal (SSM) school in Sagroli village in Maharashtra’s Nanded district. In 2005, SSM started the Sunrise Project to train teenagers for marathons and other road-running events. It was a success, especially for the girls. Many of them went on to secure jobs in the state police, forestry and municipal departments on the back of strong performances in competitions. “It’s a big deal in the villages,” Jadhav said—not the sports themselves so much as public sector employment.
Jadhav had the build and temperament of a sports administrator rather than an athlete: shaven head, paunch held aloft, a gruff air of authority. It was impossible to make much small talk with him. But he softened visibly when he interacted with younger children. Perhaps they reminded him of his 11-year-old daughter who competes in malkhamb.  Or maybe they brought to mind the girls who studied with him at SSM before they dropped out and disappeared into marriages.
All the boys and girls in the Sunrise Project were allotted the same amount of protein. “A government job means security and prestige,” Jadhav said. “That’s why I tell the families of the girls: feed them properly if they are to compete. Feed them like you would your boys.”
Soon, the school also started accepting boys. In a few years, SSM stood out amongst Indian residential schools by catering to the rural citizen as opposed to the privileged urban-dweller. In the 1990s, it was made a Sainiki Vidyalaya, an army preparation school, under a Maharashtra government programme modelled on a Union scheme.
Physical fitness is central to any military prep school, so the SSM received a healthy amount of funding to build new infrastructure. The Sainiki programme helped the boys of Sagroli land government employment, chiefly in the lower ranks of the paramilitary and the Armed Forces. The girls were left out.
But an event in January 2004 sparked the idea for the Sunrise Project. That month, the city of Mumbai hosted the first edition of its annual marathon. It was a splashy affair, attracting sponsorship from a major multinational bank and a host of other corporates. For serious competitors, there were handsome cash prizes, extensive media coverage and, on the basis of the distance-running culture it spawned, an opportunity to establish a career in sport.
SSM donors Deepak Kanegaonkar  and Carlton Pereira, corporate men based in Mumbai, loved the ‘anything’s possible’ vibe of the marathon. They also felt that SSM had all the raw materials to produce athletic champions. In 2005, they established the Sagroli Sunrise Project. Sixty talented boys and girls would train under it. The idea that it was important to educate girls gained a whole new dimension.
All these stories had happy conclusions. Boragi is now an assistant sub-inspector in the Maharashtra police. She got the job after placing tenth in the 5000m race at the World University Games in Shenzhen, China, in 2011. That same year, Kamble secured a job—through the sports quota—as a forest guard in the Maharashtra forest department. (Her younger sister Varsha, also a student of the Project, took the same route.) Now, Kanna also works in the Maharashtra forest department.
In 2016, I began writing a book on women athletes in India. The idea was born out of my anger at the savage gangrape-murder of Jyoti Pandey on a Delhi bus in 2012 and the disgusting question that never leaves women, even when they lie dying: what was she doing there? (The political scientist Niraja Gopal Jayal has suggested that the citizenship of Indian women appears to be valid only in the private sphere.) Is there anything for which women are seen as having a legitimate reason to be out there in the world, I wondered? The answer is sport.
The Sagroli Sunrise Project featured in the book from its inception. For one, it was a story of community and not individual excellence; for another, it was a rural triumph as opposed to a city success. Most of all, it centred around the relatively new marathon economy.
There is little ambiguity that this marathon economy is a neoliberal project, born out of the belief that the market is a more rational and efficient distributor of resources than the state. The New York City Marathon became a road race in 1976 (it was earlier run in Central Park), the year after the city’s municipality went bankrupt. The Marxist scholar David Harvey, writing about the proliferation of city marathons in the late 1970s and early 1980s, observed that the races were meant to showcase the host cities—Chicago, London, Tokyo, Singapore—as investment destinations rather than as inclusive urban communities.
In India, over the last 15 years, the marathon economy has come to be worth ₹2900 crore annually, said Vivek Singh, co-founder of Procam International, which organises several marathon events, including the Mumbai Marathon. The figure he cited likely accounted for the sports shoes, athletic gear and fitness equipment that is sold to hordes of hobby runners. Participation fees, advertising along the running route, a boost to tourism: all of this adds up too.
Then, there are the optics of the marathons: thousands of bodies clocking miles around the city, shaping the impression of individuals taking responsibility for their health, not burdening the healthcare system.
Another tradition was sustained by large family-owned corporate houses, which also instituted a sports quota for their employee pool. Some of them funded academies and professional clubs. The Tatas have a football academy in Jamshedpur, and hockey academies in Jamshedpur and Bhubaneswar. The mining giants of Goa run storied football clubs named after their families. More recently, Jindal Steel Works pumped money into the Inspire Institute of Sport; it also runs club franchises in cricket and football leagues. For decades, smaller concerns, from bicycle manufacturers in Tamil Nadu to cloth mills in Punjab funded teams and infrastructure in sports like football and hockey.
The only anomaly to this is the Board of Control for Cricket in India. It is neither a government body nor backed by a single corporate house, but it is the richest sporting authority in the country, so enormously successful that sports like football, badminton and kabbadi have no hope of keeping up. The best they’ve been able to do in recent years is try and emulate the stupendous success of the BCCI’s Indian Premier League with their own professional leagues. This is the neoliberal re-ordering of sport, and it is reshaping the way we know these pastimes, too.
None of this has displaced the importance of government jobs, and the primacy of government funding, which has led to a surfeit of bureaucracy. That bureaucracy’s dismissiveness and disinterest for sport plays on loop around us. Every few months, a national or international athlete is found serving tea or performing menial work for their department; the press report leads to some outrage; it wanes, until another such person is found. The results of this state support have been meagre in terms of international medals; we all know this. But neither has it facilitated a culture that encourages people to take up sport as a career.
In the editions of the Olympics before this year’s Tokyo Games, Indian success was the result of individual effort, sponsored by private interests. Shooter Abhinav Bindra, who won gold in Beijing in 2008, largely found his own sponsors and sometimes paid out of pocket for training and travel. Badminton stars Saina Nehwal (bronze, London 2012) and P.V. Sindhu (silver, Rio 2016) trained in Pullela Gopichand’s Hyderabad academy.
The Tokyo story is somewhat different. The preparation of all individual medal-winners at the Games was supported by the Sports Authority of India’s Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS), but many of these star athletes additionally had sponsorship and management deals with private bodies like Olympic Gold Quest and JSW Sport. In the case of India’s first track and field medallist Neeraj Chopra, for instance, JSW would step in to pay for something like an upgraded seat on a long flight to an international competition.  So even Chopra’s success wasn’t entirely down to state support. It was underpinned by the stability of a job in the Indian Army (one of the most historically significant institutions for Indian sport) as well as the big-money push of corporate management.
The marathon economy is of a piece with the latter: the private, high-end push to sport. For me, Sagroli was a chance to see what it meant to those who fell outside the old networks of government and big city opportunities—at what they call ‘the grassroots.’
Kanegaonkar and Pereira told me that SSM was the ideal place to run the Sunrise Project, far away from urban distractions. The school was nestled in a large open space in the Biloli taluka, surrounded by a section of the Balaghat hills and close to a tributary of the Godavari called the Manjeera. Access to river banks and inclines means that students could spend time on sand and hill workouts, both considered vital for runners.
Good coaches were another factor. The school’s Sainik Vidyalaya status helps in this regard: retired armed forces personnel are part of the sports faculty.
Sagroli might offer the idyllic vista of a child’s painting on balmy winter evenings but it falls in the Marathwada region, infamous for its droughts and suicides. In recent years, journalist Kavitha Iyer has written,  Marathwada has recorded more suicides than Vidarbha, a region that is often in the news for debt-ridden farmers taking their own lives.
It was not difficult to see how deeply cash prizes would be valued in impoverished households here. I saw this first-hand at the home of Durga Kumbhar, a student at SSM and a member of the Sunrise Project. Earlier that week, when a chill wind belied the sharp 4pm sun, Jadhav had taken me there. It wasn’t the season for flies, but the air was thick with them. They buzzed around the fodder and animal waste that lay in the buffalo shed at one end of the home.
Indeed, it was hard to say where the shed ended and the residence began. Only a long indent on the floor—a drain for liquid refuse—marked the division. A withered old woman lay still on a cot, seemingly undisturbed by the insects that had settled on her.
This home was rented with great difficulty by Kumbhar’s maternal uncle, an agricultural labourer. Durga and her mother had sought refuge with him because they’d been evicted from their previous home. This was after it had come to be known that Durga’s father had died due to AIDS and that her mother was HIV-positive.
In Sagroli, Durga held a sliver of currency because she was an SSM pupil. Jadhav had gone looking for her when he’d heard of the family’s story. There was a childhood connection: Durga’s mother, Shobha, had been his classmate at SSM, studying with him until Class V or so before dropping out.
Jadhav enrolled Durga at the free hostel for girls to shield her from ostracism at home. He was keen to get her on the Sunrise Project, mainly so she could access the protein-rich diet. When she was nine, she completed a local 6km race. The Project typically took only teenagers, but Jadhav managed to convince the management that Durga deserved special support for her talent—6km is a considerable distance for an unprepared nine-year-old to run—and circumstances.
His instinct seemed to have paid off. Although I never saw Durga’s parents, even in a photograph, she was unusually tall for her age, towering over her classmates in Class X.
These certainly meant more for the young women than they did for the men. One reason among others is the continued prevalence of dowry. In Landscapes of Loss, Iyer wrote that girls with degrees “do not have better marriage prospects in the community unless the parents can afford a large dowry.” There was an established rate chart for grooms. Doctors were the most expensive category of son-in-law: the going rate was ₹51 lakh plus a kilo of gold. (Teachers cost ₹10 lakh plus some gold.) Families that owned land typically sold some to afford dowry.
Education doesn’t have a pay-off in this sense. There is no discount on dowry for advanced degrees. That’s why the financial burden of continuing education is too much for the parents of many girls to bear. In 2015, a 19-year-old woman called Swati Pitale killed herself because she couldn’t afford to pay the ₹260 for the bus commute to college. In a letter to her father, Iyer reported, Pitale said that she didn’t want him to incur the exorbitant expense of her wedding. And of course, Iyer wrote, there is the neverending anxiety about the virginity of young women who are yet to be married.
Can young women with university degrees get jobs that utilise their education? The neoliberal model is designed as one of technological advancement and jobless growth. In any case, job prospects for both men and women in rural areas with undergraduate degrees are scarce. The pressure for jobs can be understood by the demands for reservations in education and jobs made across the country, including the agitation for Maratha reservation which intensified over 2016 and 2017, and was granted by the Maharashtra government in November 2018.
“Every one of these protesters is the child of a farmer,” an interviewee named Bhaiya Patil, social media coordinator for the Maratha quota agitation, told journalist Snigdha Poonam in 2016. Many of them, he added, come from the same family background as him. His parents, who were dependent on cotton and sugarcane farming, had suffered losses for three consecutive years. The agitation emphasised the need for “respectable jobs.”
They did not want work that required manual labour: those were the jobs that Dalit people were taking up, to slowly make their way into the middle class.
SSM has succeeded in keeping girls in school until they turn 18. But beyond the high school certificate, the school authorities agreed that this may not amount to much. “Most of them will enrol for a correspondence or diploma course after Class XII because they can get married at short notice then,” said Prabhakar Rao, head of the Plus Two department at SSM. “And they can continue this more easily after marriage. In fact, I still have a girl or two every year being married off before they sit for their Class XII exams. When I ask the parents they say, ‘But she is 18 sir, we followed the law!’”
How many have gone on to have careers? “It’s negligible, I wish I had a figure for you,” Rao told me. “Sometimes, I think the Project has done better than I have in this area.”
Since the onset of the pandemic and the accompanying lockdowns, several news reports have indicated the sharp rise in child marriage numbers in India. According to a report in The Wire, the months of June to October 2020 saw child marriages increase by 33% compared to this period in 2019.  Keeping girls in school till the age of 18, in particular, is a measure of considerable success.
Indeed, the Project’s impact has been transformative, even with something as basic as food. The 2015-2016 National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) found that 48 percent of women of reproductive age in Maharashtra were anaemic. The latest NFHS data, from the fifth round in 2019-2020, suggests that the nutritional deficiency situation has deteriorated: it puts the figure at 54.2 percent. (The corresponding percentage of anaemic men is 21.9 percent.) 
In a separate study examining expenditure on major morbidity—defined as any illness that lasts three months or longer—the authors found that the spend on a woman was, on average, 28 percent lower than on a man.  This is how embedded gender discrimination in India is, expressed in the most fundamental of human claims on life, such as food and health. Even if the Project had simply managed to ensure that girls ate better, as Jadhav thought, that would have been a fundamental change.
“My salary was ₹5000 and I sent almost all of it home,” Babar told me. “I had dreamed so much about Bombay but in my first few years, I felt lost and exhausted. I ate vadapav and juice, and I lost my drive.” But a string of marathon wins between 2012-2014 helped her regain her appetite. The blitz of media attention meant that she came under the radar of coaches in the Indian athletics ecosystem, particularly a Belarussian disciplinarian named Nikolai Snesarev. 
Under his supervision, Babar began to attempt the steeplechase—a challenging track event comprising seven hurdles and an enormous water jump in every lap.  In 2014, she won bronze in the steeplechase at the Asian Games in South Korea. It was her first major medal on India duty.
Then, she made the steeplechase finals at the Rio Olympics in 2016. By doing so, Babar became only the second Indian after P.T. Usha to make a track and field final at the Olympics. Usha had achieved the feat in the 400m hurdles at the Los Angeles edition in 1984. Thirty years is one generation, so it was apposite that Babar was more a product of the lucrative road-running circuit than the national camps in track and field.
When I told the Sagroli students I would be meeting Babar in Mumbai, the mood shifted visibly. They had been shy with me: I was an outsider and potentially an authority figure like their teachers. (One more thing set me apart—I was wearing a face mask unlike anyone else around.)
But Babar’s name warmed them up. “We have met her, you know,” said Vishnu Lavale, who’d been introduced to me as the most promising athlete in the programme. “She comes to competitions as chief guest. We have eaten with her too. Village athletes are always the best, we have more toughness. City people cannot compete with us. They are soft. Lalita ma’am is the start.”
This, too, was the neoliberal project advancing, the city claiming extensive areas for development and investment at the cost of the natural environment. Across the subcontinent, corporate forces looking to profit off land, water and natural resources are in conflict with communities who’ve worked and known the land for generations.
Sport arrived as part of this development, and not only through marathons to showcase the shining cities in which they took place. Sport is a peace offering, bundled into development projects as part of legally mandated social responsibility initiatives in the countryside. As big money travels deeper into communities leaving unambiguous evidence of ecological impoverishment, sports grounds and athletic achievements will be one of the answers furnished for what has been gained.
In my travels as a reporter, I have often come across small grounds and stadia maintained by companies working in cement, mineral refinement, car production and industrial goods. These are lovely little oases of green in dusty towns and highway areas, where the air is thick with smoke. It’s hard to remain unmoved by the happy laughter of young children on these grounds. Many of them will go on to reveal the stamina that Babar and young Vishnu Lavale say distinguishes the village from the city; the appetite that separates hunger from greed.
The city has arrived in Sagroli, too, where an interesting—and instructive—confrontation is taking place. The central issue is sand mining on the banks of the Manjeera. This is transforming the economic, environmental and social dynamic of the area. Soil erosion and unavailability of labour has put pressure on the agrarian base of the community. The cash associated with the mining business has led to increased alcohol consumption and unregulated construction.
The Deshmukhs and SSM have opposed the mining industry, given that it threatens the agriculture and education-focus of the community. In many other places, to make itself more acceptable to locals and the government, industry would likely have dangled the carrot of education and sports facilities. But the existence of SSM means that this chip is unlikely to be available to the sand-mining interests in Sagroli, thwarting their progress.
These forces are now challenging the Deshmukhs’ caste-based authority in the area. Their gains were visible in the results of the gram panchayat election that took place while I was in Sagroli. Candidates aligned with the Deshmukhs won only nine out of 17 seats. Teachers at SSM said that it was the first time since gram panchayat elections began—in the 1960s—that candidates opposed to the Deshmukh family had won seats.
As the sports head for the SSM, he purveys a considerable amount of infrastructure: a 50m Olympic-standard swimming pool, a stable with a dozen horses, basketball and badminton courts, football and hockey pitches. The school has also secured a budget for a 400m all-weather track, and as of this writing, Jadhav is working with the contractors on getting it fixed up.
Yet, I came away with the sense that Jadhav’s focus is on the individual. Over the days and nights I spent in Sagroli, I woke up at least an hour before dawn to watch the students training. Dawn broke at around seven, but students worked out in the dark for a good hour before they progressed to the banks of the Manjeera or the hills.  Jadhav was there, walking alongside the girls as they warmed up, chatting with Durga and her friends, watching them intently even when he came to the gallery to sit with me.
Durga is 16 now. Jadhav had had her mother enlisted on the government’s free ART treatment protocol at the nearest hospital. Her mother now works as an agricultural labourer. When employers try to pay her less than the standard rate, she threatens to complain that they are discriminating against her because of HIV. “Mostly, it does not work,” Durga said, “but they know Ma knows the law and they don’t dare push her out of our home. And they call her for work now. Earlier, no one called her.”
With Durga sitting beside me, I watched a sub-district-level competition in Sagroli. Apart from the usual sprint (upto 400 metres) and middle-distance events (800m to 3000m), there were 5000m and 10,000m races. For these, participants ran several laps of the 400m oval mud track—12.5 times for the 5000m and 25 times for the 10,000m. By the eighth or ninth lap in each race, a clear winner emerged, someone who had taken an unassailable lead. In both races, the eventual winner was already waiting by the finish line as the second-placed athlete completed the circuit.
In a road race, it’s hard to make out who will finish last: they are so far behind that they are out of sight. On the track, however, the tail is easy to identify. They are the ones still running when the top three positions have been announced and the commentary has fallen quiet.
Perhaps the stragglers are painfully aware that they are being watched by people who feel sorry for them. Yet, no one abandons their race. Everyone runs to finish. “How does it feel when you know you are going to be among the last ones?” I asked Durga. “Do you get self-conscious?”
“Like this, you mean,” she asked, nodding towards the track. Her longest event was the 10km, which she was still getting used to. She once placed first in a 6000m race.
“Jadhav sir has taught me a trick for those times,” Durga said. “I think of my mother’s face on her saddest day, and I run.”
Sohini is a reporter and critic. She won the national award for film criticism for 2019. She has received several other awards and citations for her reportage. Her writing has been translated into Tamizh, Malayalam, Bengali and German. A selection of her work is archived on her website. She tweets @sohinichat.
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists. This feature is a part of a book on women athletes for which Sohini received a New India Foundation Fellowship in 2021.