In the office of the Employees Provident Fund in Bandra, Mumbai, senior social security assistant Juje Jacki Harnodkar Siddi, has to deal with many irate citizens cribbing about their money being stuck with the government. In this bustling building, with his shoulder-length dreadlocks partly covered in a bandana, his voice a gentle whisper, Juje stands out for the way he looks and the way he moves—light on his feet, like an athlete.
This weekday lunch hour, he is also thinking about the upcoming inter-departmental sports competition where, one would imagine, he would be the star performer. But he grins and admits that his running days are way behind him.
The 41-year-old was once selected for a government-run programme to find India’s next great athlete or athletes from among marginalized groups of people. In the late 1980s, an ambitious project of the Special Area Games (SAG) programme spearheaded by the then sports minister Margaret Alva was implemented in Gujarat and Karnataka. Believing that the best athletes in the world, as showcased by the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984, were of African origin, SAG—formed in 1985 to find special talent outside of major cities—decided to search among the Siddis, a tribe whose origins can be traced back to south-east Africa.
So in 1988, athletics coach Sunder Raju and other officials of the Sports Authority of India (SAI) travelled to the Gir National Park in Gujarat to find the little-known Siddis, many of whom had settled in this part of the world. In Karnataka, the same story repeated: in Haliyal, Karwar district, from villages like Yellapura and Mundgod, more Siddi children were rounded up by SAI coaches and told to run. Several were selected, sent to SAI centres across the country for further testing and training. One among them was 16-year-old Juje.
A few years later, by 1992-93, the initiative ended, with the existing Siddis in camps weeded out and left to fend for themselves. Some founds jobs, others returned to their villages. The genetic supremacy theory that the government wanted to explore lay in ruins.
Juje, who ran the 400m hurdles, says the athletes in training facilities were abruptly told to leave while some received letters at their home. He was among those who preempted the axe—“What have you done in three years that you will do now, they asked me,” says Juje. He went looking for a job and found it initially with the Karnataka police.
There is no clear scientific evidence in this case whether the Siddis’ origins made them natural-born athletes. But those who supported the programme say their performance in that short period of time proves they had potential. “What we got were malnourished children,” says Rachana Govil, then SAI’s assistant director in Bangalore, whose late husband Ravannan was one of the coaches for the project. “Inspite of that, with just some months of training, they were winning medals and breaking records.”
There is a combination of reasons why this project petered out.
One, there was just not enough talent to find. “The SAG programme is still running, but we are not getting any talent,” says Satish K. Sarhadi, SAI’s deputy director in Mumbai.
Others said the results were not great. “They wanted us to do everything in four years. We had come from villages where we had no concept of competitions. The pressure was too much—to study and train,” says Louis Ishanti Brigi, 39, who competed in the long jump and triple jump.
The other more insidious theory is of internal politics, infighting between several directors of SAI, of jealousy and rivalry. Once the then director of SAG, officer on special duty, B.V.P Rao, got transferred and coach Ravannan passed away, the focus shifted from the Siddis. “I don’t know what happened after I got transferred,” says Rao from Hyderabad. “Others who came in my place may have wanted to do things differently.”
The selection criteria also got tougher and a written test was subsequently introduced which made it tough for Siddis to qualify as they are not well educated. “Also, they made a mistake: the East African body structure is good for long distance running, but they tried us only for sprints,” says Juje.
Through the SAG, explains Rao, SAI was looking for special talent in any community with genetic or natural or environmental advantage. Sportspersons from tribal areas like archer Limba Ram and weightlifter Kunjarani Devi are results of this programme.
Raju, who was training elite athletes before he took up the new assignment as in-charge of western region-SAG, recalls this period as a defining one in Indian athletics, especially for Gujarat. “The idea was to train athletes who could represent India at international level, including Olympics,” he says.
The way it was executed was that a bunch of coaches would descend on the village, organize a race in the forest, and select the promising participants. When Raju went to Gir, 250 Siddi boys and girls contested. All the children ran barefoot. In September 1988, approximately 60 out of the 500 who participated, got selected. In all, approximately 100 Siddis have trained with SAI from across regions.
The athletes from both Karnataka and Gujarat were taken to Delhi for field and scientific testing. They were put through events to determine their reflexes, flexibility, endurance and speed. Those selected were then sent to train further in their respective states.
“They had good physical strength. Being a closed and isolated community, their gene quality had not changed a lot. Although the Indian living conditions did weaken them a bit as compared to their African counterparts,” says Raju.
Between 1989 and 1992, Gujarat topped many national athletics events. Siddi athletes from SAI Gandhinagar, like Rafiq Makwana, Raika Yunus, Farooq Amin and Chotiyara, were some of the state and national record holders. Other athletes like Kamala Siddi participated in the South Asian Federation (SAF) Games and was sent to the US to train.
Raika, who won a gold medal in the 100m in the 1992 Nationals, held the record of 10.80 seconds for some time. “We were given training kits. This also included undergarments as we did not have any. Our families were also paid Rs.250 per month so they would allow us to be trained. Sports gave us a new life,” he says.
The boys in Bangalore, including Juje and Brigi, got admission into St Joseph’s Indian High School, an institution of repute.
Govil, now the regional director at SAI in Lucknow, says within a few months, with a better diet, they grew taller and stronger. The results too came quickly. She gives several examples, the latest being Sharada Siddi who won a bronze medal in weightlifting in the 2011 National competition in Bangalore. Some who were less impressive in athletics moved to boxing (Lawrence Siddi), football (Juje Agnelo) and swimming (Suresh Saluvador Siddi).
"SIDDIS PAST AND PRESENT Siddis, Indians of African descent, live mostly in Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Goa and Maharashtra. There are an estimated 60,000 Siddis in India today. They were brought to India as slaves by colonial rulers, mainly the Portuguese. They have been called by different names—Abyssinians, Habshis, Siddis or Kafirs."
“Through sport, we stayed out of bad habits and the family managed to pull out of poverty,” says Juje, who used to work on construction sites in Goa as a child to make an extra buck. “When we started winning, we also started getting jobs,” says Raika, who works as a helper at Oil and Natural Gas Corp. Ltd’s Ahmedabad unit. Suresh is a police constable based in Bangalore. Brigi, is an office superintendent in the south-western Railways, Hubli.
But all is perhaps not lost. Rao and Juje are collaborating on implementing some programmes in villages so that the children do not have to be moved out of their homes, one of the reasons Juje believes the earlier batch did not create any ripples. Govil believes SAI may still be interested in working on this.
Raika, who lives with his family in a wooden hut in Talala, Gujarat, claims there are many Siddi children who can bring glory to India. He has approached the state government to promote them in sport but nothing has materialized yet