When Karishma D’Souza lived in Bengaluru, she commuted the nearly 7km to and from her workplace by bicycle. “You are ignored and treated like you have no right to the road. Vehicles would cut in front of me dangerously and I was often almost run off the road. At stops, many people wanted to know how much I cycled and how often. They gave me free safety advice and lectured me on why I shouldn’t cycle," she recalls.
In a recent survey by leading wearable tech firm Fitbit, India emerged as the least active among 18 countries. That’s hardly surprising. The pressure on urban Indians to get fit has been inversely proportionate to the basic facilities required to execute a daily fitness workout. Only the most resolute individual can ignore the garbage heaps, construction debris, belching traffic and assorted living creatures (stray dogs, bandicoots, bewildered bovines) to run on an Indian road. Some 46,000 such determined individuals participated in the Mumbai Marathon earlier this year.
It’s almost heartbreaking to see how residents in any of our cities rush to support any halfway decent idea/opportunity their local government provides to breathe easy. In Bengaluru, for instance, the 400m track at Kanteerava Stadium wakes up before sunrise every single day. And you only have to visit Cubbon Park on a Sunday, when vehicular traffic is banned on the roads that barrel through 100 or so acres of green space (though on paper the park is 300 acres), to be convinced that Indians are desperate to exercise.
The park brims with people skating, skipping, dancing, skateboarding, cycling, dancing, doing yoga, playing frisbee/cricket, running or walking with their pets and/or their children. It’s like they have been granted permission to move freely after being restrained in coffin-sized cubicles for the work week.
In August, around the time Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched yet another glitzy campaign—the Fit India Movement—the University Grants Commission asked colleges to motivate their staff and students to walk 10,000 steps every day. The notice didn’t specify where they should walk or how they should navigate the potholed roads, the toxic air or the lack of open spaces around them.
Celebrities have gotten off easy by posting fitness videos on social media since 2018 to help Modi “motivate" the country to get moving. I wonder why nobody in the government thought to ask them to show their support by sponsoring a park or some public park equipment instead?
Why did the prime minister choose to focus on fitness over health? Could it be because fitness can be showcased in a viral celebrity video while health includes in its ambit problematic indicators such as tobacco use, high blood pressure, obesity, availability of clean water, life expectancy and malnutrition? India ranked 120 out of 169 in Bloomberg’s Global Health Index 2019. The annual ranking takes into account the factors listed above to measure the world’s healthiest and unhealthiest countries. Union health ministry data released last month confirms that non-communicable diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and cancer are rising rapidly.
At the heart of our inactivity lies the lack of space to be active. If you are as old as me, you will remember how big corporations and politicians colluded to find a loophole in the “one-third formula" in the sale of Mumbai’s mill lands that stretched languorously across an enviable 600 acres in the heart of the city. One-third of the land was meant to be kept aside to create open spaces; it eventually ended up being a fraction of what was originally mandated. In a city where a few square feet of space has the potential to make its owner a millionaire, fitness is a privilege only the rich can afford.
Smaller open spaces are usurped in our cities every day. As I write this, residents in Hiriyadka village in Udupi are upset because the district administration has, without warning, turned their only sports ground, Gandhi Maidan, into a fenced space to stock sand. We are all too familiar with versions of this same story playing out in our neighbourhoods. The proposal to construct a new high-rise building in Cubbon Park has enraged walkers.
“Fitness is zero per cent investment with infinite returns," Modi said at the launch of Fit India. Zero investment in our fitness, it could be argued, has been the attitude of every political party in power in India.
In fact, fitness is an investment that governments across the world take seriously. Even the small contribution that many city corporations and district administrations have made in the now ubiquitous open-air gyms in our parks have been a huge hit. Who hasn’t seen a middle-aged woman in a sari or a burqa enthusiastically use the air walkers and twisters? There’s often a queue to use the equipment.
As part of Fit India, the government announced that Sports Authority of India facilities would be accessible to national and state sports federations, leagues and clubs to organize events. “It’s a fine idea on paper," says Sharda Ugra, senior editor at ESPN India and ESPNcricinfo. “But once again the responsibility is on federations to organize as many events at these venues. The majority of federations don’t stage enough events to begin with and fail to provide a proper event calendar/pathway for athletes to transition from junior to senior to elite. It’s these lazy and entitled federations that are our biggest hurdle and accountability from them will have greater benefit than any fancy government scheme."
Ugra points out that India is fourth in the world, behind the US, China and Japan, in terms of the number of 20,000-plus seater stadiums in the country, all of which are owned by the government.
Like everything else in India, if we do manage to get fitter, it will be despite our surroundings, our sports officials and our own attitudes. “Once a man at a traffic light told me he was telling his wife (sitting behind him on a scooter) that he would teach her to cycle because it was good exercise," says D’Souza. “I pointed out that it was hard to do so in a burqa, and he replied that she could just stop wearing it. She hit his shoulder and told me, ‘dekhein kya bol rahe hain(see what he is saying)’."
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