Last week, 70-year-old Murlikant Petkar stood next to Indian president Ramnath Kovind and accepted an honour that was long overdue. Petkar's Padma Shri award, the fourth highest civilian honour, came nearly five decades after the achievement for which he had won it. At the 1972 Heidelberg Paralympics, he won gold in the 50m freestyle event with a timing of 37.33 seconds, which remains a world record to this day.
Despite the magnitude of the achievement, the Padma Shri was the first national award that Petkar ever won. He has never even received an Arjuna Award for his efforts. Petkar harbours no regrets though. "Through all these years, disabled sportspersons had no space in Indian society nor stood a chance for any recognition from the government," he says. "Now, things are changing."
A total of 21 para athletes have received the Arjuna Award, the earliest being presented to Malathi Krishnamurthy in 1995. Yet, activists, coaches and even athletes themselves will say that the tide of public awareness seems to have turned decisively in the last couple of years. Devendra Jhajharia, who had already won an Arjuna Award in 2004 after emulating Petkar's feat by winning gold in the javelin throw at the Athens Paralympics, became the first para athlete to receive the country's highest sporting award, the Khel Ratna, in 2017. Jhajharia's award, which was received after he won a gold at the Rio Paralympics, came even as para sports have steadily entered mainstream discussion.
"During the 2016 Paralympics, it was remarkable to see a sports channel [Sony Pictures] bidding to get highlight clips of the events," says Aparna Ravichandran, head of partnerships at GoSports Foundation, a non-profit organization that works, amongst others, with para athletes.
Jhajharia himself says a change is visible. "People no longer consider us different," he says. "We are seen as sportpersons who are competing at a high level. When I first won a paralympic gold in 2004, I didn't get much response from anyone. But in 2016 I was received at the airport by the Sports Minister and even the media. So I would say that a lot has changed."
That change is particularly apparent in increasing athlete turnouts at domestic competition. "At the 2016 Para Nationals that were just before the Rio games, we had maybe 700 athletes taking part," Jhajharia says. "In 2017, after we won two gold medals [Mariyappan Thangavelu won the men's high jump], we had 1,700 players in the same tournament."
That increase in numbers will have a cascading effect, feels Jhajharia. "If more athletes take part, the base to pick talent increases," he says. "That will result in even more competition and even more medals. And with more medals, there will be more motivation for athletes to join."
Unlike Petkar, whose achievements stand in stark contrast to governmental apathy, this generation of para athletes has it much better. Among the 107 athletes who received funding from the Indian government under the Target Olympic Podium (TOP) Scheme, 19 were para athletes.
Jhajharia had benefited from this funding even as he prepared for the Rio Paralympics. "I took full advantage of the TOP Scheme," he says. "I used the money I got from it to train in Finland, which is the best training centre for javelin throw in the world. [Kenya's] Julius Yego was there, Tero Pitkamaki [of Finland] was there, Braian [Toledo] of Argentina was there. We used to train together. They are all A-level athletes and Yego has been a world champion, so I think the training atmosphere that I got there was fantastic."
For Jhajharia, the road ahead for Indian para athletes is a lot smoother than the one he himself trod a decade back or the one Petkar faced nearly half a century ago. And the fact that the septuagenarian finally received his Padma award is a sign of hope. "It is a great feeling that Petkar sir received the Padma Shri award," Jhajharia says. "It has come late for sir, but I believe it is a sign that things will change for the better now."