Meerarani Hembram and Arti Kumari are roughly ten years apart in age and at the far ends of their career graphs. The former has spent close to a decade in rugby and the latter is coming off her first-ever international tournament. For both, though, Indian rugby taking strides towards professionalization and players being paid for camps and tournaments can only be a good thing.
Arti is among the first wave of players to see the money, when she joined the under-18 camp two months ago. Meerarani, a mainstay in the senior side, can't be certain if the good things have begun to trickle in a little late for her time. In October last year the Indian Rugby Football Union (IRFU) had entered into a three-year agreement with the Odisha state government that provisions for players to be paid for camps and tournaments, in addition to insurance and nutritional support.
The move towards professionalization of the sport for the first time has brought about a "180 degree attitudinal shift", says Rahul Bose, Rugby India board member and head of tournaments committee. It allows players making it into the final squad over 30 days of national camp and traveling for an eight-day tournament to earn around INR 35,000, excluding match bonus for wins and performance bonus awarded for medals.
"We made a vow that no player would have to spend a rupee after they receive a letter inviting them to the national camp," he explains, "Their transport from wherever they are in the country to the camp in Odisha is on a flight or a first-class air conditioned coach of a train. Once they set foot on the KIIT campus, which is our home for camps, everything is taken care of to the tiniest detail. When I visited the camp in August, I sat down and ate everything on the players' menu to be sure of the quality of the food and supplements. We have a 24x7 caregiver for the team, who's an ex female rugby player from Odisha, for any after-hours emergencies or needs."
"We also have our dedicated gym on the campus with equipment that's been donated to us by the Japan Rugby Football Union and the players are covered on insurance both for their general health and rugby injuries. Another thing we decided is not to have our teams flying out one day before a tournament just to cut costs, but to make sure they leave at least a couple of days in advance so there's time to rest, train and get ready," adds Bose.
Arti, who is from Nawada in Bihar, was a track and field athlete when she tried out rugby for the first time in 2017. She medaled in the100m, 200m and long jump events at the Bihar junior state meets, before retracing her steps to rugby and getting picked as a winger in the national U-18 rugby side a few weeks ago. A winger in Sevens is generally the fastest player on the field, with the ability to burst through tackles and score tries. She ended up scoring the highest number of tries at the Asian Rugby Sevens in Tashkent last weekend. "I want to keep playing rugby," she says, "I won't be going back to athletics anymore."
A good part of Arti's decision to stick to rugby is rooted in economic sense. She lost her older brother in an accident a year ago and her family, she realizes, needs its next breadwinner ready near the touchline. Through rugby she has already made her first earning in sport at 17.
Meerarani, on the other hand, lost her mother early in life and she never made it in time for her father's funeral a few years ago, because she was away playing a tournament then. Education at the residential Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences in Bhubaneswar took care of the roof over her head, but once she was finished with graduate studies, making rent was her biggest worry. "I stayed with friends, moved from place to place because I couldn't afford to pay for my expenses and support my siblings without a job. I couldn't find a job through sports quota either despite having been part of the senior national team that had won quite a few international medals." A few weeks ago Meerarani found work as a Physical Education teacher at the Odisha Adarsha Vidyalaya Sangathan, a chain of English-medium schools set up by the state government. The national camp for the senior group of players is likely to start next month and Meerarani is anxious about whether she will be granted leave to join so soon after her appointment.
"In sports quota jobs you don't have to worry about your playing career because you are hired for that very reason," Meerarani says, "But in a regular job, like the one I'm in now, things may not always go our way and if I'm forced to picked between both, I may have to go with the security of a monthly income." The anguish among senior Odisha players, Meerarani says, is partly because rugby does not feature in the list of 26 sports eligible for state government jobs under the Direct Recruitment Scheme.
While players have begun to be paid for national camps starting with the current Under-18 batch, international tournament participation has usually been infrequent for the Indian side. It's still early days in the professionalization era and it will need at least 3-4 tournaments a year for the sport to be a viable full-time option for those like Meerarani.
Bose promises things are headed in that direction. "Yes our teams haven't had enough international competitions and we are looking to change that in trying to set up bilateral tournaments. We're in talks with a few countries to see if we can make it happen," he explains, "We're far from the richest sporting board in the country but we're trying to use our head and heart intelligently, putting ourselves in the players' shoes with empathy and trying to stretch the rupee for as many things that it can bring the community."