Ranjit Singh is squatting by the side of a field, watching hawk-eyed as his teenaged grandson tends to his “kids” — the two bulls, Bagga and Nag, being primed for the Kila Raipur Sports Festival, locally popular as ‘Rural Olympics’. Ranjit Singh, a farmer from Assikalan village, about 30km from Ludhiana, is a five-time winner of the bullock cart race. He knows how much of a big deal it is to win the race —the four-year break has made it even more enticing.
Ever since the news made it to the village that the event will again be a part of rural games, a joyous Ranjit Singh has been coming to the fields every day to oversee the practice and training of his bulls. “We are so happy that the bullock cart race, the soul of Kila Raipur, has been retained in the festival again. We are quite confident that our kids will win the event for us yet again,” he says. Ranjit Singh, who first took part in 1975, says that his family bought Bagga, a five-year-old bull, last month, soon after word spread in the village that the bullock cart race will be back again.
His grandson Kulbinder says he made the cart light so that Bagga can run smoothly, the weight of the “gadda”, the ‘modified cart, will not hamper him anymore. “It’s some China-made material, but is much lighter and weighs just about 30kg. Bagga can run with it conveniently,” he says.
Things are not any different in the nearby village Dehlon: Bela Singh Dehlon, who has also tasted the high of being crowned the winner, is busy preparing his five-year-old bull for the big event. It is the same in Lohgarh, Kheri or Kila Raipur: One invariably bumps into jubilant farmers and cattle owners discussing race and diet of the bulls. Everyone’s dreams are racing full speed to that cup.
One of the reasons the sport was banned is because of the allegation that animals are treated cruelly. The villagers, however, refute the claim. “They are the most pampered members of our family. There is no cruelty. Each race in the tournament lasts for a maximum of 26 to 27 seconds. The animals are not allowed to be whipped even with a rope. We just goad them gently,” says Kulbinder, who insists he gives his bull badam milk and keeps it warm by covering its back.
But veterinarians do admit that the bigger prize money and the pride of being the winner did prompt some of the owners to push the animals beyond their ability. There are also allegations that some even exposed them to performance-enhancing substances.
Some organisers also admit that with the stake becoming high — the prize money at the moment is Rs 3 lakh for the owner and the jockey of the winning pair — the competition became fierce and some of the participants started resorting to “unfair” means to win the event. “A few instances were reported where we found villagers trying to enhance the performance of the animals by feeding them with liquor before the event. But those were rare and those found involved were immediately banned and ostracised in the village,” says a veteran referee of the event.
The Punjab and Haryana high court had, in 2012, ruled in favor of races, observing that the bulls being used for the sports were well looked after, well-nourished and were not treated with any cruelty. The court was hearing public interest litigation moved by Gau Raksha Dal.
“Most of us, who prepare and bring our cattle for the events, develop a strong bonding with animals and treat them like our kids. At times, some may fall or be hit by competitors’ cart. But those are sports injuries — you might get hurt when you play any sport,” argues Karambir Singh, another local. Villagers recall that several years ago, jockeys prodded the animals with spikes during the race to prompt them to run fast. But good sense prevailed and such practices were stopped, they insist.
Dr. Kirti Dua, a professor at Guru Angad Dev Veterinary and Animal Sciences University in Ludhiana, suggests that the organisers should take all precautions against any possibility of cruelty to animals by framing stricter rules. “It’s important that they make provisions for the dope test of animals before the event,” he says.
He admits that most owners have a strong bonding with their animals. He also believes that such a bond gets stronger during competitions like these. “Nevertheless, it is the duty of organisers to create awareness among villagers about what may lead to cruelty,” says Dr. Dua, the author of the widely-acclaimed textbook, “Animal Welfare Ethics and Jurisprudence”.
Old-timers recall that the bullock cart race has been the major attraction of Kila Raipur. In fact, when the bullock cart racing was banned, following the intervention of the Supreme Court in 2014, the festival started losing its sheen. But with the state government amending the provisions of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, in the Assembly last month, it has again started getting an overwhelming response. “We are expecting more than 5,000 participants for different events that will be held. For the bullock cart race, we are expecting more than 100 entries this time,” says Paramjit Singh Grewal, general secretary, Grewal sports club of Kila Raipur.
Paramjit, a former hockey player, and coach, recalls that the bullock cart race was first introduced in Kila Raipur in 1951 by Bakhshish Singh. “Initially, a few chariots from the nearby villages, which were meant for marriage processions, were brought in for the race. Bakhshish Singh, who was a keen lover of bullock races, suggested modifications,” says Paramjit.
The preparations gathered pace soon after the amendment and organisers decided to hold the festival on March 8,9 and 10. But a local court gave possession of the land, where the event is usually held, to a member of Patti Suhavia, Col Surinder Singh (retd), on February 28.
This was challenged by Grewal Sports Association, one of the organisers, at Punjab and Haryana high court. The court has now refused to stay the execution of lower court order, which means the organisers will be able to hold the rural sports only with the support and consent of the owners of the land.
“We are hoping to conduct the sports festival soon,” assures Amrik Singh, one of the organisers.
Date: 10 March 2019