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Victimized by system, India's top paraglider Gurpreet Dhindsa carries on

Photo By: Karinka Sh

Photo By: Karinka Sh

"I see another sport being hijacked and controlled by powerful people with financial or political interest, which we know from experience hasn't helped any sport in India except cricket," said India's No. 1 paraglider.

Stories of injustice in India's sports sphere is not a thing of the past. When Olympic sports aren't spared, to see paragliding stand as a dejected soul at the end of a long queue is no surprise.

The recently concluded Paragliding World Cup brought a welcome movement for the adventure sport that yearns for some dynamism in India. But where it gets a knock at the knees is when you come across fighters like Gurpreet Singh Dhindsa who, despite giving their heart and soul to the sport, remain unwanted and subjected to outsider treatment.

The man from Punjab has given up almost everything for his love of flying - keeping little in reserve for his daughter and spending everything else to pursue paragliding, even now when he is touching 50.

The grey in the beard of India's No. 1 ranked paraglider is clearly visible, but Punjabi genes are never at anybody's mercy. That's what Gurpreet is made of. Beneath that flesh and blood is a never-say-die spirit that hardly lets any blow knock him down.

From a learner at the Pinjore Flying Club over two decades back to being India's only certified instructor today, Gurpreet has six podium finishes at world stage, spends around Rs 5 lakh every year from his pocket to compete, gets no acknowledgement from Indian paragliding associations and is considered an outsider by the people of Himachal Pradesh. But nothing stops this broad frame from earning his stripes.

"Resources and motivation are two big challenges in life. With enough motivation, resources can still be generated. Lack of support is one factor to motivate from within. [But] If one is strong enough, one prevails," Gurpreet explained his mantra for success.

"Total amount of sponsorship received in the last 13 years is Rs 3.4 lakh," he added with a wry smile.

Not happy with the training techniques during his learning years convinced him that if he were to become an instructor one day, he would put the rights and wrongs of paragliding in black and white for his students. Gurpreet is doing exactly that today at his school called PG Gurukul in the Bir district of the Kangra Valley.

A part self and part friends' funded visit to the UK in 2001 enabled Gurpreet to complete his instructor certification programme from the British Hang-gliding and Paragliding Association (BHPA).

For the record, Gurpreet completed the first three levels of his certification in just two days, followed by a five months' time to attain the P4 and instructor certification, which, some say, is a British record.

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"While learning, I came across a lot of wrong practices and minor injuries because of these. So I promised myself not to teach anyone until I have been judged by my peers to be a competent instructor. This led me to go to UK in 2001 on a shoe-string budget and survive on odd jobs to finish my instructor training in five months," he said.

But his list of grievances begins in a similar manner like many other disappointed Indian athletes: Politics in sports.

"I see another sport being hijacked and controlled by powerful people with financial or political interest, which we know from experience hasn't helped any sport in India except cricket," a sigh followed the statement.

"If India lends as much support to the achievers as it has expectations, we will be far ahead". That statement brought his disappointment out in the open.

He continued.

"Challenges in the air are nicer ones that keep me alive, like competing and getting better. On ground what hurts most is lack of rules and fairness. There are no rights and nothing is yours, even if you earned it many times over.

"I am the only qualified instructor (certified by body authorised by National Aviation Authority) and only one capable of getting my students internationally acceptable certification, but still I am not recognised by any state or central govt body. I have six podium finishes. I don't want a flat from the government or a government job. Just if they let me work with my self-respect intact, it's enough," he said.

"What a sportsperson always admires is fair play, [which is the] last thing you can expect from the kind of people in charge in India."

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That's the story from the horse's mouth. But at most times, heroes are best described by people around them, who have seen them becoming a hero.

Vijay Soni is Gurpreet's compatriot, flying for around 20 years and competed at the recent Paragliding World Cup in Bir-Billing. He empathises with his senior.

"Initially, he had to spend lots of money to learn paragliding. All kept fooling him and charged a lot of money. He spent all his savings, went outside India, did a proper certified course and then started teaching in India," said Soni.

"I don't want to go into local issues. All are my good friends, [but] they don't want him to come up. They even tried to stop his school two years back," he confirmed.

"Locals don't want him to run the school because he is not from Himachal Pradesh. So they keep raising some problem or the other, which is non-technical. From the beginning, he is fighting. He wants to do the right thing and in the right manner, no money business like other people. Whatever he charges [for training], he delivers accordingly."

Soni further tried to hint at a grudge the locals may hold against him. "Most of the foreigners [who come to Bir-Billing] go to him because he does it in a proper way." Soni explained.

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Karinka, who is a paraglider from Russia and often brings groups to India for flying, has no different story to tell about Gurpreet's ordeal.

"It is very difficult to understand why all the effort to bring paragliding sport to a proper level in the country would meet with so strong opposition. On the outside view it looks very irrational, when the one who brings a lot of good sportsmen abroad, which is very good in educational purposes, meets with so many difficulties from the local authorities.

"Despite all the pressure, he continues to improve paragliding sport and keep trying to compromise with opponents and always ready to share all his experience and deep knowledge," Karinka told.

To know the other side of the story, views of Anurag Sharma, Director, Billing Paragliding Association (BPA), were sought; but he remained guarded with his words when probed about the problems Gurpreet faces.

"In India, credit to bring Paragliding up goes to Roshan Lal Thakur. His is the only approved training school," Sharma said.

He says opposition from locals is the major problem Gurpreet faces. "He doesn't get along with locals," that's all Sharma said when asked.

Sharma, however, did admit Gurpreet is among the best and that's why he is India's No. 1 ranked paraglider for a long time. But on the question of approving his school, Sharma chose to remain diplomatic.

"Recently, foundation stone for National Paragliding School was laid, where only certified instructors will get job, and Gurpreet can surely be one of them as he holds the BHPA licence," he said without elaborating on why then Gurpreet's school is not yet approved.

"For paragliding training in India, credit goes to Roshan Lal Thakur," he repeated.

However, according to sources, Thakur has no instructor credentials but still has the only paragliding training school that is registered by the government. On the other hand, Gurpreet's letters to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) remain unanswered and his application was officially rejected by BPA.

Little is left to ponder then why many Indian sportspersons who have excelled and can contribute by sharing their knowledge choose to quit instead. But Gurpreet goes on, and vows not to die without a fight.