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Lost In The Dust
The horses snort and kick up divots as they chase the ball across the grass. One horse muscles out of the melee and gallops forward, his rider swinging his mallet high in the air. He thwacks the ball and it shoots through the goalposts. The audience erupts in excited shouts. They are at the Rajasthan Polo Club in Jaipur—the most important of India’s four independent polo clubs—where the polo season is now in full swing. But while the audience is enjoying the on-field rivalry, most have no idea that a behind-the-scenes tussle is cleaving Indian polo in two. India may well be the birthplace of the modern game of polo, but critics say the country has let the sport wither and nearly die.
Out of a nation of more than a billion, as few as about 40 people are active, professional polo players. Ask them how the sport is faring, and you’ll be answered with a despairing shake of the head and a frown. Funding is low, grounds are few, good horses lacking. Earnings from professional polo aren’t enough to make a career of it, so talent is stifled. Abhimanyu Pathak, 29, a confident, passionate horseman who took home the award for India’s best young player in 2011, started playing polo professionally seven years ago and says the sport has been depreciating ever since. He blames the slump on the global recession and the high expense of polo, as well as the fact that the awareness of polo is low. “When people ask me what I do, and I reply, ‘Polo’, they always ask me, ‘What else do you do?’ I find this a little insulting,” he says.
Polo, played by the army and by civilians alike, is coordinated by the Indian Polo Association (IPA), and some players point fingers at this organisation and the clash of egos it sometimes witnesses as a major factor in the decline of the game. “I’ve been silent now for 10 years, and I won’t be quiet anymore,” says K.S. Garcha, a retired colonel who runs the Jaipur Riding and Polo Club. “In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, the army did a fantastic job of promoting polo, but from 1997-98 on, the army has played a major role in running the sport into the ground. It’s time the army hands over the IPA reins to civilians.”
“When people ask me what I do and I tell them, ‘Polo,’ they ask, ‘What else do you do?’ I find that quite insulting.”
The IPA is a national body with 33 member clubs, each of which gets one vote. There’s a plethora of army clubs, many of them with just a few members each; and against that are a few civilian clubs, but with far higher memberships. Garcha says this gives the army an unfair sway. The current IPA president is Gen Bikram Singh, the army chief. Garcha says, “The IPA is in effect run as a benevolent dictatorship: at its head are army people not looking beyond the horizon.”
Not all would agree. Vikram Rathore, the Indian ambassador to the Federation for International Polo, does not think the IPA is controlled by the army: all board members, he points out, are elected. And Samir Suhag, the Indian player with the highest handicap at five goals, says having a game administering authority with civilian and army enthusiasts offers the best of both worlds.
The army does, however, largely control the infrastructure: it owns most of the polo grounds in the country and has the manpower, the funds and facilities to manage polo seasons. Among the grounds in army control are three in Jaipur, three at the Army Polo and Riding Club, Delhi, and the Jaipur Polo Grounds, also in Delhi. There are private grounds in Jaipur, Jodhpur and Mumbai, and the Haryana Polo Club has its grounds in Gurgaon.
The army, which includes equestrian skills as a traditional part of cadet training, makes its grounds available free to civilians during polo seasons. “People tend not to value things when they get it for free,” says Rathore. “But maintaining these grounds is expensive and this is a huge contribution from the army, which is done purely to support the game.” The IPA dictates where each season takes place, how long each lasts, and what level of handicap is allowed at each tournament. This means that during the Delhi season, for example, which runs for about eight weeks, polo is entirely under army control, as all Delhi grounds are on army property.
The Jodhpur season is supported by a private individual, Gaj Singh, from the erstwhile ruling family of Jodhpur. Col Umaid Singh, secretary of the Jodhpur Polo and Equestrian Institute, says they’d like to prolong the Jodhpur polo season beyond the six weeks, but the IPA won’t allow it. “You have a situation where all the clubs, from Calcutta to Jodhpur, Bombay to Hyderabad, are fighting for dates,” says Jagat Singh, a player. The IPA’s right of veto means private polo clubs with playing patrons cannot set up their own polo season outside of designated dates, and that they cannot have, for example, a 10-goal tournament during the designated Delhi season as this would result in a shortage of players in Delhi. “There needn’t be this tussle between the army and civilian players,” says Jagat Singh. “The IPA should be run with 50 per cent civilian votes and 50 per cent army votes, with none having the power of veto. At present, there’s no freedom, and polo isn’t allowed to grow. The IPA shouldn’t have the power to cap goals and seasons.”
“Maintaining the grounds is very expensive and the army contributes greatly to the game by doing this for free.”
But even if the IPA were to loosen its control, the question of funding remains. Polo is an expensive sport. Owning and caring for a horse can end up costing lakhs of rupees yearly. Spending by private teams and private corporations on polo totals Rs 5 crore annually, according to Rathore, but is hardly enough. Support from the army, however, remains constant, according to Rathore. But, he concedes, “We need more players, more talent, and for that the infrastructure needs increasing. We need better horses and training for young players.”
So what will bring the sport out of its present slump? Polo has always relied on patrons—individuals who are wealthy enough and passionate enough to own a team of horses. But Garcha, whose son Satinder Garcha is patron of a team that plays in Argentina and England, says the attitude here puts potential patrons off. “Patrons should be given more respect,” he says. “What you have now is Indian patrons spending $1.5 million to run a team overseas instead of in India.” The polo scene in other countries, especially the UK, offers glamour—the big tournaments are a chance to dress up in fashionable finery, and often come with invitations to tea with the likes of Prince Charles, followed by a tour of the stables. Polo aficionados here say the game needs that sort of promotion. The last several months have, however, seen a few new patrons enter the scene, bringing fresh funds and hope to the sport.
For many, corporate sponsors are polo’s big hope. In the UK, polo has experienced manifold growth since the ’70s and ’80s, largely through corporate sponsorships. The sport is also strong in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. It is suddenly booming in China, largely through the private development of polo facilities. While a lack of grounds is Indian polo’s biggest problem, according to Suhag, polo grounds are far from ideal investments for companies or individuals. Corporate sponsorships, especially from companies that have an affinity to the sport, such as upmarket hotels and lifestyle brands, could instead cover the cost of keeping horses—good players generally have at least six horses. Suhag, 40, his boyish grin defying his greying hair, says all veteran players should take it upon themselves to help one young player a year, as he does.
Younger players know how difficult it can be. Sajid Saleem, 23, who played with the Hyderabad Polo and Riding Club, gave up the sport to undertake post-graduate study and launch his business career. “Earning a living from polo is not impossible, but hard. I wouldn’t consider polo as a future source of income. I play for passion,” he says.
(The writer is a Delhi-based journalist who has written extensively on polo.)