Hockey dribbles through poll rhetoric in Sundargarh | India News

It’s peak time but Sundargarh in western Odisha seems unaffected by the intense political atmosphere gripping the state. Unlike politicians trying to checkmate each other with their election campaign rhetoric, teenagers in this tribal district are busy dribbling the ball past their opponents using crude, handcrafted hockey sticks to make a mark in the sport.“We have to play for some time before the sun becomes harsher,” says Johan Tirkey, an 18-year-old school dropout of Sadhumunda village in Kutra block.
As the region prepares to vote on May 20, candidates are leveraging the sport’s popularity to connect with the electorate, often prioritising it over other pressing matters such as rising prices, healthcare access, educational opportunities, and job creation.
Known as the nursery of Indian hockey, Sundargarh has produced numerous talented players who have represented the nation in both men’s and women’s teams.
BJD’s key poll strategist and star campaigner V K Pandian, while canvassing in Sundargarh, spoke about Naveen Patnaik’s commitment to hockey, besides tribal arts, culture and traditions. BJD has been showcasing the holding of two consecutive men’s hockey World Cups — in Bhubaneswar (2018) and Bhubaneswar and Rourkela (2023) — as success stories. The Birsa Munda Stadium in Rourkela, which is part of Sundargarh Lok Sabha constituency, is being projected as among the world’s best.
The political scene has been charged up due to the candidacy of Dilip Tirkey, Hockey India president and former Indian captain. He is running for Lok Sabha as a BJD nominee. BJP has strategically aligned its campaign with Prabodh Tirkey, another former Indian hockey captain who is supporting Jual Oram, a former Union minister and candidate of the saffron party. Prabodh’s involvement in BJP’s campaign comes after his bitter departure from Congress. He was selected as a Congress candidate for Talsara Vidhan Sabha, but was dropped later. Feeling slighted, Prabodh joined BJP.

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Candidates vying for votes in this hockey heartland focus their promises on improving facilities and opportunities for the sport, recognising its importance to the community. Jual, a five-time MP from Sundargarh, says hockey infrastructure in the region got a massive boost because of District Mineral Foundation (DMF) funds, thanks to the Modi govt’s initiative of amending the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act in 2015. It ensured massive fund inflow into minesbearing districts to spend for welfare in catchment areas. Sundargarh district has got more than Rs 6,400 crore DMF funds. DMF money helped build a world-class hockey stadium at Rourkela and astro-turfs across the district in the last five years, he said, adding, “people deeply appreciate the same and have faith that the infrastructure will improve further in Modi’s third term as PM”.
Sundargarh’s passion for hockey is evi dent in the way the sport shapes the region’s identity and aspirations. Dilip says people of Sundargarh have been expressing their joy and satisfaction with the world-class hockey facilities provided by the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD govt. “As a candidate, wherever I am going to campaign in the constituency, I can see sports lovers’ happiness because of the world-class facilities,” he adds.
He further says, “Naveen babu has done a lot for the development of hockey in Sundargarh, which includes 16 hockey training centres and the world-class stadium at Rourkela. The chief minister gave Sundargarh its cherished identity by organising the World Cup Hockey.”
Dilip had lost to Jual in 2014 and had not contested in 2019 when BJD had fielded Sunita Biswal, daughter of former Congress CM Hemananda Biswal.
Prabodh, who has been campaigning for BJP, says though hockey training centres have come up, many former players from Sundargarh district, including Olympians, were not hired as coaches. Instead, coaches from outside Odisha have been employed, which is disheartening for the district’s wellknown former players and sends out a wrong message. “People are not happy with the BJD govt because the work for hockey does not involve the entire community of hockey lovers and players,” he adds.
Some people scrutinise govt work on other aspects, too. Francis Tirkey, a 50-year-old man of Saunamara village in Balisankara block, which happens to be the native place of Dilip, besides another Indian hockey player Amit Rohidas, says, “We are facing difficulty in getting water for cultivation, which is very much essential. Though initiatives on hockey are good for the future of children, the state govt should also pay attention to other issues,” he adds.
The contest in Sundargarh, having 15.8 lakh voters, this time is largely between Jual and Dilip though eight candidates are in the fray. Congress has fielded former MLA Janardan Dehury. The constituency reserved for tribals has 8 lakh tribal voters, 2.9 lakh Christians and 75,000 Muslim voters.

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