Dream run for rural ‘Betis’

Participants prep themselves before India’s first rural half marathon

If you throw a dart on the world map, it probably will not fall on a village called Bichola. Zoom a little, you’ll find Anoopshahr. Zoom further and you’ll know that it falls within Bulandhshahr district of Uttar Pradesh. Now, scrape the skin of the feudal heartland. Within its everyday banality, it packs a heavy dose of feudalism and rowdiness – it is a bane to be born a girl, not many dreams grow on its silken loam, poverty smothers joy, its mien so feral that men carry guns to protect themselves. The most glaring is gender inequality in a brazenly macho world where, until recently, not many dared challenge this hereditary feudal claptrap.

August 31, 2014. That one morning, on the dusty streets of Bichola, during India’s first rural marathon (half marathon), girls, boys, amateur and professional runners ran to promote child education and raise awareness for health. At 6 am, when Arjuna Awardee Sunita Godara, the 1992 Asian Marathon Champion flagged the race and Virendra Sam Singh, founder of Pardada Paradadi School (PPES), released green and yellow balloons in the sky, hundreds wearing tees with Aao Sath Chale (Come, let’s walk together),  emblazoned in white, ran through the sleepy village which was waking from Saturday slumber.

There was no dress code. Few girls wore salwar kurtas, a few women in saris, some men had no shoes, some did not even know what ‘marathon’ is. But when the loudspeakers blared rang de basanti and chak de India songs and strangers egged them on with throaty bhaag milkha bhaag repetitively, the runners forgot their harsh realities. And ran. Swiftly. Not merely to win. More importantly, to fly free like birds. To break shackles of male/female stereotypes. To muster self confidence. To believe that dreams are real. They can.

The half marathon was held under the aegis of PPES, which, since 2000, has been working towards

The half marathon was organized to promote girl child education and create awareness about health
The half marathon was organized to promote girl child education and create awareness about health

improving the lives of rural girls/women through education, employment and empowerment. Promoted by Blackberrys, Indian Oil, D&B, supported by Run With Foundation and impeccably organized by Lokenderpal Singh of Axalta Coating Systems, and Ankur Agarwal who holds a doctoral degree in Computer Science and Applied Mathematics, the half marathon had nearly 1,000 participants of which 75% were women.

So many drove through the pot-holed road into Bichola to lend support, cheer and participate. Among them was Justice (Retd.) Sat Paul Bangarh, Shishir Gupta, an American Express consultant, Amit and Shalini, doctors from Delhi, Action Aid campaigner with Beti Zindabad badges, Indian Oil officials.

Marathon_8At 10 am, when Mehroom, 17, a Class XI student of PPES walked up to the podium to receive the winner’s medal, drops of sweat were caught in her brow and her feet still sore with the run. Her eyes, however, were laden with an unseen grit. Mehroom had not merely run 5 kms, her dream of becoming a nurse had taken a giant leap. And, on the dusty playground of PPES, feudalism and gender inequality ran its last lap. Breathless and defeated!

Preeti Verma Lal

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