We caught up with Aditya Mehta, an above-knee amputee and India’s first para cyclist, at his hotel room in Chandigarh earlier this week after a gruelling 160 km ride the day before.
(Image above: Para cyclist Aditya Mehta on the Left)
Spearheading a group of 30 Indian para-cyclists riding from Kashmir to Kanyakumari as part of his foundation’s ‘Infinity 2020’ ride, the two-time Para Asian Cycling Championship silver medalist is scouting for para talent from across the country, raising awareness and funds for the athletes it supports. This initiative for unearthing grassroots talent from across the country is being supported by the Border Security Force (BSF).
“This is my first Infinity ride from Kashmir to Kanyakumari since 2013. For this ride, my team has compiled a list of schools and institutions which cater to children with physical disabilities. We will visit these institutions during our ride, meet the children and motivate them through people like Harinder Singh, a BSF soldier turned para-cyclist and below-knee amputee. After losing his right leg in 2012, he went on to become the first BSF jawan to win bronze medals at the Asian Para-Cycling Championship 2017 and 2018,” notes Aditya, who will also be joined by BSF Jawan and Asian Para Cycling Championship bronze medallist, Gurulal Singh.
Flagged off at Dal Lake in Srinagar on 19 November 2020 by DG BSF, Rakesh Asthana, the Infinity 2020 ride will cover 34 cities in 41 days over the course of 3,801 km before it ends at Kanyakumari on 29 December.
The Aditya Mehta Foundation (AMF), who last organised such an event in 2013, has 200 beneficiaries who have received prosthetic limbs and customised adaptive devices for various sports. AMF-backed athletes have also won 90 international medals so far in various championships.
Last November, his foundation opened Asia’s first para sports academy and rehabilitation centre at Begumpet on the outskirts of Hyderabad. The 5,000-square-foot Infinity Para-Sports Academy & Rehab Center offers free rehabilitation, complete screening for all 28 para sports, training facilities, food, lodging and even adaptive devices.
Over 100 para athletes have benefited from the foundation so far, and the 33-year-old Aditya has counselled more than 1,000 serving personnel of the Central Armed Police Force (CAPF), which includes the BSF, ITBP, CRPF and SSB, seriously injured in the line of duty and suffering from a whole range of physical disabilities.
Take the example of Harinder Singh, a BSF constable who lost a limb in the line of duty.
It was on 30 November 2012, when Harinder lost his right leg below the knee to an IED blast in Ashaad, Jammu Kashmir, while on duty with the BSF. After losing his leg, he started working at the BSF canteen until he met Aditya Mehta in 2016 at a Counselling and Training Camp at Gandhinagar, Gujarat. It was at the very first National Training camp at Panchkula conducted by AMF in the same year, where he was inspired to take up cycling.
He hasn’t looked back ever since. Since he started cycling, Harinder has accompanied Aditya in multiple annual Infinity rides to raise money and help AMF take their cause forward.
“Over the years we have worked with different arms of the CAPF. This current ride is like a joint venture with the BSF, who have excellent manpower and different establishments across India. They’re helping us with logistics,” says Aditya.
So, how did the AMF end up supporting, training, counselling and rehabilitating over 1,000 soldiers of the CAPF suffering from physical disabilities?
Emerging from the darkness
Born into a Gujarati business family settled in Hyderabad, Aditya Mehta was a budding entrepreneur in his own right before a horrific accident in 2006 changed everything. He was riding on his favoured Bullet motorbike when a bus crashed into him and ran over his leg. Watch Aditya explain below how that accident changed his life.
“I started AMF after representing India at the Asian para-cycling championship in 2013. During the tournament in New Delhi, I met my extended family (the para-athletes), but many of them were languishing at the 5th or 6th position. They were not able to garner proper support in terms of adaptive devices like customised artificial limbs and wheelchairs. They simply had no support. I really wanted to help them as I was fortunate enough to have the backing to make it all the way. I would help about one or two of them every year with the equipment they needed to succeed, but this wasn’t enough,” he says.
These devices are very expensive. Artificial limbs for below-knee amputees cost anywhere between Rs 4.5 lakh to Rs 5 lakh and for above-knee amputees, it’s about Rs 8 lakhs, claims Aditya. It also depends on the kind of amputation and the sport they want to take. It might even be a wheelchair, which doesn’t cost less than Rs 3 lakh, he adds.
That’s when he came up with the idea of raising money for the foundation.
“I soon realised that a foundation could raise all the money that our para-athletes required. My first Kashmir-Kanyakumari trip, later that year, was actually a fund-raising event. Eventually, we raised money for three amazing guys who were physically challenged but were medallists already – they needed two cycles, and one of whom needed a prosthetic leg,” he says.
Since then, he has ventured to complete some record-breaking rides including those from Manali to Khardung-La (in Ladakh) and the London to Paris ride for charity. From three, it has turned into over 200 beneficiaries thanks to the funds he raised through these events.
Association with the CAPF
Former Inspector General (IG) of the BSF in Srinagar, PS Sandhu, was among Aditya’s first mentors who really believed in his cause.
“Sandhu Saab was the first IPS officer who really believed in my cause and spoke about it to his batchmates. It was through him that I met KK Sharma, ex-Director General of the BSF, and Atul Karwal, former IG of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). These were my first mentors from the CAPF fraternity who really opened doors for me into these institutions,” he says.
Working with different arms of the CAPFs, the AMF began conducting para talent hunt programmes at their establishments since at the time they didn’t have one of their own.
They would take amputees from the CAPF and civilian community, screen them for all 28 par-sports, and train them professionally under a para-athlete if they showed real talent in any sport. The AMD hired coaches who had won national or international medals in para-sports but were now working odd jobs to make ends meet.
These coaches were sent to centres across different cities in India dedicated to various para sports like badminton, swimming, lawn tennis and badminton, etc. The first such talent hunt they had conducted with the CAPF was in Panchkula in 2016. By the end of the camp, Aditya grew very close to armed police personnel who had lost limbs in the line of duty.
Take the example of Gurulal Singh, a BSF soldier turned para cyclist, from Punjab, who lost his limb in the line of duty when he tried to save his colleague.
When tragedy struck, the below-knee amputee sunk into a deep depression. But a chance encounter with Aditya changed everything for this BSF jawan. After an intensive counselling session, AMF identified him as a potential para cyclist for India.
Today, Gurulal is an Asian Para Games bronze medalist, who also happens to be the only Indian cyclist (able-bodied or otherwise) to win a medal at the Asian level. He grabbed the bronze in the C4 section. He is currently a part of the Indian para-cycling team.
Healing our jawans
“After an accident that costs a limb or results in paralysis, their minds are vulnerable and mired in self-doubt. Mundane activities like walking a couple of steps become enormously hard because the body is trying to adapt. Their body loses a lot of strength after amputation and the objective is to build their strength and stamina back. What we do at our academy is first to counsel them. This is followed by making them understand what they can do. We never ask them how they met with an accident, but just present the possibilities before them. During the screening process for the different para-sports, our objective is to make them feel for a particular one. After this, our team with para-sports physio, para-sports coach, an able-bodied coach and team leader sit together by committee and decide which person is good at what sport. And then we start training them in whatever sports they are good in,” says Aditya.
It’s a one week process to get these para-athletes to a place where they know what sport they are good at. Rehabilitation is the most important part because most people in rural areas do not go for it. This is because in our cities we have semi-government hospitals who charge Rs 1,000-1,500 per day for 90 days. Those who are amputees from rural areas, for example, cannot afford them.
“At our academy in Begumpet, Hyderabad, we give them free rehabilitation. Anyone (CAPF or civilian) can get in touch with us via email (email@example.com) or call us up,” he says.
It takes 90 days for an amputee to undergo the entire rehabilitation process, but if it’s a paraplegic it takes 1-2 years, and for certain patients, it takes about three years. This process requires total dedication from the concerned amputee.
Funding for their endeavours come from these annual Infinity rides, other such fundraising events and donations from a myriad of celebrities. After they opened the academy, they reached out to a couple of corporations as well. Last year, Mahindra & Mahindra donated a lot of equipment. Land for the academy was donated to the AMF by Aditya’s father,
Their objective is simple. “There are about 1500 medals up for grabs at Paralympics. India won about four medals in the Rio Paralympics 2016. Countries like China, meanwhile, won over 200. We should aim bigger. We have set a mission to win 100 medals in the 2021 Paralympics. Our objective through these rides is to find these hidden gems, rehabilitate them and train them in particular sports. By 2024, we want to equal the Chinese and other European countries. We want India to snap out of single digits,” he says.
(You can find out more about the Aditya Mehta Foundation on their website.)
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)