He should have been training future generations of Indian boxers. Instead, Lakha Singh, a bronze medallist in the 81kg category in the 1994 Hiroshima Asiad, is driving a taxi in Ludhiana for his survival. His income is a pittance – a mere Rs 8,000 per month.
A five-time national champion, Singh also has to his credit a bronze in the 1994 Asian Boxing Championship in Tehran and a silver medal in the same championship in Tashkent the following year.
On the back of three back-to-back medals in the span of two years, Singh was India’s biggest hope in boxing in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. His performances at the Asian level, however, couldn’t translate into success at the Olympic stage and he finished 17th in the 91kg category. Still, during the mid-1990s, Singh used to be India’s best bet for medals in the international boxing arena. Despite his credentials, Singh has been at the receiving end of the state government as well as boxing federation.
“I had written several letters to the (now-defunct) Indian Amateur Boxing Federation (IABF) as well as the Punjab government about my condition, but never got a response,” Singh told TOI, his voice quivering. “Even the taxi that I drive is not mine. Koi mere pakh di gal nai sunna chaunda (No one wants to listen to my side of the story),” the 52-year-old added.
Singh had joined the Indian Army as a jawaan at the age of 19 in 1984 during the anti-Sikh riots. Two years after the 1996 Olympics, Singh’s life took a turn for the worse. He and another boxer, Debendra Thapa, were scheduled to take part in the World Military Boxing Championship in 1998. However, the pair slipped out of the Texas airport and vanished. They were declared absconders by the Army.
The widespread belief was that the duo wanted to pursue a career in professional boxing in the US. Thapa even played in the professional circuit in the US, but Singh never made it. “It is true that both of us went out of the airport. I tagged along with Thapa, he told me that we’ll be meeting some friends. Then we had a couple of drinks in a car, and trust me after that I never met Thapa. I woke up and found myself locked in a room, where I stayed confined for nearly a month. Then I was thrown out of the apartment. That was the toughest day of my life. I had no money, my visa had expired, and I didn’t even know the place. It was all alien,” said Singh, relating his story.
“I met a few Asian people and they helped me in getting to California. I used to work at a gas station, restaurants, at construction sites and it took me eight years to save the money required to buy a ticket back to India. And, finally with the help of the Indian embassy I came back. I use to hide from the police, because I didn’t have a visa,” he continued.
Asked about Debendra Thapa, the former national champion, he said: “I have no idea that he went on to pursue professional boxing. I never met him after that incident.”
In 2006, Singh returned to his native village Halwara in Ludhiana. “I was happy (to return), but I had been declared a deserter by the Army. Without any investigation, I was proclaimed a runaway.”