Why kids are zooming about on skateboards in this sleepy Madhya Pradesh village

In a place where most families subsist by selling dry wood, a project is using skateboarding to empower children.

Janwaar is another blip on the map of India. One of 57 hamlets in the buffer zone of the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, its people eke out a living by collecting dry wood from the forest and selling it in the nearest town. Farming is difficult here: the monsoon is erratic, the soil poor, and crops often destroyed by animals. By all counts, it is not a place one would expect to find a skatepark. And yet, there it exists.

In the sylvan and difficult terrain, a tiny sporting movement is transforming the lives of the village’s 250-300 children. It has given them confidence, motivation to attend school, and, above all, cheer.

It started with a German consultant travelling through India in 2012. Ulrike Reinhard was part of the Skateistan project in Afghanistan, where skateboarding was used to empower children. When she visited India about three years ago, her travels took her to Khajuraho, about 90 kilometres from Panna. At first, Reinhard planned to set up a school in the area. But when that project couldn’t go through, she envisioned bringing a skateboarding project to India.

In her endeavour, Reinhard found an ally in Shyamendra Singh, affectionately called Vini Raja. Singh is a descendant of the erstwhile royal family of Nagod and his father Nagendra Singh is a Member of Parliament. Though not well-versed with the sport, Shyamendra Singh was open to Reinhard’s idea. His familiarity with the area helped her sort out the logistics and scout land for a skatepark.

“My knowledge of skateparks was restricted to movies, but I knew this was a step in the right direction because the focus was the children,” said Shyamendra.

Together with skate-aid, a non-profit in Germany, Ulrike raised $15,000 through a campaign called SKATEBOARD/ARTBOARD. As part of the campaign, artists worldwide, including Ai Weiwei, converted skateboards into works of art that were later auctioned on eBay.

The venture is an adaptation of the Skateistan project in Afghanistan.

Janwaar, a village of about 1,000 people, received its new residents between December 2014 and this February. With curious locals looking on, 12 skateboarding enthusiasts from seven countries started building “Janwaar Castle”. On some days, the cold concrete of the skatepark served as their beds. Work began once the sun was up.

“They told me they were building a skatepark, but I had no idea what it was,” said Priyanka Yadav, a Class VI student. “It was fun to watch them at work.”

In March, the first wheels rolled out on the nearly 450 sq m Janwaar Castle. Through falls and smiles, the children picked up the skill of skateboarding. “I was scared the first time I tried skating but now I try to finish all my homework quickly so I can come play here,” said Priyanka.

The new toy proved to be too alluring for the children. The already low attendance numbers at the local government school dropped further. And so a new rule was put in place: “No school, no skateboarding”.

No school, no skateboarding: The idea of mixing learning and play is slowly taking shape.

In a community where women are still looking to find their space, girls were encouraged to come out and give the skateboards a spin. Today, the park is a shared space.

The skatepark has given the kids an opportunity to explore – to fall and get up, and to know that this is perfectly fine. Their boundless energy is the project’s biggest asset. “All you need to do is give them a chance,” said Ulrike.

Understandably, there are challenges every step of the way, communicating with Ulrike being one of them. Yet conversations, overcoming the language barrier, last for hours. The children also have to convince their parents to allow them to go to school. But their persistence has paid off in a short time.

“The children are more disciplined now,” said Mohammed Rashid, a teacher at the middle school. “They are more confident, speak well, and love to explore anything that is new. They are slowly coming out of their shells.”

Despite the language barrier, conversations last for hours.

Shivjeet Yadav, a 12-year-old from Janwaar, had the opportunity to visit a skatepark in New Delhi. The experience motivated him to polish his skills, both on and off the skateboard. “There were much older boys and I wanted to skate like them,” he said. “But I couldn’t say much to them. If I go to school, I will be able to talk to them in English next time and learn.”

Of course, there are more hurdles to cross. Janwaar’s schooling facilities do not go beyond Class VIII. And since the nearest higher secondary school is in Panna, education has come to an abrupt halt for students such as 16-year-old Hiren Singh Yadav. However, he he hopes to resume studying if given the opportunity.

Shyamendra Singh said a new school will come up soon in the village that will allow students to complete Class XII. “As compared to elders, it’s easy to change children. The youth are now changing the mindsets of the elders,” he said. “It’s magic unfolding in front of my eyes. We want Janwaar to set an example for other villages in the country.”

Through falls and smiles, the children got the knack of skateboarding.

The change has not taken place overnight, but the success is unquestionable. “The skatepark was never the challenge,” said Ulrike. "It was all about getting the mentality right, and I think we are on the right path."

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