During a discussions with a corporate social responsibility executive of a top corporate house a few years ago, the affable gentleman asked a simple question: “When there is so much poverty, hunger and other problems in the country, why should I spend money on sports.”
In a way, he had a point. Instead of spending money on teaching sport to youngsters, he could feed more mouths, provide shelter to some and improve the living standards of a few others with the same amount of money.
But the point he missed was that sports without the one-dimensional pursuit for excellence could still be a vehicle of social change that could achieve all the above objectives.
It was this pursuit of bringing change through sports that got Yuwa – a project which aims to empower girls in rural Jharkhand through football – the prestigious Laureus Sport for Good award earlier this month.
Yuwa is a success story where founder Franz Gastler and his team has been running a school along with a football programme since 2009 that has allowed the girls in the remote villages connect with the world.
While Yuwa has focussed on football as Gastler himself was fond of the sport, Rural Development Trust in Anantpur, Andhra Pradesh, have picked cricket, tennis and hockey while the Kalinga Insititute of Social Sciences in Odisha trains young girls from impoverished background in rugby, apart from football, athletics and archery and many other sports.
None of these initiatives started with the aim of creating new sporting heroes but speak to any of them and the common thread of discussion would be how sports was the major attraction for young children to join the formal education system in areas where academics was not a priority for most parents.
But over the years, the sports programmes have become their flagship projects as young children have found their calling and are now ready to make a career choice.
While the Yuwa girls travelled the globe to play football, tribal girls from Odisha are dominating the team composition in national under-19 rugby teams. The Rural Development Trust, which has been working in Anantpur for over five decades now, has established a sports village with world class tennis and hockey amenities and have set up academies in collaboration with Nadal Tennis School and a few others.
While KISS and RDT have helped thousands of young boys and girls learn vocational skills apart from sport and education, there have been many several small initiatives across the country that are worth mentioning as well.
The Slum Soccer initiative was started by a retired sports teacher Vijay Barse back in 2001 after observing how a game of football allowed young boys to forget their daily struggles and also kept them away from drug addiction has taken giant strides in last few years.
The project now has spread across India with about 70,000 slum kids from 63 districts being taught how to play football. While many of the top stars from this initiative have found a livelihood through football coaching, the NGO has now also started conducting healthcare workshops and education programmes for slum dwellers with an aim to improve their overall standard of living.
While the success of Yuwa, KISS or even Slum Soccer makes a case for many such initiatives to be started in different parts of the country, the journey has been a difficult one. At times, due to lack of funding but sometimes even because the locals haven’t been able to trust the programme completely.
RDT founder Vicente Ferrer was forced to leave Maharashtra in the 50s by local leaders before he settled down in Anantpur a decade later.
German hockey player Andrea Thumshirn, who started the Hockey Village India initiative in Garh Himmat Singh village and then in Jatwara in Rajasthan, had to shift base after she was driven out by the villagers who felt that she was trying to introduce western culture to their children.
While these incidents could be blamed on rural India not trusting foreign nationals in rural India, many individual initiatives have fizzled out after initial success purely due to the lack of funds.
A coaching initiative to train middle distance runners by National Institute of Sport-certified coach Deepak Londhe in Sinnar [located in Nashik district, Maharashtra] for the tribal kids of Dapur village saw around 40 youngsters get jobs in the police department on the basis of their physical fitness levels between 2001 and 2010, but the center stopped functioning due to financial difficulties.
In 2014, the Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association conducted a special coaching program for tribal youths in Vidarbha region through which job opportunities were created for 22 tribal youths as markers and assistant coaches. Sadly, it turned out to be an one-off initiative.
The state and union government have their own programmes to use sport as a vehicle for social change but given the size of this country, there is a need for many more individual initiatives and the corporate world should definitely look at sports as a viable method to not just help alleviate poverty but also provide meaning to their lives.