There are around 444 million children in India, as per the 2011 Census. This constitutes 37% of the total population of the country. Of this 444 million, around 33 million children between the ages of five and 18 years are working.
While there are several NGOs working for their development, what these children actually need and might greatly benefit from are on-the-ground initiatives that can ensure they lead more inclusive lives. In fact, one way to bring them into the mainstream is through sports. Yes, as unconventional as it may seem, using sports to equip the underprivileged to deal with poverty can work wonders, as we can see from the success stories of a few entrepreneurs who are creating opportunities for disadvantaged children through sports.
Take, for instance, 38-year-old Siddhartha Upadhyay. The New Delhi-based social entrepreneur started Society for Transformation, Inclusion and Recognition through Sports (STAIRS), a not-for-profit organisation working towards sports, education, health and skill development of children across India, in 2000. “Playing a sport has the potential to be a strong alternative to other distractions for (underprivileged) children,” says Upadhyay, who was recently appointed as a member of the governing body of the Sports Authority of India, the apex national sports body of the country.
Upadhyay, who believes that the development of underprivileged children can come only with sports, started STAIRS to create a healthier ecosystem around sports in India. “I knew the difference it could make in the lives of such children,” he says.
STAIRS programmes include training camps, tournaments and championships for children at its training centres across India in various sports such as wrestling, badminton, tennis, cricket, football, etc. Through these, it has reached around three lakh children. The programmes are facilitated by local community leaders, volunteers, coaches and managers. Local community leaders help in identifying prospective participants, says Upadhyay. They then undertake counselling and talent identification camps after which coaching camps are set up. Senior coaches are players who have either represented their respective state teams in national championships or played for the Indian team at the international level. Coaches are also local players who are trained in programmes designed by STAIRS. They implement the programmes based on local needs, says Upadhyay.
Emboldened by the success of these programmes, Upadhyay in 2013 launched the STAIRS School Football League (SSFL), which scouts for talented players who can be trained and later absorbed into professional soccer leagues, such as the Indian Super League. For this, they conduct sporting camps at the grassroots level and then create teams with the chosen players.
The trained teams compete in the SSFL against each other. The tournament is also open to all the school teams in the NCR region. STAIRS helps the best talent to be spotted and trained by credible academies and clubs. Talking about how the SSFL took shape, Upadhyay says, “In 2012, I studied the global trends in sports and realised that football was going to be huge. Even though the government had a programme, I came up with my own alternative.”
About inviting school teams to play, Upadhyay says it was to reach the maximum number of youth. “We sent out invitations to all schools in the NCR that had a football team. Only 30-35 schools showed up for the first SSFL tournament in 2013,” he recalls. Even though the participation wasn’t satisfactory, Upadhyay felt he was on the brink of creating a formula that could draw more participation. “For the second edition of the SSFL, around 128 teams participated,” says Upadhyay, adding that the number has been increasing steadily since. As far as funding goes, STAIRS is financially supported by Uflex, an Indian packaging company, but they are looking for other partners as well, says Upadhyay.
Another entrepreneur trying to make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged children is 28-year-old Pradyut Voleti. The Noida-based social entrepreneur founded Dribble Academy, a basketball academy for underprivileged children, in 2015. Voleti, who graduated in clinical psychology, was always drawn to sports, especially basketball, as a child. Before starting Dribble Academy, in fact, he travelled to the US in 2013 to train under Ganon Baker, one of the world’s premiere basketball trainers.
When he came back in 2014, his desire to put his knowledge of psychology and sport to good use resulted in Dribble Academy. Started with one ring and five students in Gejha village, Noida, Voleti’s venture has shown great success since. Today, Dribble Academy has close to 300 students, who trickled in through word of mouth. They are coached by Voleti and another in-house coach. Talking about the initial struggles, Voleti says it was tough to get students, especially girls. “It was hard to convince parents to send their daughters to play. But once a few of them started coming, more and more parents welcomed the idea,” says Voleti. Soon, the local school in Gejha lent its grounds to Voleti to train the children.
Not just basketball, Voleti’s academy also takes care of the children’s holistic development, which includes classes in spoken English and social awareness, as well as a meal of banana and milk, which is funded by Voleti through some donations. For more funds, Voleti has his hopes pinned on a crowdfunding venture that’s been started by him to showcase the journey of the children he has been grooming. “What we require at this point is a donation in kind more than cash. That will be much more helpful for the children and the academy,” says Voleti.
Another game-changer is Nagpur-based Slum Soccer. Started in 2001, the non-profit organisation uses football to bring about a change in the lives of street dwellers. It is also part of a network of contemporary organisations around the world, which work for the homeless. The 17th edition of its National Inclusion Cup (NIC), organised in February in Mumbai, in fact, saw the participation of around 50 teams and 500 players from India and Nepal. Supported by the father-son duo of Vijay Barse and Abhijit Barse, NIC was one of the earliest initiatives of Slum Soccer. A majority of their players are either dropouts or those who never went to school. Therefore, not only does Slum Soccer focus on their training and fitness, it also works to provide them overall development through educational programmes. With 45 coaches, some of whom were initially students, Slum Soccer is funded by different organisations such as Mercedes, Reliance, etc.
Their efforts seem to be bearing fruit, as around 25 players from the NIC have been selected to represent India at the 16th Homeless World Cup (an annual football tournament organised by the Homeless World Cup Foundation, a social organisation) to be held in Mexico later this year.
Behind every great champion is a hardworking coach. To deliver consistent results, training under an effective mentor is imperative. As per Upadhyay, STAIRS has a “coach the coaches” programme, which was created for them by international footballer Paulo Pedro. “It’s an 18-hour programme conducted over a month. Coaches are taught how to train students from different genders, social strata, temperaments, etc,” says Upadhyay, adding that the programme enables instructors to be more sensitive and effective in their training.
Even Voleti, who travelled to Stanford University, US, last year, to pitch the idea of his basketball youth programme for funding, managed to rope in a basketballer from the University of Connecticut to train his students. Batuli Camara has volunteered to travel to India this year and help him coach children.
While this is one example of a professional coach flying to India to train young athletes, there are also some lucky prodigies who will travel to the UK later this year for an eight-day training programme in athletic sports at Loughborough University in Leicestershire. It all started when beverages company Tata Tea conducted a 50-day-long nationwide athletic sports tournament last year to encourage children to participate in sports. Organised in association with the Athletics Federation of India, the apex body for running and managing athletics in India, the tournament saw the participation of around 3,000 athletes from over 500 schools from six cities—Mumbai, New Delhi, Hyderabad, Lucknow, Kolkata and Pune.
The finals of the tournament, titled ‘Champions of Tomorrow’, was held in New Delhi in February, and saw winners from each city compete against each other in their respective disciplines to win a seat to Loughborough University’s athlete training programme. “It was a great experience for us, especially as we got to compete with athletes from all over the country and test ourselves,” said 15-year-old Agrata Mahesh after winning the shot put final. Mumbai-based Mahesh, who has been training in the sport for the past three years and even won a gold at the U-16 nationals in 2016, hopes to make the country proud by winning the Olympic gold in years to come.
Meanwhile, 14-year-old Swastideepa Karmakar, the winner of the 400-m track event at Champions of Tomorrow, was overwhelmed by the competitive spirit the tournament brought out in her. “I want to go back and train harder,” said Kolkata-based Karmakar, who trains for six hours each day.
Siliguri-based Dishani Ganguly, who participated in the 100-m track event at Champions of Tomorrow, agreed: “We may not attend classes regularly, but we never miss practice,” the 14-year-old said.
While it’s important for children to focus on their game, it’s crucial for parents and coaches to focus on their nutrition and overall development, said coach Tarvinder Singh, who mentors Mahesh and has been training athletes for close to three decades now. “Athletes will only be able to deliver the desired output on field if they have the proper diet… you can’t expect them to run track on an empty stomach,” said the sexagenarian, adding that he ensures Mahesh has six meals a day. “To take care of all of the child’s needs, we need to form a triangle—of the parents, coach and athlete—to ensure the desired results,” Singh said.
It’s no wonder then that some sportspersons consider their coaches as second parents. “My coach is like my second dad,” said Mumbai-based 14-year-old Haritha Bhadra, who participated in the 100-m track event at Champions of Tomorrow, adding that her diet plan, exercise regime and daily routine are carefully charted out by her coach Ravindra Kumar Walmiki.
Besides the support of the coach and parents, athletes, especially at the grassroots, also need the encouragement of the government. And this is where the central government’s recently launched Khelo India programme comes in. An initiative to support athletes, it aims to bring about a culture of sports at the grassroots. This includes spending on structured competitions, identification of talent, training through governmental and private sport academies and building of infrastructure in smaller towns. As per reports, the programme has been allocated `500 crore, which might increase to Rs 1,500 crore in subsequent years. “We have decided to select 1,000 children every year from different fields and provide them `5 lakh per annum for eight years,” Union sports minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore was reported as saying. In fact, two players from Khelo India—Manu Bhaker (10 m air pistol) and Srihari Nataraj (100 m backstroke)—are set to make their debut at next month’s Commonwealth Games.
But in a country like India, making it big in any sport is a huge challenge owing to bureaucratic hurdles, selection bias, etc. So how are they tackling this? “The selections are left entirely to the federations. The government officers are not engaged with the selection process. We are going to work with the International Olympics Association (IOA), which is onboard with us and the federations to take the International Olympic Committee as the standard bearer. All the steps that they have elucidated for better governance, we—the IOA and us—will ensure are followed by all the federations,” Rathore said at Indian Express’ Idea Exchange.
The inaugural event of the programme, Khelo India School Games (held from January 31 to February 8 across 16 disciplines in the under-17 age category), saw the participation of over 5,000 schoolchildren from all over the country, receiving nearly 102 million viewers. A major setback, though, has been the news of the doping scandal involving 12 participants. “Winning at any cost is certainly not acceptable and it’s not our goal. We are funding athletes for them to become positive role models. So there has to be a sense of responsibility in all of them. We are undertaking awareness campaigns… and various measures so that this doesn’t happen,” Rathore said, adding, “Before we began Khelo India, there were a lot of naysayers and non-believers. But thankfully, people now believe that this is possible. We will continue with it in the same way and also work on other verticals. We are now going to focus on getting more women in sports. We are also going to create a mobile app for where to play and how to play. Anyone can pick up their phone and find out the nearest playground and the contact details.”
Will India realise its dream of becoming a sports superpower? Only time will tell. For now, we seem to be on the right track.