Not a sporting chance

29 August was National Sports Day in India, to commemorate the great hockey player Dhyan Chand. But the outlook was rather dismal. According to a report presented before the Indian Parliament in September 2006, out of India's 800 million-strong youths, 700 million have little to no access to sporting facilities of any kind. Of these, at least 450 million live in rural India.

It is widely accepted that youth sports are essential components of a country's human-resource development – providing recreation, improving productivity and fostering social harmony and discipline. With more or less these same objectives in mind, in 2001 the government of India formulated a new national sports policy, following up on previous work done in 1984. Village panchayats were subsequently to be mobilised to facilitate the development of requisite infrastructure (and identify talent) in India's rural areas. Indigenous games were also to receive increased promotion, including kabaddi, kho-kho, wrestling and tug-of-war. Unfortunately, in the intervening six years, even partial targets on these goals have yet to be achieved.

According to the Indian Constitution, sport promotion comes under the purview of state governments. But between 2001 and 2006, despite the availability of funds, many state governments only submitted one or two annual proposals requesting financial assistance for the specific development of rural sports. This means that children in rural areas are missing out on development worth hundreds of thousands of rupees per year. In addition, according to the latest available figures, during the period 2004-05 the Indian government released less than INR 2.8 million under the so-called Grants to Rural Schools for Purchase of Sports Equipment and Development of Playground – a pitiable sum given India's vast rural population. This is not only a matter of negligence; state governments are actively avoiding their responsibilities.

Needless to say, infrastructure development such as building roads, flyovers and five-star hotels is not the best way to prepare for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, currently slated to take place in Delhi. All in all, INR 50 billion is estimated to be spent on the games. But sports are associated with players, not buildings. Indian policymakers need to take a long look in the mirror and ask whether they are excited for India to be an active participant in the Games – or just a good host.

The government of India first launched a rural sports programme way back in 1970, with a view to broad-basing various sports and tapping rural talent. The scheme was to focus particularly on the organisation of rural sports tournaments, with a special eye paid to the Northeast, which was seen both as particularly underdeveloped in sport and as having great sporting potential. The timing of this initiative was significant: during that same year, rural unrest had reached a boiling point, with the Naxalbari movement and various student agitations having commenced in several parts of the country.

But in the current context, sports infrastructure within the Indian school system is not only inadequate; it is also in serious decline. As per the latest All India Survey, conducted in 2002 by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT), less than half of India's schools (both rural and urban) have access to playing fields. Over the past 25 years, this figure has gone down by seven percent in primary schools, nine percent in upper-primary schools and five percent in secondary and higher-secondary schools.

Recently, the Panchayati Raj Ministry, in association with the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, proposed a new rural-sport initiative. According to this scheme, a one-time grant of INR 12.5 billion would earmark INR 50,000 for each village panchayat across the country for five years. An additional recurring grant of INR 16 billion over a five-year period would be shared between the Centre and the states, for the building of playgrounds and the promotion of indigenous sports.

Following the long period of inactivity in India's rural sporting scene, however, another player has also recently entered the field: multinational companies. Last year, Coca-Cola, with the support of the Federation of Farmers Association, held the inaugural Thums-Up Rural Games 2006, in Andhra Pradesh (a state that had only requested rural-sport-related funding once between 2001 and 2006). Buoyed by a strong positive reaction, this year the event, with the support of the Consortium of Indian Farmers, was expanded to AP, Karnataka and Maharashtra. (In September, Coca-Cola also sponsored the Karnataka Rural Games.)

But criticism has been levelled at this new involvement of private interests. The states in which the games have been held are relatively ahead of the rest of the country in terms of development and urbanisation. And it misses no one's attention that these states represent large markets for Coca-Cola products. If any entity, public or private, was actually interested in tapping the real potential of rural sports in India, it should look to several of the country's more 'backward' areas – particularly the Northeast, as the Indian government has understood for more than three decades. 

~ Amit Chamaria is a Delhi-based freelance journalist.

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