The lost role models: A school sports story from rural Bengal
Hatimari High School in Malda is a rare government school which promotes sports among the backward-class children of the region. Some exceptional athletes have been spotted here, but they remain unsure about which sport to pursue.
Minoti Tudu, Pansari Soren, Chumki Mondal, Parboti Mardi and Lalita Soren are names that will arouse no interest in anyone. No one knows them outside the school they go to. Yet they did the unthinkable!
Trained by a 'part time-coach' - the warden of the school's boy's hostel - they were part of the Hatimari High School team that won the U17 regional Subroto Cup in 2019. Their inexperience and lack of expert coaching prevented them from going beyond the preliminary league stages of the main tournament held in New Delhi, but the team's short stint in the main tournament was enough for Chumki Mondal to get a cash award of Rs 25,000 from the Indian Air Force.
The organisers put the team up in a Delhi hotel which was "far too plush for them". This "culture shock" might also have affected their performance, according to the school's headmaster - Prasanta Kumar Ghosh.
However, on their return to Malda, they got no appreciation from the district administration, neither did the local media report their achievement. This has been one of the malaise of grassroot sports promotion in India - the total indifference in holding up to light the achievements by the Minotis, Pansaris and Chumkis.
Over the last few years, the central government has taken a number of steps to promote grassroot sports. The current guidelines on school sports, as enlisted in the 'Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan' includes aspects like the amount of money each type of school will receive, major objectives of the sports grants, how to improve sports facilities in schools, playground safety, maintenance and inspection of sports equipment and monitoring system.
However, this document does not state anything about creating sporting role models or icons at the grassroot level.
Hatimari High School in Gajol block of district Malda, West Bengal is a rare government school that promotes sports among the backward classes of the district. Gajol has a large Rajbanshi and Santhal population. Many children from this community study in this school, some of them are also boarders.
Sports got a big boost in this school in 2008, when the current headmaster - Prasanta Kumar Ghosh - joined the school after a long stint in Rajibpur St Joseph High School in the adjoining district of Dakshin Dinajpur. During his time there, he realised that sports can play a very important role in a child's growth, particularly among first-generation learners. He noticed that to draw children to classrooms he had to offer something that came naturally to them - playing games.
"Sports also plays an important role in weaning away children from frivolous activities. It makes them mentally and physically strong. Particularly helps girls in their preparations to join the paramilitary," he said.
The first thing that Ghosh did upon joining the Hatimari high school was to start a hostel facility. In 2008, the school had about 10 boarders, today it has grown to 600, with separate boys' and girls' hostels. This facility is free, as all children come from an impoverished background. The school is from Classes 5 to 12, and the total school enrolment currently stands at more than 2,500.
The large school play field, maintained by the school's teachers and students, is used to play football, kabaddi, kho-kho, archery and athletics. A volleyball court has been carved out and a basketball court is also being made at the entrance of the school. All children of the school are encouraged to participate in sports and many of them play multiple games.
In an intra-district athletics competition held by the Malda district sports association earlier this month, the Hatimari school won 11 medals. Chumki Mondal, Minoti Tudu and Pansari Soren, participating in the U20 category, won multiple medals. Chumki was 2nd in the 100m sprint and 1st in long jump. Minoti came 1st in the 400m and 800m running events. Pansari came 2nd in the 3000m event. Chumki also represented the West Bengal U14 kho-kho team at the nationals. All three school sports icons will join university this year.
While Pansari aspires to be a police sergeant, Chumki and Minoti want to represent India, but they are not sure in which sport, because they play multiple games. Who will guide them to the next level? Who will provide the training facilities? Such questions still have no answers, despite the added stress on grassroots in all recent policies.
Basanti Barman, a higher secondary political science and geography teacher at the school, has also played an important role to get the girls to participate in sports. It was she who accompanied the girl's team to the U17 Subroto Cup in 2019 as the team manager. She takes a keen interest in the girls' daily lives. The fact that she stays right next to the school helps her keep an eye on the girls' hostel as well.
Recently appointed the chairman of the District Primary School Council of Malda, she is now expected to take all schools of the district to new sporting heights.
A visit to the Hatimara school also gives the impression that the Samagra Shiksha grant of 'Rs. 10,000 for upper primary schools and up to Rs. 25,000 for secondary and senior secondary schools for meeting expenses on procuring sports equipment for indoor & outdoor games' is insufficient.
The school has an enrolment of 2500+ children from impoverished classes, out of whom 600 are boarders and everything is free. Almost all these children play some game, many play multiple games. The boarders practice 5 hours a day, 3 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the afternoon. Schools like this also need specialised coaches.
16-year-old Lalita Soren, who was just 13 when she played the U17 Subroto Cup in 2019 and scored 2 goals in one match, needs expert guidance. A Standard 10 student now, she has also represented the Bengal football team in the U14 nationals in 2017 and 2018.
Laxmi Modi and Arjentina Soren are among those waiting in the wings to exhibit their raw football skills. They eagerly await this year's regional Subroto Cup.
Minoti Tudu, Pansari Soren, Chumki Mondal, Parboti Mardi, Lalita Soren are inspirations to their school mates, particularly this younger lot.
But perhaps this is just one of million such stories. There are perhaps millions of Minotis, Pansaris, Chumkis, Parbotis and Lalitas across India, who need support and guidance, whose achievements need to be recognised at least at the local level and their stories need to be told to other youngsters to inspire them to participate in sports.