Is North-East India serving up the perfect recipe for sports development?
Despite being devoid of equal resources as compared to central India, the North East has always excelled in sports, producing the likes of Mary Kom and Mirabai Chanu - what is it that they get right in sports development?
A total of 45 million is the North-East region's population, comprising the 'seven sisters' or states. At the outset, a mere 4% of India's overall population looks relatively insignificant compared to other parts of the nation. Yet, the sporting talent in the North-East region has constantly punched above their weight, similar to what Mary Kom and Mirabai Chanu do, time and again.
Unlike the central parts of India, the North-East region has not received a proportionate share of resources for sports development. Yet, despite the challenges, several international athletes continue to emerge from this part of the country. So, what are the underlying reasons for the sport's progress in the North-East region at the grassroots level? This article gathers insights from Neelam Babardesai (Head of Sports, Tata Trusts) and Saumil Majmudar (CEO and Co-Founder of Sportz Village).
Exploring the territory
Neelam thought she could board a non-stop flight from Mumbai to Aizwal, but that wasn't the case. By the time she arrived at the Lengpui airport in Mizoram, she had spent almost 5 hours, including a stopover at Guwahati. Nevertheless, her visualization of the hilly regions in the North-East did match her expectations, although she remained curious about the region's sporting culture.
As the Head of Sports at Tata Trusts, she was aware that international athletes such as Mary Kom and Baichung Bhutia hail from the North East, but also knew that grassroots could turn out to be a different ball game altogether.
"I recall my first visit to Aizwal. I was amazed to find an indoor badminton hall in every community centre and it was occupied every evening by the elders, who were engaged in competitive and recreational play. A community where badminton infrastructure for grassroots already existed and more competitions were organized for elders rather than children," reflected Neelam regarding her early visit to Mizoram.
The importance given to sports education by school leaders is another fundamental indicator at the grassroots level. The Sportz Village team, led by Saumil Majmudar, found interesting data points regarding children's lifestyles in the North-East region.
"We found one out of three children were dealing with obesity issues in the metropolitan cities across India. However, that issue is non-existent in the North-East region. Living in hilly terrain is certainly one of the reasons for the communities here to remain physically active. Additionally, a sizeable population in this region works for the armed forces, which automatically drives the culture of being outdoors and engaging in sporting activities," said Saumil.
The seven states of the North-East region are at different stages of sports development. "We at Sportz Village have observed that Mizoram and Manipur have better indoor facilities for sports like badminton, boxing, and table tennis. Outdoor sports are prevalent in the other five states (Meghalaya, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, and Tripura). However, football remains a constant across all seven states given its popularity," recalled Saumil.
Neelam recalls an incident where during one of her visits, she was having dinner in the only restaurant open at 8.30 pm (everything closes down in Mizoram by 7 pm), and she kept hearing loud cheering and clapping. Then, on exploring, she saw a five-a-side football tournament for men in their 40s, being played in a small football ground, and both the teams being cheered on enthusiastically by the respective community members lined up around the playground in huge numbers, "Now that's what I call a sports culture!", said Neelam.
The children are exposed to various sports at the school level to gauge their interest levels. As time progresses, and with high skill development, children and parents can work with the coaches to narrow the specialization.
"One thing that was evident in Mizoram was the children's interest in the sport of badminton at the grassroots level. The only missing piece was structure, and we at Tata Trusts worked with the district authorities to deliver age-group-based badminton training programs, followed by competitions," mentioned Neelam Babardesai.
Talent development process
Impact at all levels of the sports pyramid can be sustainable only if different layers of the ecosystem work together seamlessly. For example, if schools can create mass participation of children at the base, the next building block (academies) can advance the sporting talent to the advanced stages.
"To harness the badminton talent in the North East region, we at Tata Trusts partnered with the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy (PGBA) and North East Initiative Development Agency (NEIDA). A three-tier pyramid system has been designed, and it consists of badminton centres at (a) grassroots and (b) regional hubs, the talent from both of which funnel into (c) centre of excellence," stated Neelam regarding the badminton program that includes the training of over 1800 children in the past 3-4 years.
If player development is one aspect, two other critical elements include access to infrastructure and coach education. "The parents and students in the North East have higher aspirations as per our observations at the school training program. As part of Sportz Village Academies, we plan to forward the existing student talent to the next level as part of our After-School sports module," said Saumil of Sportz Village, which operates in 3 private schools comprising 3000 students.
The opportunities open up once former athletes become part of the talent development program. Exchange programs have been set up for children and coaches to frequently visit Pullela Gopichand's academy in Hyderabad, allowing junior players along with the coaches from Mizoram to experience advanced training methods and competition levels amongst peers. With 40 grassroots centres already set up by the Tata Trusts, the next step is to operationalize them sustainably, including co-ownership of the respective communities across the eight districts of Mizoram.
North East region has begun to witness how private organizations, former athletes, and the Government have come together to identify and nurture the sporting talent at different stages of the journey. So, is Sport all set to play a central role in the North-East corner of the nation?
It certainly seems that way!
(The author is a Sports Research Scholar (Ph.D.) at the University of Mysore)