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October 13, 2010
Joy of sport rises from India's rough roads

RANDY STARKMAN/TORONTO STAR


Girls aged 13-16 play netball at the Deepalaya school in the slums of South Delh, India on Oct. 12, 2010. It's part of the goal program run by the Naz Foundation (India) trust.

NEW DELHI—The rickety baskets on the dirty brick court are held up by ragged chunks of concrete. The smell of urine wafts from the nearby boys' bathroom, intermingling with smoke from neighbours burning their garbage.

A sign on the wall reads: It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness.

The word "greatness" is fading. And the rough road seems guaranteed here in the slums of South Delhi, as a group of teenage girls play netball at Deepalaya School in the Okhla Industrial Estate, far removed from the glittering stadia of the Commonwealth Games.

Their passion for the sport is quickly apparent. They shout for a pass, chase down every loose ball and perform nifty feats of ballet to stay in bounds of white lines you can barely see. They don't give an inch. One girl takes a ball off the nose and doesn't flinch. Tough defence at both ends.

These girls have got game.

In a country where more than a third of the population lives below the poverty line, one might ask: How important is sport?

Well, it turns out very important for the government of India, which is investing nearly $2 billion in sport for development over 10 years through 2018.

“Whatever people do in terms of projects, it's a drop in the ocean in the scale of this country,” said veteran educator Vivek Ramchandani. “But if we can develop good systems that work within those communities under grassroots circumstances and then you have the evidence that your bang for the buck is good, the government of India will take it forward. They've been quite excited about this.

“The government of India suddenly woke up to the fact in a country with over a billion people, the number of Olympic golds is sadly lacking. They also realized that in a country like India, perhaps less than 10 per cent of the children have access to any form of organized sport.”

Ramchandani became involved in sport for development four years ago, first with UNICEF and now spearheading a $5 million program for the Australian Sports Commission. It has aligned itself with six proven sports groups in India, including the Naz Foundation (India) Trust's GOAL program which uses netball to create awareness of HIV and AIDS among adolescent girls.

Ramchandani has become a fervent believer in the power of sport and eagerly shares stories gathered in the field.

In one village, a young athlete approached her coaches to say she couldn't play anymore because she was getting married. She was 12.

“The community sport coaches started canvassing public opinion in the village,” said Ramchandani, coordinator of India's Australian Sports Outreach Program. “They found that, ‘Yeah, well traditionally people are getting married at that age but they didn't seem to think it was such a great idea anymore.’”

The village council surprisingly agreed.

“From what I understand the village passed a decree saying ‘we shouldn't marry off girls in this village until they're at least 18,’” he said. “The word spread, neighbouring communities heard about this, the community sport groups got together and spread the message. From what I understand, there are now several villages in the district doing the same thing. These are the kind of stories that are coming out.”

One surprising product of successful sports programs is an increase in teacher attendance.

One surprising product of successful sports programs is an increase in teacher attendance. “One of the big problems we have in India is teacher absenteeism,” Ramchandani said. “But because the school suddenly went up in people's esteem, parents started taking more interest. So when the teacher didn't come to school, parents went to the panchayat (village council) and said, ‘why isn't the teacher in school?’”

Sport is being used as the carrot to serve up messages that previously might have been unpalatable.

Before their netball game, the girls, aged 13 to 16, crowd into a small, stuffy classroom with grime-covered walls for a financial literacy class taught by volunteers from the program's sponsor, Standard Chartered Bank. It's not dry stuff: they’re quickly engaged and as many as 12 at a time eagerly thrust their hands in the air to answer a question.

They're asked by the teachers to introduce themselves and say how many kids are in their family. No one says a number less than four - some have as many as eight siblings.

A little boy limps past the room on a crudely made metal crutch, part of the integrated school that also focuses on special needs and marginalized children.

The first question put to the girls is: What is money?

“Money is life,” says one.

“Money is everything,” says another.

Throughout the class, three netballs – one pink, one blue, one white – sit on the ground by the door, a reminder of what's ahead. The most valuable exercises in the whole program are probably the chats after the games between the coaches and girls about their bodies, their rights and how to prevent HIV/AIDS.

“The earlier methods of just going around and talking about HIV didn't work,” said Jaya Tiwari, a coordinator with the Naz Foundation (India) Trust.

Tiwari said the school principal can see the difference in the kids who are taking the GOAL program.

“Their posture has changed, the way they stand, they way they conduct themselves, they way they talk to their teachers has changed dramatically,” she said.

“The level of confidence has increased a lot. The concept of ‘I’ has come into their lives. It was not there before. This is one hour at least they are just playing for themselves. They are not playing for us. They're playing because they want to play.”


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