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The ball’s in our court: Using sport for social change

During the recently concluded Next Step 2014: Using Sport for Good, Nidhi Gupta caught up with Pratik Kumar of Magic Bus to talk about the link between sports and development.

NIDHI GUPTA  15th Feb 2014

A session of football at a slum in Mumbai; one of Magic Bus’s initiatives.

ow far back can you trace the link between sport and development on a global scale? How far has it developed?

A. This is a fairly widespread concept globally where sport is an integral part of the lives of people, in a lot of countries. This has not been the case in Asia, and in India particularly. Sport and development as a space has been establishing a global presence over the last two decades, more firmly in the last one, where a lot of players are using sport as a tool for social development. Next Step 2014 is the fifth in a series of conferences that the UN Office on Sport for Development and Peace has been organising. This is the first time that it has come to Asia, and this in itself is a pretty big deal — because it recognises India as a power, and Magic Bus as an NGO that is leading this movement from the front.

What we're trying to present to the world, and to individuals, corporates, donors and philanthropists, is that while a lot of social development has been happening through traditional means, sport can also be used for development. We have very strong reasons to believe that sport as a form of engagement works fantastically with youth and children. We have to understand that behaviour and social changes happen over a period of time. Generations of inertia, habits, customs and traditions aren't changed with the switch of a button.

This is where sport becomes an exceptional medium for engagement, because children and youth love to play. We can create a non-threatening, non-judgemental environment where they have a lot of fun, within which we bring in a lot of learning, discussion and knowledge transfer — this is how we exploit the medium of sport for development.

As we get "developed", there's a chance that people will be a little more conscious towards sports and any kind of physical activity — not the competitive kind, though. This is important because it's a fantastic tool for building personalities, human capital, good resources and citizens in the country.

Also, one of the biggest burdens facing mankind is that of non-communicable diseases. People typically active and interested in staying fit do all those things that would keep a whole bunch of such diseases — like diabetes, cancer, heart problems etc. — at bay. A lot of anti-tobacco, anti-alcohol and nutrition programmes have failed because they've been typically externally driven. But when you get into a lifestyle which compels you to keep healthy, there's a good chance that you keep off these vices that are the triggers for such diseases. In the next couple of decades, unless you have some kind of a cure being invented for heart strokes or BP problems, because everything focuses on prevention right now, sports will become more important.

Q. What has been your experience at Magic Bus with using sport for development in the field? What real changes do you see occurring among your target audiences?

A. At Magic Bus, we have a programme called from Childhood to Livelihood — where, age-appropriately, we tell kids to stay in school, inform them about gender rights, give then anecdotes on violation of laws etc. In the leadership bucket, we talk about the RTI, how to use it, their roles and responsibilities as citizens etc. All this happens while sport is the common thread. We give them a lot of fun while they're learning — that's the best scenario for knowledge transfer.

Typically, the most popular game used in this setting is football — also volleyball, handball, cricket, kabbadi, kho-kho — and make various games out of it. The ball itself, then, can be twisted into an effective tool for learning, or for giving out a message about health, nutrition, gender rights message coming out of it. For example, in a group of children playing Dodgeball, we name the ball malaria. After the game, we have a discussion in our style, called Sit, Breathe and Think, where we'll talk about who all got hit by malaria, go through the reasons, causes and consequences. We repeat this process over several weeks.

This translates into a huge amount of experiential learning. The game is modified in a way that a message goes through, which is then culled out in our discussion sessions. Sport is just the glue around which we build initiatives and ensure that we will get our audience back repeatedly.

For every 20-30 children, we have a boy or a girl from the community from the 16+ age group who are the mentors. Through this, we build a lot of social capital in the villages and towns where these young people are trained as role models and mentors in the most vulnerable settings. They follow certain codes — no spitting, hitting, shouting, abusing — because they have to be the ones being looked up to. Sport becomes the binding factor here too, because the coach-student relationship is very strong in the field.

We are reaching out to about a quarter of a million children in India at the moment who are reached through 8000 volunteers across 14 states. Now we're starting programmes in Singapore and the U.K. We believe that our methodology can work well in elite settings as well. When we go to Singapore, we will obviously not be talking about malnutrition — we switch to issues of the virtual world, challenges of not being communicative, of drug abuse, or gang culture or knife crimes etc.

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We are reaching out to about a quarter of a million children in India at the moment through 8000 volunteers across 14 states. Now we’re starting programmes in Singapore and the U.K.

Q. In India, though, sport in general is not thought important — at any level, from schools to homes to colleges, playing sport is seen as 'extra-curricular' and 'recreational', and certainly not seen as a popular career option. How do you grapple with this situation?

A. We don't go to a community and tell them that we're going to make sportsmen out of your children, because they'll obviously turn us away. Instead, we give them half-hour demo sessions that sell us, after which word-of-mouth takes over. The competitive aspect of sport is the last thing on my mind. We do develop a lot of talent — out of lakhs of students, there will be thousands who will do better at sports. They go through our excellence programme, where we have teams in different sports. But that is not the main goal of Magic Bus. You don't have to be excellent at sports to be able to enjoy our programmes because these happen in mixed-gender settings. We create games where girls necessarily have a good role and where messages about equal opportunity are transferred. Most get carried away with the notion of sports as we see it on television, but that's not how it is.

Q. Have you also worked towards assisting in developing existing school curriculum that gives prominence to sports?

A. We do an enormous amount of teachers training, and not just on sport. In our two-day teacher training modules, we tell them that they can be friends of the children. We tell them that if they can communicate in a non-threatening manner and create a non-judgemental space, it'll be a huge learning step for everyone in the classroom. Usually, teachers are diametrically opposite — they'll have a stiff upper lip, they'll use the stick, scold and be generally abusive. There's no question of encouragement in such a situation.

We're working with 150 schools in Rajasthan, for example, where we're helping them become RTE compliant. This includes a whole range of teacher training methods which focuses on leadership skills in school principals. We're also picking up subjects and trying to transform them into activity-based modules, to induce a degree of fun into the learning process. It is difficult to get multi-media infrastructure in government school settings, so how do you use a low-cost approach to better learning?

We're also developing a Physical Education curriculum for the Mizoram government. The PE period usually goes to waste so we've asked them to tell us what challenges the teachers go through. They came back to us with a whole bunch of issues like teachers being disrespected, kids being abusive, missing or inattentive in class, not doing their homework, hygiene issues etc. We came up with a one-hour module where the kids have fun and in that one hour, they'll learn everything required.

Q. What sort of challenges do you feel this field faces in the future?

A. A lot of NGOs that work in the traditional format do get a lot of support because that is thought of as "serious" business, while sports is still seen as frivolous. That is the mindset that we are challenging right now. We've even been cajoling NGOs working with traditional formats, trying to convince them that sport is possibly one of the best ways to engage and communicate. The assumption that nukkad naataks and wall painting exercise will make a difference is a little outdated. Instead, spending time with and being part of a community will probably go a longer way in ensuring behaviour change down the line. We're trying to tell governments, NGOs, the big bi-lateral, tri-lateral donors that this is a good, low-cost, effective and scalable model. This will continue to be a challenge because there are a lot of traditional players and they continue to go into the low-risk category. We're seen to be the upstarts, so this is the risk that we're trying to face up to.

Q. Recently, there was talk of a legislative bill for the development of sports. Do you see a lot of encouragement and support from the government for your initiatives?

A. The bill was only interested in Olympic glory — there's hardly anything happening on the grassroots level for incorporating sport and development. This is where the big problem lies — the youth and sports ministry funds a lot of federations, but by the time the money comes down to the state level, the money's all gone in salaries and so on. Nothing happens on the district or block levels. Most countries that do well in sports have a population with in-born qualities, such as Kenya, for example, where genetically modified lungs support better athletics. Or you have structures where the grassroots are so strong that the pipeline for excellence is honed — there's better infrastructure, resources, man power. We don't have this — we're still trying to build a mass base, for grassroots participation — we don't even have the culture of participation. We have strong government relationships at Magic Bus — we have an MoU with the government on the Panchayati Yuva Krida aur Khel Abhiyan, where we're a technical partner; We have MoUs with two other states — Mizoram (education curriculum) and Jharkhand (youth development curriculum) — but it is an uphill battle.

Q. Can you also talk about the link between sports and conflict resolution? How do initiatives like Skateistan in Afghanistan and PS4L in Palestine help in rehabilitation and reconstruction?

A. There is a very strong link between the two. Even in our settings, it is one of the safest things to indulge in to help people forget barriers of caste, religion, gender etc. We have a project in Hyderabad old city, where only girls are called upon to play. Imagine the kind of empowerment that goes in for women who don't generally step out of their houses but are now coming out to play. There is, of course, the back channel process to get the approval of community elders to get the first girl to step out, and then to keep the momentum going.

Most of our programmes are mixed- gender ones. In Andhra Pradesh, for instance, in three years, participation of girls has gone up from 10% to 51% in our programmes. We're talking about the rural hinterland here, with a lot of marginalised communities. As a child, you don't really understand these identity markers — and binding them through sport will help break down those barriers over time. The realisation that we aren't very different from each other — that's the peg that initiatives like Skateistan and PS4L use.

Skateistan has a different goal — they're trying to create an equitable environment for girls. In Palestine, the initiative was more about getting Israelis and Palestinians to come together. In India, we've done a lot using cricket in post-conflict scenarios, particularly, in the aftermath of communal riots. We've observed that sports act as the first balm on wounds caused due to man-made or natural disasters. In Uttarakhand, we're starting a disaster management programme now.

Vijay Amritraj, at the inaugural ceremony of Next Step, talked about his visit to Jaffna, Sri Lanka. He said that all he did was bring in truck loads of sporting equipment and distribute it among the kids — it made the kids happy and the parents relieved. In a bleak situation where there isn't much to look forward to, engagements like this can bring back a semblance of normalcy. It's not the panacea for conflict-resolution, but it is at least pushing the needle towards more positivity.

Pratik Kumar is the CEO of the Magic Bus India Foundation.

 
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