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Tata Trusts has taken a big leap by making sports an instrument of its social development agenda, and the link is set to get stronger in the coming days

It’s child’s play that Tata Trusts is chasing after, and getting there is serious business. Sports and games as tools for social development, with children and youth at the centre of the action — that’s the thrust as Tata Trusts seeks out new avenues to help support India’s quest to create a culture of sporting success.

In football, hockey, boxing and more, across India and particularly in the country’s Northeast region, through a variety of partners and direct interventions as well, Tata Trusts has committed itself to sports as a way to realise its community uplift objectives. And the allegiance is set to get deeper still as the organisation spreads the canopy of its coverage to include a greater number of beneficiaries and sports disciplines.

Football and hockey get the most attention, as of now, in the Tata Trusts scheme for sports. There are two components in the spread: grants for organisations working on specific sports initiatives, and feet-on-the-ground programmes where Tata Trusts is involved much more substantially in implementation.

Projects in the two categories are generally housed in, and integrated with, the thematic sphere of education. The grassroots approach is what Tata Trusts’ is partial to, amenable as this is to its longer-term objective of employing sports as an essential part of its broader community uplift agenda. There is a strategy in place and the resources to implement it are being increased.

“Our promotion of sports has become more structured,” says Neelam Babardesai, sports head at Tata Trusts. “We want to help develop a sports culture in India and there are multiple aspects to this. It starts with enabling children at the grassroots level to participate in different sports disciplines, with trained coaches, proper curriculum and life skills development. There are a lot of issues right there at the beginning: lack of infrastructure, dearth of coaches and more.”

TARGETED INTERVENTIONS

Tata Trusts put its mind to plugging these gaps, identified regions where it could make a meaningful contribution and the sport through which this could be accomplished. Creating infrastructure is not central to the plan, but funds for quality coaches, training and equipment certainly are. “We want to improve on what is available and we have partnered local communities, sports associations and government agencies to make that happen,” adds Ms Babardesai.

Picking the appropriate sport is important. “We target a sport with roots in the region — hockey in Jharkhand, for instance, or football in the Northeast — and run with that,” says Ms Babardesai. “The pressing need is to build capacity and the biggest challenge is getting the right coaches and trainers to guide the children.” Hiring still-young people from the community to do the job is a welcome byproduct in a milieu where employment opportunities are scarce.

With its football and hockey initiatives, both managed in-house, Tata Trusts has reached out to children through government schools and local associations. The community angle counts for plenty in the well-being of any social development project, but that’s never a problem when it comes to sports. As for the kids, it does not take much prompting for them to savour the sports cookie.

SOCIAL UPLIFT THRUST

It was in 2016 that Tata Trusts decided to give sports a more prominent — and permanent — profile in its agenda for social development. Bringing sports under the education rubric was a natural outgrowth of the Trusts’ thinking. “We have been involved in education in rural areas and for marginalised communities and we are tapping into that for our sports initiatives,” says Ms Babardesai. “The support systems we already have in place are vehicles for these initiatives.”

Keeping an initiative going, which means sustaining it, is critical from the Tata Trusts perspective. “The aim is to work with our partners to augment ongoing efforts and to enhance available infrastructure,” explains Ms Babardesai. “Finding the right partners is the key. The stronger the partnership, the sooner the project will become sustainable.”

Tata Trusts’ involvement with sports in India is set to get more intense in the years ahead. “We will continue working directly with children and this engagement will gather further grassroots momentum through our partnerships with schools and local communities,” explains Ms Babardesai. “There are a number of sports we would like to support but we have narrowed our focus in the immediate term.”

That means adding athletics, badminton, kabaddi and archery to a portfolio where football and hockey stand out. “We are collaborating with Tata Steel in the hockey initiative and we would like to have more such collaborations, especially with the sports academies that the group supports,” says Ms Babardesai. “There’s a lot we can learn from the academies and a lot we can take from them to the regions where we operate.”

For the folks at Tata Trusts, the name of the game is sports and that’s good news for many thousands of children starved of playtime.

Tribal bloom in hockey country

Tribal bloom in hockey country

Hockey runs in the blood of people in the tribal heartlands of Jharkhand’s Khunti and Simdega districts. The passion the game generates in young and old is a big reason why Tata Trusts has been successful with its grassroots hockey programme in the state. A bigger reason is the organisation’s commitment to making the initiative fruitful for participants and the community as a whole.

The hockey project is still in its infancy — it began in Khunti one-and-a-half years back and was seeded to Simdega more recently — but it has made enough of an impact to have the wider community cheering for more. “The programme has been well-received and that’s because of the natural affinity with hockey here,” says Ayan Deb, area manager, Tata Trusts. “We were able to establish an immediate connect with the community.”

Dutch hockey legend Floris Jan Bovelander plays with kids in Simdega

Sticking it out

  • Tata Trusts’ grassroots hockey development programme for girls and boys plays out in the Khunti and Simdega districts of Jharkhand.
  • There are twice-a-week sessions for children aged 10-14 years, conducted in a total of 85 government schools in the two largely tribal districts.
  • Some 3,500 children in 65 schools in Khunti and about 1,000 in 20 schools in Simdega have benefitted from the programme.
  • Tata Trusts takes care of the equipment needs of the kids and has ensured training for young people from the region to become coaches and trainers.
Trainees at a school in Simdega in Jharkhand on the day the grassroots hockey programme was launched in December 2017
Coaches from the Netherlands at training sessions for coaches in Khunti (left) and in Simdega (right); the sessions are a vital part of the programme’s ‘training the trainer’ module

The Tata Trusts objective is to professionalise grassroots hockey, and this cannot happen without the community being a part of the project. “Local people have, for instance, taken the lead in the levelling work of fields to make them ready for playing,” says Mr Deb. “The project has provided us with a way to extend ourselves beyond the classroom and beyond traditional education initiatives.”

The Tata Trusts objective is to professionalise grassroots hockey, and this cannot happen without the community being a part of the project. “Local people have, for instance, taken the lead in the levelling work of fields to make them ready for playing,” says Mr Deb. “The project has provided us with a way to extend ourselves beyond the classroom and beyond traditional education initiatives.”

Implemented by the Collectives for Integrated Livelihoods in India, an associate body of Tata Trusts, the hockey programme focuses on training schoolchildren. It also develops feeder centres and organises inter-school events and wildly popular hockey festivals. There’s a ‘training the trainer’ facet through which coaches — most of whom have played hockey at the state or national level — are selected after trials involving experts from Bovelander & Bovelander BV, established by Dutch hockey legend Floris Jan Bovelander.

Training the coaches is part of what the firm does through ‘One Million Hockey Legs’, a project whose mission is to increase the number of people playing the game. Mr Bovelander and his team have also contributed to the setting up of the Naval Tata Hockey Academy (NTHA), a partnership between Tata Trusts and Tata Steel to groom the best of tribal talent from Jharkhand and elsewhere in the country.

Located in Jamshedpur, the Academy, barely a year old, is concentrating on the long-term good of Indian hockey. It has the first batch of 26 students — boys in the 14-16 age group — and will enrol 26 new trainees every summer for the next four years, reaching a total of 104. There will be girls, too, in the gathering and they will, over the period of the four-year course, receive European-style coaching, a proper academic education, necessary nutrition, psychological counselling and exposure to competition.

Boys at a centre in Khunti in Jharkhand learning something different
These girls from Khunti are part of the grassroots hockey programme and they compete in local tournaments

To bridge the gap between the grassroots programme and the academy, Tata Trusts is setting up development centres to enable trainees to make the transition from learning hockey to excelling in the game. The 26 new inductees will be from these feeder centres.

The academy could well be valuable to the future of hockey in Jharkhand, and India by extension, but it’s the grassroots programme that counts for most in the philanthropic context. “Tata Trusts has had a presence in Jharkhand for seven years now, and the hockey project is a feather in our cap,” says Mr Deb.

There have been challenges along the way. In the early days of the initiative, it was difficult to convince parents to let their girl children join the programme. “The coaching happens after school hours and this is a region which has suffered due to the Maoist insurgency,” says Mr Deb. “Naturally enough, parents were reluctant to take the risk, but attitudes changed once the project took off.”

What has also changed is the behaviour of the trainees. “The Munda tribe is predominant here and there is, typically, a culture of silence that envelops them,” explains Mr Deb. “The kids in our programme are, I believe, breaking out of this culture and its wariness of outsiders. They are more articulate now, more knowledgeable about life and the world around them. And that’s more important than merely going out with a stick and learning to play hockey.”

A foothold for footie

A foothold for footie

Boy joy in full flight at a centre in Mizoram

It is a truth universally acknowledged that India needs a leg up in the world’s most popular sport. For too long has performance failed to match potential, and far too little has been done to get the two in harmony. The multiple initiatives by Tata Trusts in football are aimed at helping the country find its feet in a game that is wildly popular in many regions. And it is trying to achieve the objective by going back to the basics.

A team from the grassroots football programme in Mizoram after winning honours at a state-level tournament

The grassroots programme in Mizoram and Manipur, targeting children in the 6-14 age group, is the most important of the three components in the Tata Trusts basket for football. There’s also a ‘centre for excellence’ in Aizawl in Mizoram. Slated for kick-off in April 2018, the centre will offer a residential training programme for 25 boys in the 10-15 age group.

Trainees in the Tata Trusts-U Dream football programme at the Bitburg Football Academy in Germany

The third of the direct intervention initiatives of Tata Trusts in football has a German flavour to it. In this year-old partnership with U Dream Football, Tata Trusts is supporting the training and educational needs of 35 boys from Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya and Assam. The carefully selected young talents train at the Bitburg Football Academy in Germany. High-profile Borussia Dortmund, one of Europe’s elite clubs, is the technical partner and the International School of Dusseldorf provides the non-footballing education in this comprehensive residential programme.

It is the grassroots project in Mizoram and Manipur that stands apart in the Trusts’ portfolio. It has been running for two-and-a-half years and Tata Trusts has tied up with the football associations and education departments of the two states, as well as local clubs, to bring the project up to scale. “There’s no football development programme anywhere in India that can compare in size and ambition to what we are doing,” says Biswanath Sinha, associate programme director with the Trusts.

The partnership model is crucial to the project. “We could have done this on our own but we wanted to involve all stakeholders,” adds Mr Sinha. “It’s not always easy working with local clubs, football associations and government, bringing them all together to pursue a common vision, because they have their own priorities and issues. It was a challenge but we are on the right track here.”

Finding football grounds was a problem that required much tackling, the two states being so mountainous. The rewards have been worth the heavy climbing. “Tata Trusts has been working in the Northeast for about 10 years now and there hasn’t been anything like this in terms of interest and involvement,” says Mr Sinha. “The entire community is on board and this doesn’t happen with our projects in agriculture, education and the like. Football has made for an inclusive initiative.”

Fields of dreams

Tata Trusts’ grassroots programme is the most important of its initiatives in football:

  • Operational in Mizoram and Manipur, the programme sees 3,500 boys and girls in the 6-14 age bracket being trained at 70 centres housed in government schools and local clubs.
  • Each centre has 50 players. In Mizoram, 10% of the trainees are girls. In Manipur, it is 20% and there are two centres exclusively for them.
  • There are two-hour sessions twice a week, with equipment and coaches provided for by the Trusts. There are about 120 coaches, under 35 years of age, who have been trained for the project.

The enthusiasm is highest, naturally enough, among the girls and boys in the programme. “We had initially decided to have kids staying in a 3-km radius at the centres but there are those who come from 30km away,” says Mr Sinha. “Travel in a hilly region takes a lot of time and effort. Our sessions start at 6 in the morning and that means some of our children set out for the centres many hours in advance.”

Coaches being taken through their paces during a certification course — conducted in partnership with the Mizoram Football Association — for trainers in the grassroots programme

Tata Trusts will increase the number of centres in the project to 140 soon and that means a doubling of the trainees in the programme to about 12,000. “Our main goal is to improve the lot of Indian football,” says Mr Sinha. “We need long-term investments to get to a stage where India can play in a World Cup. We’ll have to make remarkable progress to achieve that and the only way to do it is by concentrating on the young and starting at the grassroots.”

Spreading the net

Tata Trusts has eight grant programmes in the sports sphere through which it supports organisations working on initiatives in varied disciplines. Almost all of these initiatives are out of the ordinary, and it includes supporting a football team from one of Mumbai’s fishing communities; backing a project that works with slum children in Bhubaneswar in Odisha, and helping former and current Indian Olympians through an outreach programme. Four of the projects that stand out in this collection are:

REHABILITATION THROUGH ‘FOOTBALL FOR THE BLIND’ — ACROSS INDIA

The Kochi-based Society for the Rehabilitation of the Visually Challenged (SRVC), a voluntary organisation, has joined hands with the Paralympic Committee of India to promote blind football in the country. It organises orientation and talent-discovery camps across the country, and training camps and tournaments involving international trainers and referees. The society has set up India’s only residential football academy for the visually impaired in Kerala, to provide coaching, vocational skills training and employment opportunities to these disabled athletes. Thanks to their efforts, India was able to form, in 2013, a national blind football team for the first time. The team currently ranks 23rd in the world and, with support from Tata Trusts, participated in the 2015 edition of the Asian Blind Football Championships in Tokyo. The society has also pitched in to set up the Indian Blind Football Federation.

LIFE THROUGH CRICKET — MUMBAI

A collaboration between Tata Trusts and the New Zealand-based nonprofit, Cricket Live Foundation, this programme combines cricket, academics and life skills to reach out to and help children from poor and marginalised communities. Integrated personality development is the objective in an initiative that uses cricket-themed training to transform the lives of 48 children from four municipal schools in the Mumbai suburb of Borivali. The programme fosters character development in the kids through structured, early-stage interventions in which cricket is the medium. Training of coaches has been incorporated in a project where education and the teaching of life skills are critical components.

BOXING SUPPORT PROGRAMME — MANIPUR

Tata Trusts has pledged support to a development project designed by the Mary Kom Regional Boxing Foundation, named after and run by the five-time world champion and Olympic medallist. The project will, over a five-year period, work towards developing the skills and talent of 15 carefully selected boxers through a structured and result-oriented training schedule. The boxers, who are in the 10-16 age group, will be part of the residential programme run by the academy. They will be provided with a full scholarship and training in sports, academics and life skills. Six of the chosen 15 are girls and many of them have already made a mark at district- and state-level competitions.

COMMUNITY SPORTS PROGRAMME — BHUBANESWAR, ODISHA

Operational since September 2015, this project is being implemented by the Pro Sport Development Trust at the Beena Bharati Vidya Mandira School. It involves children from low-income families in Bhubaneswar’s slum settlements. Sport is blended with social and personality development to enable the all-round growth of children, who are in the 9-14 age bracket. The intent is to improve the physical well-being of the kids, while providing them lessons in leadership and teamwork. Football, volleyball and netball are some of the sports through which the project unfolds at the school, one of seven such institutions in the Tata Trusts-supported community sports programme, which has benefitted 618 children thus far.