As evening slowly slips into dark, the mini-stadium in Bijapur is alive. The field has more dust than grass, and the running feet on it kick up a storm. The ground may not be green, but there is no shortage of colour. There are small cones, orange, red and blue, marking the playing area. And then there are the children wearing studs running around, each with a story of his own. Of poverty, of violence, and for every evening between 4 and 6.30 here, of hope.
Nearly every district headquarters in Chhattisgarh has a “mini-stadium”, used for cricket and football. In May last year, the administration of Bijapur, among the districts worst affected by left-wing violence in the country, decided to build in one such mini-stadium the Bijapur Sports Academy. Eight months later, it has over 240 students, training in 10 sports, under head coaches accredited by the Sports Authority of India (SAI). Of them, 17 have made it to the national level and four have won medals. At the state level, the medals tally of Bijapur Sports Academy trainees stands at 45.
Assistant football coach Somaru Kashyap, just 20, is a resident of Gudra, deep inside Abujhmaad, a Maoist area largely out of government reach. Describing how he discovered football, Kashyap says, “Ever since I was a child, the Maoists would come to my village and tell me to join them. After my parents died of illness, I moved in with an uncle into a hostel for orphans in Bijapur. There I used to run 400 metres and 100 metres, but my teacher said I should try football. I fell in love with it.”
Kashyap, a midfielder who could use both his feet, soon found a place in the Bijapur district team playing at the state level. Home, though, remains fraught with danger. “When anyone leaves the village, they think the person has joined the police. I went back after Class 10, and they took me with them. But I ran away. Ten days ago, when I went back to Gudra, I had to again convince them I am not in the police, but a football coach. I told them to come to Bijapur and see for themselves,” Kashyap says.
Teaching his wards how to get past the goalkeeper and hit successive strikes into corners, the 20-year-old says, “I now earn Rs 15,000 a month. But what gives me happiness is that I can change these children’s lives.”
About 2 km away, in another field, 14-year-old Ashok Thati is shooting arrows. Missing the centre twice out of the six times that he shoots at the target, placed 70 metres away, he shakes his head. It is important that he does well at a forthcoming state-level competition, he says, for it is only then that he might get to step out of Chhattisgarh. He was picked up by talent scouts just six months ago.
Thati is from a village near Gangaloor, another sensitive area of Bijapur. “The coaches who held trials thought I should try archery because we used to hunt at home. I moved to a hostel here, and have been training since. When I played at the state-level meet in Bilaspur, it was the first time I had stepped outside Bijapur. Now I want to see the rest of the country, and I can do that only if I make it to the nationals.”
Ten others are training along with him despite the dark, and the conversation is all about Santosh Kachlam, who is away competing at a national-level event in Madhya Pradesh. “He has gone to play the nationals in Shivpuri and the coaches have told us that while he didn’t get a medal, he shot 295 out of 300. We want to emulate him,” a student says.
Archery coach Durgesh Pratap Singh is from Janjgir Champa district, which has never seen any violence. However, he says, wherever he himself travelled to compete, “everyone said Chhattisgarh means Naxalism”. “Once I had undergone my SAI training, they asked me where I wanted to go. I picked Bijapur, because this is where children need help the most. They are committed, and just need finetuning. I can promise that next year, not just Santosh but many others will also make Bijapur proud,” Singh says.
Bijapur District Collector Ayyaz Tamboli says the motive for opening the academy goes beyond sports. “There were largescale dropouts from school because of lack of interest. This is one of the many methods to combat that.”
They hired accredited coaches who could zone in on the natural talent available, he adds. “Children here have natural athletic ability, and have an advantage when it comes to sports like archery. By 2020, we are planning to create a full-fledged 500-seater education and sports city in Bijapur.”
It is 6.50 pm, 20 minutes past the scheduled end of play, and Kashyap is struggling good-naturedly to take the football away from children still running around the football stadium.
As the last child finally leaves and quiet descends, he spies one football lying in a corner of the field. He runs to it, picks it up, and begins to jog back to the storage room. Then, he hesitates. For one last time that evening, he puts the football down, takes five steps back, runs up, and lets fly.