Sports for Development programme was initiated in three blocks of the strife-affected Sukma district – Sukma, Chhindgarh and Konta. 39 Khel Mitras were trained through the programme to help integrate sports and physical education into programmes.
CHHATTISGARH, India – 10 October 2012 - For the best part of thirty years, Gondtai Negi was merely an impoverished farmer trying to eke out a living in a remote village called Kanjipani in the strife-affected Sukma district of Chhattisgarh.
Today, his chest swells with pride as he introduces himself as a ‘Khel Mitra’ – a mentor and guide to around hundred children, bringing happiness and hope into souls scarred by an ongoing civil strife.
Sukma is one of the worst affected by the strife and has seen the resettlement of thousands of men, women and children in residential camps set up by the government due to massive internal displacement.
Like several young men of his village, Gondtai Negi too had the option of remaining a silent spectator to the psychological damage done to the children of his village due to constant exposure to violence and conflict. Instead, he chose to volunteer his services to the Sports for Development Programme that introduces children to learning through physical activities and sports.
Bringing Children Back to School
Gondtai engages children of his village and neighbourhood schools in sports and games on a regular basis. He also tries to convince others that are out of school to seek admissions. Among the largely Gondi and Halbi speaking tribes of Sukma, education is hardly considered essential for children.
Instead, parents who eke out a living by farming and cattle rearing, often pull them out of schools to join them in their work or to graze cattle. “Seeing children play and have fun attract those who do not attend school or have dropped out. They then convince their parents to enroll them so that they can participate in the regular play hours”, explains Gondtai.
In just over a month since the start of the new academic year, he has already managed to persuade four children – three girls and a boy to join school in Nayapara. “It is very fulfilling for me to see these kids happy”, says Gondtai.
‘Dealing with Conflict’ through Sports
UNICEF’s engagement in Sukma district began in 2006-07, as a part of the humanitarian response to address issues that emerged due to the civil strife in the region.
Among other initiatives, sports and physical education were seen as activities that could help children deal with the trauma of violence, separation and displacement and make schools attractive. As the humanitarian crisis unfolded, more than a thousand sports kits were distributed to residential camps and schools in the region.
The programme also engaged with children residing in various residential camps established for displaced tribal families at Dornapal, Injiram, Errabore and Konta.
The principal of a temporary residential school at Errabore, commonly known as porta cabins, Main Singh Dhruv says these camps attracted thousands of children. “Children at these camps were enthusiastic about the games organized. The sports and activities helped us immensely in improving the morale of these children, who had suffered stress and trauma”, says Dhruv.
Teachers and Khel Mitras also focus on sports and physical education for stimulating the child’s growth through age appropriate activities like warm ups, stretches and games designed to promote speed, agility and balance in children.
They also implement Physical Education Cards (PEC) methodology developed by UNICEF to help teach children about inclusiveness and need for teamwork. These activities are also integrated into the classroom routine to help bridge crucial gaps in the overall education of children.
For instance, teacher Ravi Jangti experienced particular difficulty in explaining mathematical concepts to some children from tribal background. These days, a simple game of playing catch with children keeps them competitive and keen to tally their own scores.
Khel Mitras: Messengers of Development
The Khel Mitras also serve another crucial role in their communities as harbingers of key messages of development. Trainers say that the insistence of children to adopt certain lifestyle changes does have a positive impact on their immediate family and can often help coax them to adopt new measures.
A school teacher at Narayanpara, Budhram Barshey explains how lessons in personal cleanliness and hygiene imparted in classrooms are driven home by the involvement of Khel Mitras. “We can never be sure how much the children imbibe of what we teach them in class.
Since the Khel Mitras began working with these children, they have been able to impart these messages more effectively”. For instance, he says when the Khel Mitra asks children to ensure they wash their hands well after their play session, they oblige enthusiastically and slowly get habituated to the routine.
The response from the local community has also been heartening to the sports programme. Several village elders have voluntarily offered their land for setting up playgrounds to facilitate sports activities. Representatives of several blocks in the area now want to see this programme replicated in far-flung villages of their region too.
“This initiative has proved to be so good for the children of the schools and areas where Khel Mitras are available. However, there are many more schools and villages in our block that are farther remote“, explains Devmati Baghel, a member of Kottiguda block. “The interest level will definitely be the same, if not more. There are fewer opportunities for the children in those areas to be involved in programmes like this”, adds Devmati.
Mobilising Communities Through Sports
For 25 year old Mada Sodi, the opportunity to work as a Khel Mitra has proven to be the ideal chance to improve his own standing within his community as well as provide a new ray of hope for children in his strife-wracked community.
“We have had to fight hard to organize community level initiatives. Sometimes villagers support it, but we face resistance from other quarters too. Despite all this, I managed to organize a cricket tournament involving teams from different villages. Initially people were reticent to turn out. The support began trickling in gradually and eventually the tournament was a success”, says Mada.
Mada’s role as a Khel Mitra has not just been limited to promoting sports. He also acts as the voice of children he trains, who confide their concerns to him. In one such instance, he struggled till he overcame the stiff opposition of villagers and rallied the community to support and redress the children’s grievances. “Today, I have become popular as a Khel Mitra. I have helped raise several other issues at the community level and have also succeeded in coaxing fifteen children to join the primary schools and Ashramsalas in our region”, explains Mada.
Spreading the Initiative Across Chhattisgarh
The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan is exploring the possibility of introducing the PEC methodology across all primary school in the state in the next academic year. “It is crucial to maintain the momentum of the Sports for Development campaign by ensuring a steady supply of sports kits and equipment to schools.
The success of the Sukma sports initiatives has now resulted in preparatory work commencing to expand the scope of the Sports For Development initiatives to all the 93 Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas across the state”, says Sheshagiri Madhusudhan, Education Officer, UNICEF.
The transformation witnessed over the year among the children enrolled in schools of Sukma is evident in their guileless innocent smiles. In a region like Sukma that is deeply impacted by civil strife, sports and physical education are proving to be effective in drawing back children to school, inducing hope that this programme could benefit children living in similar situations across the state.