The 2014 general elections saw a fascinating shift in India’s demographics. “... 150 million 18-23-year-olds will qualify to vote for the first time,” The Guardian had noted then. “Their number equates to the voting population of several European countries put together. Understandably then, India’s youth are being given the moniker of game-changers in the elections.”
It was one among a number of revealing numbers about the country’s burgeoning youth. A UN report released in the same year said India was home to the world’s largest youth population.
Snigdha Poonam, in a book titled, “Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing the World”, published earlier this year, delved deeper into this tectonic generation shift.
“No matter how poorly placed they find themselves now,” she wrote, “they make up the world’s largest-ever cohort of like-minded young people, and they see absolutely no reason why the world shouldn’t run by their rules.” This, Poonam argued, would ‘change our world in ways we can’t yet imagine’.
This new phenomenon isn’t just limited to the shady business deals, call-centre scams and youth entrepreneurs creating content websites aimed at Facebook users in the USA — the stories Poonam wrote about. Indian youth, a few of the 600 million under the age of 25, has taken to a new field to unlock their energy and potential.
Sure, the country’s most famous sporting icon began his international career at the age of 16 but Sachin Tendulkar’s rapid ascension did not lead to a movement. He was a freak who was at least two decades ahead of the curve.
The first seeds of this particular shift in India started when an 18-year-old Deepika Kumari became World No 1 in recurve in 2012. Two months after the archer occupied top rung, Saina Nehwal, then a 22-year-old, won an Olympic bronze. In the process, she had become India’s youngest ever individual medal winner at the quadrennial event. Four years later, PV Sindhu, all of 21 years and a month, emulated Nehwal by winning a silver in Rio.
A clear pattern was beginning to emerge. The country was no longer depending on its experienced stalwarts for making headline acts on sports pages. This prophecy held water at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast as the likes of Manu Bhaker (16), Anish Bhanwala (15), Neeraj Chopra (19), RV Rahul (21), Manika Batra (22), Satwiksairaj Rankireddy (17), Gaurav Solanki (21) and Punam Yadav (22) all won gold, upstaging several senior compatriots.
At the upcoming Asian Games, another dynamic will be in play. A fair few of the contingent will be between the ages of 15-23, either as first-timers with big things expected of them or as multiple winners at past senior multi-discipline events. While exact numbers aren’t available for a variety of reasons, there is a minimum of 200 athletes in this age group, with about 30% of those still in teens.
Take the cases of athletics (19/50), shooting (11/28), rowing (17/34), archery (10/16) and badminton (10/20) alone. Out of 148 athletes in these five disciplines, 67 are 23 or below. Deepali Deshpande, a junior rifle coach who has worked extensively with the likes of Bhaker, lifts the lid on the young team which will travel to Palembang.
“It is not by design as such, but we had been working on juniors for the last few years,” she says. “Some of them are very new to the arena, but they are bold and shoot without any pressure and that is their strength.” The management, who took the decision to have Bhaker and not Heena Sidhu (28) in the mixed team event, has spent 60% of their budget on the junior programme according to Deshpande.
That is the main reason why out of the 28-strong squad, four (Bhanwala, Bhaker, Shardul Vihan and Saurabh Chaudhary) are either 15 or 16. A further two (Ganemat Sekhon and Elavenil Valarivan) are below 20. Deshpande is purring when talking about their potential. “They are taking over so fast.” That feeling isn’t just limited to shooting. Consider athletics. The 19 youngsters aren’t just going to make the numbers. They have a genuine shot at glory. Chopra, Hima Das and Muhammad Anas are all medal contenders.
Wayne Lombard, who worked with the likes of Chopra, Tejaswin Shankar and Vinesh Phogat, agrees with the feeling that the new age of Indian athletes are cut from a different cloth. “I honestly believe that India is a goldmine of athletes and given the right tools and environment they will achieve great things,” Lombard, who has since become the lead scientific advisor for the women’s hockey team, said. “Neeraj’s rise did not surprise me one bit. Physically, he is going from strength to strength. I believe that Neeraj and TJ will produce world-class performances over the next few years.”
Lombard is also intimate when speaking about the rise of the women’s team (eight of the 18 are 23 or below) which will be in action at Jakarta. “When I joined, the team’s general athletic ability was well below what would be expected of international level players,” he said. “But this, in my opinion, was not due to a lack of effort by the players, but a lack of understanding of the importance and a mental block on what is required of them to perform at the highest level.
My general philosophy is human being before athlete and athlete before ‘sports specific’. This means that, if I can create an environment in which players feel comfortable, and know that I put their needs first, ie treat them like human beings first, they will start to believe in the process as well as eventually reap the rewards of their hard work.”
When Lombard joined the women’s programme, they were No 12 in the world. They are now ninth. With more youngsters in the team than ever before.
A Sharath Kamal has seen everything there is to see at multi-discipline events. He also accepts the argument that the face of the average Indian at the contingent has become younger between Games in recent times. “I think it’s become way more professional these days,” he said. “It’s very easy as a youngster to step into the spotlight. We were all DIYs (do it yourself). By the time we knew the ins and outs, we were already 25-26. That’s not the case with this generation. There is better technical know-how thanks to the internet, better understanding and better coaches. There are no problems with funding for exposure trips.”
Exposure trips are also the reason why the compound archery team has got the opportunity to go in with a very young squad. Six of the eight — Madhumita Kumari (20), Jyothi Vennam (22), Muskan Kirar (18), Sangampreet Bisla (19), Rajat Chauhan (23), Aman Saini (21) — are 23 or below. The Archery Association of India (AAI) aggressively promoted this batch of youngsters.
“We have been sending our youngsters for exposure trips and all that has paid off,” secretary Anil Kamineni said. “We now have a large pool of young talent as seen from the compound team and it bodes well for the future.” That sentiment can also be applicable to Indian sport in general.