One of the first nursery rhymes to be taught to kids in India (or anywhere in the world) include ‘Rain rain go away, Come again another day, Little Johnny wants to play’.
If the Department of School Education and Literacy (under the Ministry of Human Resources Development) tries to come out with a modern adaptation, the words ‘playground’, ‘public space’, ‘studies’, ‘unreal expectations’ and ‘parents’, might all find a look in in some form or the other. On the occasion of National Sports Day, it’s the sometimes ugly relationship between the school playground, sporting equipment and the said school that is in focus.
According to ‘The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education, Act, 2009 (RTE), a playground as well as sporting equipment should be guaranteed by the school. There has been an amendment or two but the law hasn’t changed much. The reality, though, is completely different.
Sample this example from how new schools have been getting accreditation in states like Odisha: by showing paddy fields as playgrounds. The apathy to sports doesn’t end there, it’s more like a beginning. One Physical Education Teacher (PET) in Visakhapatnam told Express that he currently has one volleyball labelled under ‘sporting equipment’ for the entire school. One.
After each and every Olympics, debates are inexorably framed around the grassroots and the structure there. The grassroots, in this context, doesn’t imply whether there is a system in place, that comes later. It’s to do with the ready availability of playgrounds for school kids in their formative years and competent PETs to inculcate in them a basic grounding in a few sports.
The stats paint a picture — it’s not pretty. Out of the available data for 2,50,327 schools in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Telangana and Odisha, about 80,000 don’t have playgrounds as defined by the RTE Act of 2009. In other words, 31.95% of all schools in the southern States don’t have playgrounds. The situation surrounding PETs is worse. According to Pon Anbarasu, assistant professor at the YMCA College of Physical Education, PETs usually suffer in schools. “The infrastructure for training of the PETs available is almost nil,” he says. “A PET, who passed out of YMCA, came crying to me because he was asked general knowledge questions but there were very few on the actual subject of Physical Education.”
There is also the common practice in government schools of PETs being sent to classrooms to double up as subject teachers in primary classes. Not exactly the breakfast of future champions.
In schools where there is a proper system of coaching, other invisible hands act to threaten to alter the ecosystem. “When I was in Class X (school in Ahmedabad),” Mahek Vyas remembers, “we had tests every Monday in preparation for board exams. No one was allowed to take Friday off unless there was a compelling reason. There was a badminton tourney I wanted to enter and so my mother came to meet the principal. He first refused and asked me rhetorically ‘whether you would play the tournament if your mother was ill’.”
Forget schools not having the capacity to have open spaces for the express purpose of sporting activities, the Karnataka government have gone kamikaze with respect to the ratio of the money funnelled into sports via the education budget. 0.01%. Three crore of the 22,024 crore has been allotted to stuff that involves bats, racquets and spherical objects for 2016-17.
The primary job of a school is of course inside rather than outside the classroom but that doesn’t mean they can get away by just keeping students inside a 30x25x5 space for close to eight hours, five days a week for over nine months. One may think it will all be fine for students to start training and go to academies later on but by the time they might have missed the proverbial bus. Neil Hawgood, coach of the women’s Indian hockey team, explains why. “There are some talented girls with me but they have a lot of catching up to do. Right now, these girls are learning at 18 and 19 what an Argentinian girl or a British girl will be learning at 12 or 13.” Addressing that gap may not result in podium performances at the Olympics but it levels the playing field. For that to happen, sport should not be neglected as is the case now.
Even without the issue of having an organised sporting system in schools to identify and develop potential Olympians, just promoting the habit of playing will do. The higher number of kids in the playground usually translates to a greater number of happy faces which results in a better standard of living. There are lots of streams for students to choose from but there aren’t many avenues open to them if they decide to pursue a career in sports. A few PETs in TN said they need additional help from coaches (not teachers) to analyse strengths and weaknesses of students and train them in a discipline even before they enter college. As it stands, such a scenario is a pipe dream as most athletes from India become one towards meeting an end but not the end in itself; becoming sportspersons for the main purpose of getting better-paying government jobs.
Rahul Choudhary, once an aspiring footballer in VIIth standard, is the story of millions of boys and girls, past and present, in the country. From well to do families in good schools with proper playgrounds and sporting equipment that actually fills the PT master’s room. But then, the invisible hand is always around.
“The football coaching classes used to overlap with my regular classes so a few of my teachers advised my parents to remove me from football.” His parents duly obliged. You know the system is broken beyond repair if parents and teachers collude to thwart a kid’s football lesson because of a seventh-grade linear equation.