Empowering Youth Via ‘Sports’


volleyball--indiaSandeep Kumar, 24, is the son of an auto rickshaw driver. The family of three has a monthly income of Rs. 8,000-10,000. He got selected during a talent hunt in Majnu Ka Tilla, a non-descript colony in north Delhi inhabited by families belonging to disadvantaged section of the society. Since 2009, Sandeep has been representing India in ‘sepak takraw,’ an acrobatic sport played by kicking a rattan ball in the air which is native to Malaysia, in various international tournaments. He also represented India in the  16th and 17th Asian Games held in China and South Korea respectively.

Sandeep is not alone. There are a number of rags-to-riches stories being scripted by Stairs, a Delhiheadquartered sports charity,for over a decade or so. It is just not sepak takraw, hockey, cricket, baseball, volleyball, football, khokho, kabbadi etc. are also being promoted by the organisation run by a young sports person Siddhartha Upadhyay who played cricket in the early 1990s, but had to quit due to an injury. He now helps street children develop a habit of playing outdoor games and even make a career out it. Some of his beneficiaries in cricket have risen up to the level of Ranji Trophy, which is not less than any board examination in a cricket-crazy nation.

There are nearly 300 centres of Stairs spread across six states, extending its network in remote areas vying for a pan- India presence. More than 1.5 lakh children are enrolled with the organisation, which picks up street talents, trains them, provides them with sports equipment, offers scholarships and provides a platform for them to play at regional, state, national and international level. The organisation has produced nearly 200 national level players cutting across different categories and tournaments. So far, more than 80 underprivileged youngsters have received scholarships.

The sporting NGO has different set of programs for different states. For example, in Delhi it has six games being played at 31 centres under the three programs namely Uflex Khelo Dilli, Uflex Stairs Cricket Scholarship and Stairs Football for Change. Similarly, it has Stairs Khelo Himachal, Stairs Khelo Uttar Pradesh, Stairs Khelo Jharkhand and Stairs Sonbhadra Khelo Mahotsav, to name a few. It is also working for the cause of differently-abled children
and has opened one of its kind cricket academy for them – Stairs4ability at Sports Stadium,  Ravindra Nagar Dhoos, Padrauna, Kushinagar, UP. ‘Hockey for Growth’ is another initiative by Stairs along with former India captain Dilip Tirkey to connect Bharat with India. As a part of the program, Stairs recently distributed 100,000 hockey sticks among underprivileged youth across the country. Worth noting, supporting the cause of ‘Sports for Development’, Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany recently partnered with Stairs for one of the biggest school football leagues ever in Delhi-NCR region.

It may be noted that 35-yearold Upadhyay himself is a serial entrepreneur with a passion for crafting new businesses and strategic initiatives. He has established Mavcomm group  of companies that offer various consultancy services. He always had an infectious enthusiasm towards sports that inspired  him to start Stairs in 2002. Having spent his formative years in east Delhi’s Shalimar Garden, he initially started honing the skills of underprivileged children from lower middle class areas such as Seelampur, Seemapuri, Dilshad garden and nearby areas of East Delhi. Soon, he started going to rural and tribal belts close to Delhi- NCR and subsequently made it a pan-India affair. Recently, hewas honoured by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav
for his contribution towards development of society through sports.

Walking down the memory lane, Upadhyay recalls, “Stairs is something that grew out of personal passion and experience. It all started at the turn of the century. The trigger was my disgust with the lack of access to playgrounds and facilities among the underprivileged youth. I started visiting nearby slums and areas inhabited by the underprivileged sections of the society to play with the kids. This culminated in the establishment of Stairs to help children have their right to play. The first five years were a period of learning for Stairs and me, as we tried to understand the underprivileged children and youth and break the invisible wall between us and them.”

“When I started Stairs, there was little support from government or corporate sector. Sports was not a CSR activity. During that time, not many realized the value of sports. In fact, parents would chide children for playing and considered it a waste of time and energy,” he reminisces. But today, he says, sports is increasingly viewed by the society in general and  young people in particular as a tool to achieve personal  and community development objectives. Government and nongovernment agencies, at national as well as international level, are incorporating it in their strategies to address humanitarian and development work, he adds.

Although raising funds for infrastructure and equipment are an incessant struggle for a noble cause, the most challenging aspect, for Stairs, has been to get the parents and children to agree to come to the playfield. “You must understand that for a poor family every hand that can earn is an asset, but no pair can have leisure time. Further, the disadvantaged youth are unaware of their own worth. They lack  respect for other human beings as well as themselves. They waste their time idling around. Some of them turn anti-social and get involved in undesirable activities like drug or alcohol abuse, gambling etc,” Upadhyay enumerates.

The challenge, he says, is to motivate these youngsters to come and start playing. For this, the NGO conducts a field study of the area where it plans to set
up a centre. Local community leaders are made an integral part of initiative, who besides being influencers, help in identifying the prospective participants. Stairs, thereafter, first holds counselling and talent identification camps to understand the community. Coaching camps are the next step, which culminates into holding of tournaments where the local youth get a chance to showcase their talent. The NGO later facilitates the selection of talented sportsman into district, state and national level teams. Granting scholarship thus comes in between to promote the deserving athletes.

indian-footballThe sporting charity, as a follow up, uses various methodologies such as questionnaires and discussions to get a feedback from camps’ participants. It helps Stairs know the impact of its efforts on the life of these youngsters, how it has aided in their psychological and emotional development, and the impact of sports on their lives.

Taking its philanthropic spirit forward, Stairs is now in the process of starting a women empowerment program, wherein the fairer sex from the underprivileged background will be taught self-sustenance and financial independence through sports.

Even as Stairs nurtures the talented sportsmen at the bottom of the societal pyramid so that they can use sports as a mean of earning a living and pursue it as a career, what bother Upadhyay are the increasing crowds, rising crime rate, traffic, lack of playing areas, recreational facilities etc. They have all, he complains, contributed to making physical activity and sports a difficult choice for many  people. The challenge here is to create sustainable environment
which encourages physical activity especially amongst the youngsters, he adds

“We need to promote a love for sports and sportsmanship among our children and youth. It will not only be good for the health of individuals but also for the nation. The efforts must start at the family level where parents encourage their kids to play with the same vigour as they push them to study. The local community and government, nongovernmental and corporate organisations have to provide financial and manpower support to these efforts. The society must recognize its importance and grant the right to play to every child irrespective of sex, caste,  creed or financial status,” the sports enthusiast emphasises.

Believe it or not, for a serial entrepreneur, sports is the best tool for social engineering. “When you play a sport, all that matters is your talent. The colour of your skin, religion, caste, and creed  cease to matter on the play field.  It is this thought process that  needs to be implemented even in day-to-day lives. In a world which is marred by religious intolerance and divisions on the basis of class, caste and sex, sports can play a vital role in changing the mindsets of the young people,” he says.

Quoting a United Nations report that recognises sports  as a powerful tool for social development, Upadhyay says  those who play sports experience a high level of interaction with other individuals within and outside their community. “This not only benefits the youngster but also helps in the community’s socio-economic development. Sports participation has a positive effect on reducing the involvement and exposure that the young people might have towards violence and unethical activities. Sports offer these youngsters a positive and healthier alternative to sitting idle,” he signs off.