Hockey lights up the lives of Khunti

A development initiative by Tata Trusts has allowed children in a Maoist-affected area of Jharkhand to invest their hearts and minds in hockey.


Sandeep Singh (first from left) and Dutch trainers impart hockey skills to locals in Khunti.   -  Manob Chowdhury

A nondescript hamlet tucked in the jungle roads come alive with the giggle of young voices and clashing of hockey sticks as one traces the way to Gutuhatu in Khunti. Not far away in the capital, Ranchi, the international stars of its multi-crore franchise Ranchi Rays practice on the classy Astroturf of the Morhabadi stadium for the snazzy Hockey India league. These two scenes fall in an unkind juxtaposition depicting a picture of unbalanced development, which is currently the story of Jharkhand losing out in the map of hockey excellence.

“You would be surprised by the energy and physical built of the children here, most of whom don’t get even a fraction of the prescribed diet for a young hockey player,” says Sandeep Singh, Olympian and the former India hockey captain who is an ambassador of the ambitious ‘One Million Hockey Legs’ initiative. Sandeep, who is one of the best defenders and drag-flickers produced by the country, sees the reflection of his belief in the grit of the handful of kids in their school uniform trying out the newly developed hockey skills on a dusty patch adjoining their village with no protective gear to shield them from the hard hockey ball.

This forms a part of a unique blend of development initiative funded by the Tata Trusts that brings together livelihood, education and hockey in an integrated process. Sandeep has joined Olympic gold medallist Merel de Blaeij, Nicolaas den Ouden and Wisse Kopal from the Bovelander and Bovelander B.V., founded by the Dutch legend Floris Bovelander. Unlike many other previous efforts that primarily sought to train young talents in isolation, this initiative sees hockey as an integral part of education and livelihood.

Ask the headmaster of the GUMS Gamahriya of Murhu block, Pratap Chandra Kumar, he says the most of the 140-odd students in his school head to the hockey field after having done their classes. “The core idea is to integrate sports with education in order to enhance the students’ ability through inculcation of life skills,” says Ayan K. Deb of Tata Trusts, which is anchoring the development process of around 3000 students from 65 schools in Khunti.

New enthusiasm

Sandeep is impressed by the intensity in their zeal to learn and excel in hockey. “Hockey is in their blood given that this region has previously produced Olympians and internationals in the past. Once they get the opportunity and the proper training, these children can be the stars of the future,” Sandeep says. The former India captain says that the hockey training has induced a new enthusiasm in the thousands of people of the region, which is besieged with Maoists activities for a long time.

“Hockey gives them a reason to take the path of prosperity and righteousness which is needed in a state plagued by unlawful activities,” Sandeep adds while admiring an innovative hockey stick that has been hand-carved out of a log, among a stack of hockey sticks which lean against a heap of books on a table. Sandeep is disappointed about not getting help from the State administration in his bid to build a ‘regional development centre’ to take the good work ahead.

“The mindset of the children and the coaches here is amazing,” says Merel de Blaeij, who was a part of the Holland women’s hockey team that won gold in the 2012 London Olympics. “We are training the master trainers picked up from a selection of former players who have previously represented the State. They in turn will coach the children on the modules developed on the European style of hockey suitable for artificial turf,” adds Merel, after having done an exhaustive session with the master trainers.

‘Master’ training

The state of the training field, which is a property of the Uccha Vidyalaya (high school) – is in a dilapidated condition with the artificial matting coming lose in many places and the watering system in complete disrepair. This is the only option in the region.

“See where you are asking an Olympic champion to take her classes,” Sandeep adds a sombre note as Merel demonstrates the skills to her attentive trainees. The Dutch Olympian says the first stage of the training, which involves interactive sessions (via audio and video) and demonstration on field, is called the “master-class” before the coaches (master trainers) move on to the next stage called the “high performance class”, which again has multiple stages of training.

There is a nod of consent and a smile from the master trainers Jasmani Tiru and Sanjita Barwa, when one brings up the names of the former hockey Olympians from the region like Nikki Pradhan, Manohar Topno, Sylvanus Dung Dung, who almost have a similar following here like its cricket icon M. S. Dhoni. “I want the kids training under me to be top international players like Nikki or Manohar,” says Jasmani, who was the captain of the Bihar sub-junior team and who has also represented University of Ranchi.

The coaches or the master trainers get Rs. 8000 as a stipend for training the kids twice in a week, while a group of trainers from the Bovelander academy come to assess the progress every six weeks. With so much planned for training and development, the children have a lot to hope for as the best talents will be picked up for the upcoming Tata Hockey Academy in Jamshedpur. “I am sure this programme is going to transform the lives of a lot of people as they learn new life skills through this initiative,” says Sandeep, while hoping that the Indian junior team gets a few players from this system by 2020.

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