There has been a massive change in the way the government looks at sports: Yashodhara Raje

As sports minister of Madhya Pradesh, Yashodhara Raje played a significant role in improving the state’s performance in sports, particularly at the Asian Games.

Published : Dec 09, 2023 15:28 IST - 6 MINS READ

 Yashodhara Raje
 Yashodhara Raje | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

 Yashodhara Raje | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

India’s record haul of 107 medals in the recently concluded Asian Games was celebrated with great fervour across the country. However, what may have gone unnoticed amid all the jollification is how the state of Madhya Pradesh improved its medal count by four times from its showing in the previous edition.

Sportstar sat down for a conversation with the outgoing MP sports minister, Yashodhara Raje Scindia, to discuss about the state’s grassroots programme, its excellence academies, new advancements in the ambitious Nathu Barkheda project, and more.

MP went from having four medals from the 2018 Asian Games to winning 16 in Hangzhou. What brought about this impressive change?

The conditions of sports in India have improved owing to the efforts of our Hon’ble Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi. There has been a massive change in the way the government looks at sports. But we still have miles to go. What we have succeeded in doing is bringing children forward. Although the  Khelo India and  Fit India movements started all over India, it took a lot of effort to change people’s perspectives despite MP being sports-minded.

We started off with a budget of ₹5 crore in 2006. By the end of 2018, we had reached a budget of ₹250 crore. And all the money we took from the government was either invested in infrastructure or in the success of athletes. We have been a slow aggregator. But the growth has been steady.

Can you give us some insight about MP’s talent hunt programme and its district feeder system?

There are four parts in putting talent together. You have to have top infrastructure, number one. Number two: you have to have a top coach. Three: no interference — let the coach have a complete free hand to do what he has to do. And number four: a proper, percolated talent search down to the lowest degree.

In the beginning, the district sports officers (DSOs) did not know what talent searches were all about. Maybe seven times out of 10, we weren’t even doing proper talent searches. But over a period of time — it took about nine years — we’ve honed the skill. The current director (of Sports and Youth Welfare, MP) Ravi Gupta, came up with the talent search programme. I think it is the best model because he sends coaches on these hunts to the remotest of areas.

We have graded our coaches, ‘A’ to ‘E’ — ‘A’ being the top high-performance coach. The ‘C’ and ‘D’ coaches put children together to get them ready for the ‘A’ and ‘B’ coaches. It started working right away.

India’s dressage quartet of Sudipti Hajela, Divyakriti Singh, Hriday Vipul Chheda, and Anush Agarwalla won an Asian Games gold to break a 41-year-old jinx. Hajela is an athlete from the state, and you’ve been an equestrian as well. How happy does that make you?

When we were setting up the Equestrian Academy, there were a lot of naysayers. There were questions like, “What are we doing with horses?” and “Who’ll be able to afford them?”. It was a challenge to me and the whole of MP. I wanted to show the public that if children from villages are given the right equipment and coaches and there is no political interference, they will succeed. I wanted to prove, not to MP but to India, that it is possible. And now, one of India’s many gold medals in the Asian Games have come in equestrian. So, I rest my case.

Breaking and eSports are some of the newest events that are taking multi-discipline events by storm. MP seems to be the only state that has started to work on building a strong base in these sports...

We had Kareem, the top B-boy in America, come every quarter to just create an interest in breaking. There are children already breaking in MP. Before he started teaching children, I needed to know what the real ethos of breaking was. When I spoke to Kareem, he said America has always been the best at it because there it all starts deep down in the child’s heart. We asked the Chief Minister (Shivraj Singh Chouhan) to allow us to have the Breaking and eSports Academies. He has done that. But only the next government will be able to put it into action once ‘finance’ approves it. A budget has to be brought in. So yes, we are ahead of the curve. We’re the first state government to start work on these two at the directorate level.

For teaching children eSports, we have hired the services of a company that’s giving us the blueprint for it. When the budgets come in, we will go full blast.

The Government of India allows CSR contributions to the Central Sports Promotion Fund. Do you think it should be emulated for State funds as well?

We want that to happen. So far, it has not happened.

Between 2014 and 2018, one or two companies had come onboard. We had the Aditya Birla Group and Dilip Buildcon. They gave us CSR funds.

This time, I was moving in multiple directions. I was not finding the time. If you’re looking after sports for a state movement, it’s a multi-headed hydra. You lose some, and you win some. This time, I knew I had so much to complete before the elections. And I knew I may not be able to stand again because I had Corona (COVID-19). But I was hell bent on getting the infrastructure ready, the academy better, and the foreign coaches to come in and put all that together. Maybe the next Ministry will do it.

How would you look back at your term? If your health permitted and you could have stayed on, what would you have liked to work on?

Instead of looking back, let’s look forward. If I could have stayed on, I would have finished my international complex (Nathu Barkheda). That would have a state-of-the-art athletic track and field, two hockey turfs, and an indoor stadium. The work is already being done. I’ve already got the blueprint for the four-storey building, where you have one floor dedicated to each form of martial arts.

There would be a separate floor on a hydraulic mechanism that could then be put down as a basketball court. These huge complexes were meant to be truly international. And now they will become, because I’ve got the work started already in athletics and hockey. So, unless somebody really doesn’t like my ideas, I don’t think those blueprints will change.

As I leave, I can say with satisfaction, ‘Hey, in seven or eight years, one has accomplished as much as one could do and stretched the mind as was possible. And the children have all come to a certain point in their career, which is wonderful to see.’

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