“All the others were quite tall and well-built, we were quite scared,” says Siju C, 18, a Paniyar youth, when TNM met him at the tiny hamlet of Kootattu, in Panthalur Taluk of the Nilgiris.
Siju, is one of the 14 tribal youth from Panthalur Taluk in Tamil Nadu who represented the state at the International Tribal Games held at Thyagaraj Stadium, New Delhi in May this year.
Siju had won a gold in the 400 meters sprinting event at the Games said, “We decided to go for it even though we ran barefoot. We managed to come first, second as well as third in the competition.”
The tribal youth from this region ended up winning the maximum number of medals at the competition. Not only did they excel in track and field events but also in sports such as archery.
This was the second edition of the competition organised by Touching Souls, a non-profit that works for the betterment of the indigenous and underprivileged in India. A total of 90 athletes from indigenous communities in 10 states across India participated in the event.
Siju C, who won Gold in the 400 meters.
Seizing the opportunity
Schemes such as the Special Area Games (SAG) introduced by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) in 2015 to discover athletes from marginalised communities such as the Adivasis is unheard of in this region.
Despite the lack of official support, Natarajan V, 52, of the Nilgiri Primitive Tribal Federation was determined to keep the Adivasi children of this region involved in sports.
“Our Adivasi community has a strong sporting and martial culture. Also, if we get these young people into sports, then they will stay away from the drugs and alcohol that cripple our community,” says Natarajan.
Natarajan, from the village of Erumadu, also in the Panthalur Taluk belongs to the Mullu Kurumbar community. An ex-army man he trained the boys for the games.
“I am extremely proud of their performance. We hardly trained for a couple of days and still, they performed so well. This only shows that if given the opportunity, these kids are capable of great achievement,” says Natarajan.
He left no stone unturned to get these boys to New Delhi. From training them to facilitating their travel to Delhi, he also accompanied the team to Delhi.
“So many schemes meant for the betterment of the Adivasi people never reaches us. Most of these children are forced to work as coolies in tea estates to help their families stay afloat. I don’t know if this is because of or despite NGOs and various government departments. Sports facilities are no exception.”
A stepping stone
While the Games in the Delhi are not an accredited sporting event, they can prove to be a decisive first step towards Adivasi children taking up sports professionally. “The Tamil Nadu team were the best across competitions. All they needed was a stage,” says Sabina Samad of Touching Souls.
She adds, “There are plans now to provide counselling, scholarship, and training to these children. The first phase of this should hopefully begin by the end of this year. For us, these events are not only about their sporting prowess but also about creating pride. We want to give a platform for the Adivasi children to talk about their culture and meet others from indigenous communities from across India.”
Meanwhile, the children in Panthalur are nursing high hopes after their success in Delhi. C Vishnu, 17, also from Kootatu, who came second in the 800 meters says, “We want to compete more now. We also need a good ground to train in.” He adds, “I’m sure if given the chance, if not us, at least our younger siblings can even make it to the Olympics.”
(Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in the Nilgiris)