Saifullah Khan was a self-confessed “bully” in his teenage years, often getting into physical violence to show off his masculinity. “I was an aggressive and deviant teenager with severe anger issues…bullying other students, often getting into physical violence and not giving much heed to what my family or teachers used to say,” Khan, 24, says. That was until he discovered rugby, till then an alien game to most north Indians, played by strapping White men and occasionally by the hero of a Bollywood flick (remember Shahrukh Khan in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge). The sport changed Khan’s outlook towards life. “I never knew the cure of all these complexities could ever be a game of rugby,” he tells Outlook. And it’s through rugby that Khan is changing the lives of people living in urban slums in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh area; Khan runs an NGO called Yellow Streets.
India has embraced rugby, once considered an elite sport, to emerge as the world number 1, surpassing Japan in terms of the game’s reach at the grassroots level. In a country where cricket is a religion and football has its fair share of followers, rugby’s penetration presents a wonderful story. For those who play the game, rugby is a metaphor for life itself—like most sports, it has the ability to channelise anger, grief and pain into positive energy. Sporting success can easily be quantified but when sport plays a role of a life-changer, the measure is very different. And how this vigorous sport is making a powerful impact on the lives of the downtrodden has made the world sit up and take notice.
World Rugby’s data for 2019 puts India at the top of the global rankings—the number of rugby players has risen from just over one lakh in 2016 to 2.1 lakh in 2019. The number of women taking to the sport has grown by 141 per cent in the same period. Women’s rugby started in India only in 2009. Today, the sport is played in 26 states and over 275 districts in India. There are close to 80,000 players in competitive rugby across the country. It is not only the big cities like Mumbai or Calcutta, but Tier 2 and 3 cities are also discovering the wonderful world of rugby. Sweety Kumari, 19, of Patna is now the face of Indian rugby, recently winning World Rugby’s International Young Player of the Year Award within three years of adopting the sport. Sweety, the third youngest among six siblings, started her career as an athlete but now she is described as Asia’s fastest player, her explosive pace and power helping her to become the top scorer in five of India’s latest international tournaments.
“The response to the GIR programme has been overwhelming, especially with respect to age-grade participation from across the country. The growing numbers, particularly in the women’s game, have ensured we establish a structured pathway for these young players to continue to be involved in the game,” says Nasser Hussain, CEO of Rugby India. It’s because of the wide reach that national teams today comprise of players from rural India. The Indian women’s team includes players from the tribal belts of Odisha and West Bengal. Their success has also been acknowledged by PM Narendra Modi in one of his Mann Ki Baat radion talks.
The contribution made by NGOs and institutions like Future Hope and Jungle Crows (in Calcutta), the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (Bhubaneswar), Magician and Ace Foundations (Mumbai) and Yellow Streets (Delhi) have been significant. Their ability to change lives by using rugby as a sustainable development tool has been appreciated worldwide.
A former international officer with HSBC, it was Tim Grandage who first saw the fire in the eyes of children in the slums of Calcutta. Grandage initially raised a few of them at his home. Being British, he used rugby as a catalyst to translate their negative internal energies into something positive. Thus was born Future Hope. Grandage received the IRB Spirit of Rugby Award in 2001 and was rewarded by Prime Minister Modi in 2016 for his amazing work with the disadvantaged. Another Briton, Paul Walsh, gave up his job as a diplomat to script one of the fascinating stories of Indian rugby (see box).
In the past year, Saifullah and Yusra Khan’s Yellow Streets has worked with 100 street children and have trained them in professional rugby and skill building. Twenty five adolescent and youth leaders, collectively undergo skills of self-awareness and development, entrepreneurial abilities, team coherence and coaching skills. But it’s the young girls like Pinky who are the real-life heroes. A class IX student living under a flyover in Sarita Vihar, Pinky has countered neglect, violence and abuse by venting her frustration and hostility on the rugby pitch.
India women’s team captain Vahbiz Bharucha.
Pinky’s elder sister, Billo is 20 and mother of a two-year-old infant. As a young girl, she was forced to work as a domestic help and later worked as a bonded labour. This impacted her mental and physical health. Within six months of adopting rugby, she found her confidence back, says Yusra. “Billo can now handle domestic violence herself by showing the guts to walk into a police station.” It was a dream come true for 12-year-old Kishan, who was among 12 underprivileged boys participating in the Rugby World Cup in Japan last year. Kishan’s journey from the shanties of Delhi to Yokohama will soon be featured as one of the key celebrated milestones of Societe Generale, the company that works closely with rugby globally.