In the drought-prone Mann Taluka of Satara district in Maharashtra, survival takes precedence over dreams. The difficult terrain of this region, replete with extreme weather conditions and a disconnect from city-life, necessitate a unique upbringing. Children here, belonging mostly to shepherd families and nomadic communities, are taught life-saving skills before algebra or science.
And yet, sports have somehow seeped into their lives, intertwined so intrinsically with the rural lifestyle and outdoor activities that one can’t really tell them apart.
“Growing up in the village, we had a lot of adventure,” says Prabhat Sinha, the Founder of Mann Deshi Champions, a programme aimed at providing sports facilities, equipment, nutrition, and training to the rural children in Maharashtra.
A resident of rural Satara himself, Prabhat grew up in the grass-lands of Maharashtra and studied in a Marathi medium government school in Mhaswad. Like most children of his age in these pockets of India, his childhood too was spent climbing trees and soaking in the bounties of nature.
“We would swim lakes to catch ducks, climb trees to get the beehives, and jump into the water wells,” he recalls. And although these high-intensity activities were a regular part of his life, Prabhat says that he never realised that ‘swimming’ and ‘climbing’ qualified as sports. Rather, it was never introduced to him as an organised sport.
This holds true for most of rural India. Owing to the nature of the lifestyle, village kids grow up with a greater appetite for physical activities. Only, this population ends up being neglected and left out when it comes to being counted as serious contenders in formal sporting events. Prabhat aims to address this blind spot with his sports programme.
“The Idea of Mann Deshi Champions is to make playing sports possible for all the children, especially the girls,” he says, “Sports has the potential to give them power, confidence, self-esteem, employment, and even an opportunity to make their own decisions.”
But above all, he continues, in the rural context, sports is critical to providing employment opportunities. It enables young girls in rural India to have access to and control over their finances.
Quitting US and returning to Mhaswad – Prabhat’s journey
The story of Mann Deshi Champions is closely tied to Prabhat’s personal experiences. In the eighth grade, he got an opportunity to accompany his mother, Chetna Gala Sinha – a social activist and the founder of Mann Deshi bank and foundation – to the US, when she got selected at the Yale University as a Yale World Fellow. During that visit, Prabhat was introduced to competitive sporting.
“In the US, I realized that swimming is not just done to catch ducks but also for competition,” he says. “I began playing sports, especially basketball, and that was how I realized team sports was very crucial, and that it could give you confidence, dignity, and, more importantly, the ability to trust one another.”
Over the years, Prabhat’s relationship with sports would continue to grow. After graduating from the Georgetown University with a degree in Business and Finance of Sports, he would dabble in the sporting industry for more than five years. During that time, he worked with various brands and athletes, and helped them ink several endorsement deals.
But his heart still belonged in India.
He says, “I always thought how there were so many young Prabhats in the villages of India who were climbing trees and running barefoot. I wanted to put shoes on their feet and I hoped that every child could play sports. This would not have happened if I was in the US making dollars.”
Story of Nakusa – the unwanted child
The journey to setting up Mann Deshi Champions took flight when Prabhat visited his village in 2011.
“I was traveling in the rural areas of Maharashtra,” he shares, “when in the Patan Taluka – known for its sugarcane fields – I decided to stop by a sugarcane field in the middle of the afternoon. The temperature was around 42 degree Celsius that day and a sugarcane-cutting family of wage labourers were having their lunch. I stopped by their field when I saw a young girl, around 13-years-old, playing dodgeball in the sun.”
The girl was Nakusa – a common name in rural Maharashtra, which means “unwanted child” – and she was taking a break from sugarcane-cutting. A tedious task, which Prabhat says, required working for 8-10 hours under the sun, while staying wary of the venomous snakes that are common in sugarcane fields.
The hardships were obvious; but what was surprising was Nakusa’s happiness in the brief moment that she was running around the fields, playing with the ball made of clothes and rugs.
“She was happy and smiling when she was playing,” he says adding, “That’s when I realised that sports could give you a lot of things, but the most important among them is happiness.”
Moved by Nakusa’s story and armed with his experience in the US, Prabhat converted his farmland into a 400-metre track and launched the Mann Deshi Champions programme in 2011. He managed the initiative from the US initially before moving to India in 2016 for good.
The Olympics dream
Today, Mann Deshi Champions works with around 60 government schools and four government colleges in and around Mhaswad. The programme, which includes various fields of sports including wrestling, steeplechase, field hockey, hammer throw, relay race, marathons, and long jump, trains nearly 7,000 rural children, of which nearly 3,000 are girls.
“We also partner with schools and coaches in the US for a cross-cultural program. We had three of our athletes going to the US for Track and Field training in the Lake Braddock School, in Northern Virginia. While School Without Walls (a Public school in Washington, US) sent their athletes to visit our programme in India,” shares Prabhat.
The former sports manager adds that they have also started a separate programme under the Mann Deshi Champions umbrella, called the Youth Development centre. As part of this, the girls of Mhaswad and its neighbouring villages are provided training on personality development, soft skills, public speaking skills, physical fitness etc.
“We work with around 400 young girls in the Youth Development Centre. Out of this, 40 girls have already landed jobs in the Police force, coaching centres, banks, and other agencies,” he adds.
Prabhat’s big dream, however, is to prepare the young athletes for international competitions. While many of these girls have already represented rural Maharashtra at the national level, he wants to set the bar higher. He wants at least three athletes under the wing of Mann Deshi Champions to compete for India at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
It’s a realistic goal and a very important one, especially in the face of the current crisis. For, it is the hopes and aspirations of the future that will get us through this uncertain present.
(Text Edited by Athira Nair, Video Edited by Anjali)