Our Coronavirus Heroes

We asked all our leaders, coaches and players to nominate unsung heroes from their communities. Family and friends who were going the extra mile to make a positive impact at this time of coronavirus pandemic. Please read on to see some of the stories of these unsung heroes, keeping on and motivating us all at these difficult times. 

Ghanshyam Chhetri, Bangalore: Nominated by Coach Akash. Ghanshyam’s parents are not able to work in the current situation which has made the situation at home very difficult. Ghanshyam works everyday delivering milk to families in his neighbourhood. It’s a 4am start but it means he is able to help his family with the earnings. It also means families don’t have to break the lockdown to get this daily essential.

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Ghanshyam

Rehana Begum, Kolkata: Raunak from Wadgunj has nominated his mother as the hero of his family as she is doing a great job managing their home with hardly any money.

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Raunak with his Mum Rehana

Aniruth A, Bangalore: Nominated by his brother Vinay, Aniruth has organised the distribution of food and groceries to needy families where they live. He has also worked to spread awareness on how to stay safe during the coronavirus lockdown.

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Vinay’s brother Aniruth

Munna Singh, Kolkata: Munna was nominated by Pratap for his outstanding work in turning Decathlon swimming masks into medical protective masks. Munna designed and printed parts to convert the masks using a 3D printer. He has gone on to deliver them  himself to health workers.

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Munna and some of the masks in use

Chandra Sekhar Singh, Kolkata: Aditya from Fatehpur has nominated his father as a hero. He has supported Aditya in every situation. Aditya said, ‘Money is an issue to survive for daily needs and expenses, my father is standing strong to provide us with every essential need. He is trying his best to give us normal life even in this pandemic.’

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Aditya with his Dad Mr Singh

Soobhash Chandra: Soobash one of our senior players from Fatehpur quickly took the initiative of making masks at home. These have now been delivered across several communities in Kolkata. Soobhash has also been a critical part of our “Chain of Support” network making sure no one sleeps hungry.

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Getting ready to deliver home made masks from Crows HQ

Mr Prathap, Bangalore: Vinay has nominated his school teacher Mr Prathap who has identified several places in Bangalore where the government could not reach. He with a group of friends are helping the daily wage workers in these areas with their essential needs.

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Vinay’s teacher Mr Prathap

Mithun Hazra, Kolkata: Nominated by Paul, he is one of our young leaders. Everyday he is using the lockdown time for self improvement and motivating others to do the same. On his social media, he is putting up exercise videos and sharing his thoughts on various topics to practice his English. Through these efforts he is giving energy and inspiration to all of us.

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Mithun

Suren Oraon, Saraswatipur: Rima from Saraswatipur has nominated her father as her hero. He motivates her to play rugby and is working really hard even in the lockdown to manage his family needs.

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Suren Oraon

Sanjay and Jyoti Nag, Kolkata: Shakti from Khidderpore has nominated his parents. His father Sanjay is going out everyday and doing any work he can find to bring some money home for the family. Shakti is amazed his mother is managing the household on whatever little she is getting.

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Mr and Mrs Nag

Shanti Hela, Kolkata: Anurag from Chetla has nominated his mother as a hero specially since she manages the home all on her own. Even during this situation she is not letting Anurag get distracted from his studies, not allowing him do much household work. Anurag’s Mum is using savings and doing whatever little jobs she can find to keep the family going.

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Anurag with his mum

Mukesh Dooms, Bangalore: Nominated by Akash, Mukesh has collected small amounts of money from his family and friends and uses it to take care of 3 families in his community who cannot manage by themselves.

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Bangalore’s Mukesh

Vidya Devi, Kolkata: Sunny from Hyde Road has nominated his Grandmother (Naani Maa) as a hero. His mother is struggling to manage the finances at home but his grandmother is a huge help doing much of the household work like cooking and cleaning. Meaning his mother has less to worry about.

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Sunny and his Grandmother

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Connecting with our Scholars

Using the time of lockdown to deepen our understanding of our scholars and to see how we can better support them in the future.

By Shivanshu Singh in Kolkata, Akash Balmiki in Bangalore & Roshan Xaxa in Saraswatipur

Khelo Rugby has been under lockdown for a month now. With all outdoor activities suspended we’ve had to come up with different ways to be in touch with all our rugby crazy youngsters. Whether it is through our ‘chain of support’ to ensure everyone is safe and well, video calls with friends or rugby stars, posting exercise videos, sharing our best dance moves or just catching up on the phone our priority has been to stay connected.

We have also taken this opportunity to carry out a survey with 175 of our scholarship students – in Kolkata, Bengaluru and Saraswatipur.  We’ve used direct calls and also discovered google forms which can be operated through smart phones. The technology meant we could survey students sitting at home during lockdown. They were able to respond using their own phone or a friends.   

The idea behind conducting the survey was to take this chance to learn more about the youngsters, their family backgrounds and how their community is coping during the coronavirus pandemic. This is a situation that none of us has ever experienced or come across in life and we could see good communication was going to be important.

The survey was conducted between 5th April to 15th April.

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60% of the students said they would not be able to continue their studies if their scholarship were to stop. Every student comes from an underserved background with their parents being drivers, butchers and other daily wage jobs to run the family. 63% of students have 4-5 members in their family living in a single room house. 95% of respondents said their families were supportive of them playing rugby. Many felt the scholarship was important as it convinced the family to let them keep studying. 72% of our scholarship students are first generation school goers from their families. When asked about what they want to do after they complete their education, the most common answers were Fitness Trainer, Sports Manager, to join the Police or Army and Hotel Manager. 

For 13 of the students responding their Class 12 exams have been postponed without completion, a particular worry. 86% of parents can no longer go for their regular jobs which for most means they are not paid. 60% of families are getting a food ration from the local municipality through a club or counsellor, the other 40% are using their savings to manage. In all cases the families said that they would face difficulty if supplies were stopped or once savings run out. 

“There are a total of 8 members staying in my single room house. I usually go to my friends factory to sleep at night. My father who works at a butcher shop is not getting much business. My mother is using our savings to run the family.” Khelo Coach Ashfaque. 

Though the lockdown has created many problems for everyone it has also brought a slight happiness to some of our youngsters as they are getting time to spend with their family. Normally this is not possible as parents had jobs with long hours and few if any holiday time.  Most days for our Kolkata children are spent helping their mothers in the kitchen, studying when they can, doing online classes & video conferences, with social media and games a regular distraction.

Bangalore

Survey with 42 young leaders, 68% of whom are first generation senior students from their family. 45% of the students have 5-6 members in their family and 55% live in a single room house. 100% said their parents support them playing rugby. Many also play kabaddi and kho kho apart from rugby. Seventeen are Decathlon trainees and most want to study beyond class 12 and work part time to support themselves and their family. All talked about taking one step at a time and wanting to finish their graduation. They would then think about their career choices depending on their marks and interest areas – though jobs in sports and fitness were mentioned as preferences. Karnataka is strictly following the lockdown, in 78% of the families parents are not able to go to their regular jobs. Respondents are spending time with their family, watching television, using social media and doing self studies to try and keep up with the school syllabus.

Saraswatipur

We had 35 of our scholarship students go through the survey from Saraswatipur. For 90% of children the main source of income for their family comes from working in the tea gardens. 45% of the young leaders who took the survey had 6 members living in a two room house mainly made out of wood, paddy straws and tin sheets. All of the students are a first generation school student and wants to do well in education and rugby. When asked about their interests 95% wanted to be better at or learn English and basic computer work. All 35 have 100% support of their family to play rugby and feel they are role models for more hundreds of children who train under them. At the moment none of the family members are able to work as the tea garden is closed and anyone entering the village from outside is sent away to the local hospital for a check-up. 92% of families are getting a ration to support themselves from the church, forest department or local politicians. They have all helped in distributing the ration for the village.

Everyone is focusing on their fitness and helping parents in their household work.  Lots are involved in cooking and working on the fields to help with growing vegetables. Fishing is also possible as the river is near by and parents are happy if a good catch of fish comes home. This family time is welcome as children and parents don’t always get much time together in the day. The tea garden has now partially opened and some family members have started going to their  jobs. Rugby training stays closed keeping the safety of children in mind. 

Conclusions

Using this time to better understand our scholarship children and the challenges they face was very useful. We see these children all the time but normally we are racing to a practice or thinking about an urgent problem. For all three of us, this was a good chance to step back and think much more about each youngsters situation. We know this will help us as we work with the children in the future.

It was nice to see that though the scholars come from different states and have many tough problems day to day, they all share a love for rugby which they are missing very much. When asked about how badly they miss playing, everyone had the same answer, that they cannot wait to get on the field once the lockdown is lifted. 

Ada Milby, the first female member of the World Rugby Council, “Sport helps to connect people and communities through the creation of heroes.”

All these young people are our heroes.

It’s about rugby, but it’s more about opportunity

The Jungle Crows are building a Youth Centre in the village of Saraswatipur where they have been playing rugby for five years now. While the rugby is really important to the Crows and all the 100s of children who play in the villages, education is more important.

by Thomas Pothet

The Jungle Crows Foundation promotes education through rugby in Kolkata but also in diverse places in West Bengal like Saraswastipur where there is a rugby ground surrounded by tea gardens and forest. On this field, rugby training and tournaments are organised under the management of Coach Roshan and the older players, Khelo Rugby’s Young Leaders.

In contrast to Kolkata where children do have access to some facilities, the children living in Baikunthapur Forest do not have much of an opportunity at all. No safe place to meet up or study other than clearings in the forest. Development is coming but it is slow.

In Kolkata the Jungle Crows have partnered with the American Centre for English and development training as a part of the ACCESS project, they can go and use the library. In the Crows HQ there is a small hostel where scholarship students can stay, the gym is well equipped and meeting rooms make this a focal centre for so many activities. The Crows also host a ‘Speak Fit’ centre which trains up young men and women keen to get into the fitness industry. During my time in Kolkata I enjoyed meeting and interacting with so many different groups of youngsters, all of them just like me, looking to continue their education, planning how to start a career, passionate about their sport, wanting to learn.

Such opportunities just don’t exist in Baikunthapur, where the forest and the Saraswatipur tea garden dominates life. The tea gardens look beautiful with views to Kangchenjunga, manicured tea bushes stretching as far as the eye can see and neatly surrounded by the amazing Sal trees of the Baikunthapur Forest. But there is poverty and danger as well, I was drawn recently to this description of life in the tea gardens by National Geographic explorer Paul Salopek, where he describes the gardens, “like strolling into a deer park” but one kept going on “poverty wages.”

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Kangchenjunga viewed from the Baikunthapur Forest

While rugby is at the heart and a fundamental part of what the Jungle Crows do while I was with them I could observe that their true DNA is about opportunity and a big part of that is education. And this is a struggle for young people growing up in Saraswatipur, where the draw of working in the tea garden is strong, where going to school can be harder work.

This is where the community centre is intended to make a difference. Construction is in full swing and is being well supported by the village and specially by the children who are excited to see it going up and looking forward to the change it can bring to their lives.

The construction of the centre is necessary for the Jungle Crows to pursue their mission within Baikunthapur Forest and to deliver the dreams and ambitions of the children. With such a centre, players will have access to a gym, proper toilets, rest rooms, and of course class rooms.

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Centre construction in full swing

All the children in the Jungle Crows learn about the values of the game – integrity, passion, solidarity, discipline and respect. It is key to be able to translate these values into the children’s everyday lives. The centre in Saraswatipur will be a focus for this. Taking what is learnt on the field to support learning in the class room. I was lucky to see first hand the incredible passion the children have for their rugby. They have learned about how important it is to be passionate about something, about how discipline can win the game, commitment and hard work are keys for success. It is now time for them to use those principles outside the rugby field, for educational purposes and to develop the seeds that Jungle Crows planted in them through rugby.

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Passionate about their rugby

Besides their rugby one of the main issues in the villages is that the children don’t have any other activities available to them. They end up giving up on school and going to work in the tea gardens at a very young age. There is no support for education and even the transport provided by the tea gardens is stopped from class 8 when a child needs support most. In these circumstances youngsters often see taking up a job on less than two euros a day as a better option.

The Crows finance scholarships and provide cycles to make it easier for the kids to reach their schools and reach educational targets. It is important children don’t give up. The centre will be another part of this, an attempt to break the cycle that keeps swathes of the village in poor circumstances. The children themselves know that they want to have a different purpose in life, different from the one their parents had and to avoid the same social disadvantages. The aim is to enlighten their daily life and future.

The centre is still in construction but soon these passionate kids will be able to be diligent in their class rooms to improve themselves and work hard for their future.

Give them the right tools and the amazing children of Saraswatipur will move mountains.

You can support the building of the Saraswatipur Youth Centre by making a donation here!

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www.junglecrows.net

Tiger v Leopards – the Spirit of Rugby

Under dark monsoon skies in Kolkata the India Women’s rugby team demonstrate incredible sporting spirit.

By Paul Walsh

India’s rugby community has a pounding heart in Kolkata where senior Men’s and Women’s teams play for the Calcutta Cup, hundreds of children fly around the Maidan and the monsoon especially means rugby season. Sticky muddy fields may not be ideal for the game but it does mean cricket is off the agenda for a short time at least. 

As a sport rugby is said to have a unique spirit. Most players know there are a set of values by which rugby is played and governed. It is not always easy to separate one sport from another in terms of what can be a hard to define spirit. Most sports participants try their best, follow the rules, at the highest levels finding a winning angle can cross the boundaries of fair play but most players don’t look for this. 

And then an event comes along that makes you realise that whether it is rugby or any sport there is a terrific sporting spirit in the heart of every athlete. 

The context of my own interest in the Spirit of Rugby is through the social development programme of the Jungle Crows, the rugby club I helped found 15 years ago in Kolkata. For 3 years now our Khelo Rugby has been a part of World Rugby’s Spirit of Rugby programme. The Spirit of Rugby recognises a select number of projects around the world and supports them from World Rugby HQ in Dublin. Khelo Rugby is so far the only project representing Asia and we’re proud to have been shown such faith.

One of Kolkata’s showcase rugby tournaments is the “Georgiadi Rugby 7s” hosted each year by the prestigious Calcutta Cricket and Football Club (CCFC). Rugby has been played in Kolkata since 1872 and the Football in CCFC actually refers to the oval shaped ball rather than the round ball.

The Georgiadi Cup is named after a Greek of the same name who was the custodian of the CCFC grounds for many years, a stalwart of the club from another generation honoured with the Cup being named after him. This year saw 20 Men’s teams and 8 Women’s teams entered into the competition, which kicked off at 9am on a bright Saturday morning in July.

Rugby 7s is an abbreviated form of the full 15 player game, played over two halves of 7 minutes with only 7 players on a full size pitch. Lots of space, this is a game for speedsters, while retaining the full contact nature of the game it suits strong fast players with plenty of stamina. A team may play 3 or 4 games in a day so a quick recovery is needed to maintain the pace and keep up a winning streak.

This year the tournament was excited to welcome the senior India Men’s and Women’s teams. They had been in a camp in Bhubaneswar preparing for the upcoming Asia 7s to be played in Jakarta. The Georgiadi would provide the ideal match conditions to test the two squads. The South Africa Coaches in charge of the India teams were excited for the games ahead.

Both the Men’s and Women’s India teams got away to winning starts, pretty much as you’d expect, cantering through the opposition on day one. Day two saw all the teams re-ranked based on their performances on day one. This meant the two Men’s teams entered, India A and B, would face each other in a semi final. As a courtesy to the teams and to prevent their two teams going at each other the coaches decided to withdraw the India Men’s teams leaving the field clear for a local club to take the title. The final would be contested between two local Kolkata clubs, our own Jungle Crows and hosts CCFC. In the lead up to the final the monsoon skies turned dark and what had been a light Kolkata monsoon for one afternoon at least turned into a flood. The rugby carried on, the ground cut up, players turned muddy and the advantage of small flighty players became less as the wrestling contest in the mud increased in importance. In the Men’s final the Jungle Crows ran out 17-0 winners, a close fought contest with both teams muddy, bruised and congratulating each other at the end.

The Women’s final was scheduled as the last match of the day, this would see the India team take on a team made up of young players from a group of villages near Siliguri in the North of West Bengal, part of our Khelo Rugby programme. It was great to see them in the final. The team was named after their village and the most common big cat, the Saraswatipur Leopards.  What was about to happen stunned the crowd and eventually saw a show of sporting spirit most found hard to describe. 

The final kicked off under lights, the field was muddy but the rain had stopped. The India team was made up from the best players in the country, from Maharastra, Delhi and Odisha, even a Leopard was in the squad. Saraswatipur were immediately on the attack and the opening minutes saw a break in the India defence, the Leopards Swapna sprinted 70 meters to score the first try under the posts which she also converted, 7-0 to the Leopards. The crowd went a little crazy, those not paying too much attention to the game were suddenly fully focussed. Was the most incredible upset on the cards?

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Half time team talk for the Leopards

Half time and the Leopards led 7-0. The pair of South African Coaches looked calm but they must have been thinking what the consequences would be of the national team losing to what on the face of it were a bunch of kids from a village. Albeit the rugby crazy village of Saraswatipur, these were girls who had played a lot of rugby, won tournaments, led by the their canny coach Roshan.

The second half saw the India team intensify the pressure, they kept the ball well and started to attack using their superior size on the smaller Saraswatipur team. The India Tigers were showing their class. With just minutes left the Tigers scored in the corner, with no conversion the score was 7-5, the Leopards still ahead of the Tigers.

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India star Neha attacks

With time almost up, India had the ball in the Saraswatipur corner, could the girls from the tea estate hold on? A long blast from the referees whistle, some of the supporters thought it was over but this was a penalty for India. Time was up, but the penalty would be taken. India piled in, the corner was dark under the lights, the players muddy but no doubting the next signal and whistle from the referee – try to India. A crushing 10-7 loss for the Leopards who trooped back to their Coach crestfallen, they’d held out for almost the entire game, but a famous win wasn’t to be. Applause rang out for both teams, and nobody doubted the commitment either team of Women had shown.

The biggest sporting gesture was yet to come. The India team were called up to take their winning medals and receive the trophy. India Captain Vahbiz had different ideas, took over the microphone and proceedings. Grabbing a handful of medals she started to distribute them to the India players while at the same time calling up the Leopards. This was a medal ceremony the like of which none of the crowd gathered under the dark monsoon sky had ever seen. Each of the India players took their medal, and hung it around the neck of a Leopard. With a big hug and a smile each player in turn recognised their opponent. 

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All smiles – Tigers & Leopards

Time for the trophy and Vahbiz wasn’t interested in lifting it for the plaudits, this was for the Leopards. The girls lined up together all smiles, the three coaches joined them – two from South Africa and one from India. This was something very special. A terrifically competitive game had ended in a final play win, that had been exciting, but the actions of the India team lifted the drama to a different level. This was a great sporting moment, not between highly paid superstars but amongst hardworking committed rugby players, who’s passion for their game see them sacrifice and sweat just to get the chance to play. Two remarkable teams of Women had shown that rugby really is a beautiful game and demonstrated what the spirit of the game is all about.

Find out more from our website!

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Khelo Rugby Family: Crows & Leopards

Right to Play – Jharkhand

It’s been 3 months since we started Khelo Rugby in Jharkhand full-time. We’ve 100s of children playing, have held a super tournament and are working with the children to consider their own lives and futures.

Contributions from Chotu, Shivanshu & Paul

On 6 April 2019 we held our second rugby tournament in the rural Jharkhand block of Jarmundi about 100km north of the city of Asansol. This is a flat landscape dotted with small hills rising out of the red earth. Life is clearly tough in the small villages that dot the countryside, for many access to electricity is at best patchy and for most water needs to be drawn each day from wells.

We were invited to Jharkhand by Terres Des Hommes the international NGO who have been working in this area for many years delivering rights based projects along with the locally based NGO Sarita. After working with TDH in Kolkata they selected the Jungle Crows and our Khelo Rugby project as a good fit to support their work in Jharkhand.

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Following a short trial at the end of 2018 where we tested out the children’s appetite for rugby, by January we we had the green light to begin full-time. We packed the car full of rugby gear, crammed in several coaches and with a lot of laughter and nearly ten hours on the road the set up team was in Jharkhand and the odd shaped ball was flying.

Once everyone’s initial excitement was over a small team of Chotu, Kishan and Karan stayed on and were soon busy zipping around on their cycles running practice for 100s of children. We’re been based in the small village of Haripur, just off the main highway and though electric is not always available and the well is deep the boys soon developed a routine. Reports of coaching in Jamatad, Simra, Daldali and Jeevan Joti were soon cluttering up the whatsapp.

The tournament was electric with special guests from Kolkata and a small audience of curious and enthusiastic villagers. Over 200 children were crammed into small school buses to reach the venue and for most this was the first time they’d played with children from neighbouring villages and in teams containing both boys and girls. The standard of rugby was a credit to the coaching team, with the standout performances coming from the under 10 boys and girls. It was interesting to note these weren’t children who spun into whirling easy celebrations, they remained reserved even when they’d played tremendously and won silverware. Winning, losing and playing in such an organised way with a team of friends was perhaps something they’d not experienced too much.

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Our project with TDH is about the right to play and we have taken a steady approach in our work with the children in Jarmundi. Like Khelo Rugby everywhere it is important to develop a trusting relationship with the children and their communities. We best do this with regular practice and giving children the chance to play in a safe and controlled environment. With a light touch we want to understand the children and encourage them to talk about their lives.

Following the tournament Chotu set up a small training programme for some of the older children where they were given the chance to work on skills around team work and leadership. A gentle introduction, just small steps in these children’s journey to become leaders and role models themselves. Much more about instilling confidence in these super young people.

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Khelo Rugby is all about equipping young people with skills and experience, with rugby as a motivating catalyst to achieve this. Having seen the smiles and enthusiasm of tournament day the entire team is excited by the journey that is just beginning.

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Our Girls Day: from Try to Triumph

By Rwitoban Deb, Journalist and Sports Enthusiast

My search for the Kolkata Port Trust field in Taratala last Sunday ended with spotting a bunch of young women armed with caps, whistles, pens and clipboards strutting about with carefree confidence, commanding military-like discipline from a few hundred younger girls.

No, these weren’t seasoned teachers out on a school picnic. This was the under-14 Khelo Rugby tournament – of, by and for girls – to celebrate the UN International Day of the Girl Child on October 11.

The second edition of the tournament saw more than 250 girls from 16 deprived communities congregate from all corners of Kolkata to put the scorching sun to shame with infectious spirit and unwavering enthusiasm.

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“The best thing about this tournament is that it’s been organised by the older girls for the younger ones. The seniors are now coaching the young ones, managing people, making sure the teams follow the rules… these are all valuable life lessons,” said Bruce Bucknell, British Deputy High Commissioner. The British Deputy High Commission was one of the supporters of the event and has been working towards girl empowerment across India.

A group of 50+ young women ranging from the age of 16 to 19, who have now graduated to community leaders, were tasked with organising the tournament. They had meetings before the tournament to divide up the responsibilities, from setting up the tent to organising food for all the players. This really was “A Skilled Girl Force” the 2018 theme of International Girls Day live and in action.

“Jungle Crows started off as a fascination for a few chubby, middle-aged guys but it’s amazing to see how many young women have got involved, it’s really the Spirit of Rugby live and in action!” exclaimed Shaun Kenworthy, chef and Jungle Crows supporter.

Artist and fashion leader Pinky couldn’t recall seeing this many girls play a sport in the city together. “It’s a spectacular sight watching so many girls enjoying themselves and cheering each other on. They all come from underprivileged backgrounds and many don’t even have shoes, but that’s not dampening their spirits one bit!”

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The 16 teams were divided into four groups with the winners of each going on to play for the Cup, the second-placed teams for the Plate and the third-placed teams for the Bowl. The contest ended with Hide Road beating KPT Colony 12-7 in the Cup final, while Jainkunj won the Plate and Sukanta Nagar lifted the Bowl.

Winners and losers though, were only restricted to the scoreboard. There wasn’t a single glum face or any sense of disappointment because most of these girls have fought and won a bigger battle within their family, their neighbourhood and their society, just so that they could even be on the field. The pure rush of adrenaline, the raw emotion and unadulterated joy of playing a sport had been alien to them.

“Only boys were allowed to play and girls weren’t even allowed to talk to them in my neighbourhood,” complained Kanika Mondal, one of the leaders of Salt Lake Dhapa, which was echoed by many around her. And now? “Most boys are terrified of them! Boys leave the field for them or play together with the girls,” laughed Sukumar Hembrom, a senior Jungle Crows men’s player, as he looked on from the sideline.

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The conversation was brought to an abrupt pause as a 10-year-old limped into the tent with a cut on her leg requiring medical assistance. Although visibly in pain and discomfort, she kept calm. While it might have seen many a grown man shed a tear or grimace in pain, this little girl just put on a band-aid and dashed back to the field in seconds. In case one missed the ‘#GirlPower’ on the back of their jerseys, this was it.

Rugby hasn’t just made these girls physically strong, but also mentally tougher. They are now vocal, assertive and unwilling to let patriarchy dictate the Do and Don’t of life.

“I’ve become more confident ever since I started playing rugby. A few years ago, I wasn’t even allowed to leave the house but now I take my own decisions at home. I convinced my parents to let me study commerce in school,” said Siya Shaw, one of the organisers-in-chief.

Ishma Taj too had to grapple with her family before she could do the same to her opponents. “I loved playing everything from badminton to hockey, before Zaffar (Khan of Jungle Crows) introduced me to rugby. But my relatives didn’t like me playing and my parents soon barred me from going out. It took a lot of effort to convince them that since boys and girls come from the same place there’s no reason to treat them differently,” said Ishma, 19, who now coaches 50 girls in Brooklyn, Garden Reach and wants to play rugby for India.

“When we started working in these communities, the biggest deterrent was the families of the girls. Through years of communication, we’ve finally managed to gain their trust. Now, with the senior girls taking up active responsibility of mobilising and training younger girls it’s become slightly easier but there are still plenty of other challenges we need to overcome,” said Harinder Singh, Jungle Crows manager and one of the few men seen motivating the girls from the sidelines.

Till only the other day, they were made to believe that their sole purpose of existence was to get married and raise children. Now, rugby has given these girls a sense of identity, a dare to dream. They’ve seen their seniors play for India and conquer the world. They’ve realised the world is much bigger than they ever imagined it to be, or were allowed to.  They will not settle for nothing. They’ve been in the shadows for far too long. This is their time to shine.

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More Than Just A Try

The empowering change a game can have on a community.

by Ramona Sen, Author and Journalist

The girls from Saraswatipur are disappointed that they couldn’t participate in the Asian Games, the most high-profile tournament for the Indian rugby women’s team. Their hopes were soaring when the team was approved for the preparatory camp and cruelly dashed when the Indian Olympic Association decided to leave rugby out of the final Indian contingent.

“Some of our friends from the other states even left their jobs to come practise for this,” said Swapna Oraon, one of the first from her tiny tea-garden hometown in North Bengal to have taken to rugby.

Her disappointment is understandable. Swapna, Sandhya and many other young girls in Saraswatipur have been given a new lease of life after they discovered rugby. These are girls whose lives had been mapped out since they were tiny tots – scrape through class 10 and get married as soon as possible. Now, with the advent of rugby, marriage is no longer a matter of compulsion; they have the luxury of choice.

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Sandhya and Swapna: disappointed with the Asian Games decision but determined to keep playing

Rugby has put Saraswatipur on the map. “Our village is in the middle of the woods, no one knew it existed. But now we have out-station visitors and many people come to watch us play,” said Sandhya Rai, who attends George College in Sealdah, central Kolkata. She likes the big city, in spite of the serenity she has been used to. “Transport is available so easily in Kolkata. In Saraswatipur, we used to travel a long way to go anywhere and if we didn’t find transport, we would have to cancel plans.”

The game has made the village more cosmopolitan than it could have ever imagined being. Now its young girls wear shorts and dash about a field, like boys, driving the boys to the sidelines. Not that it was a smooth transition from playing doll to playing ball. “My uncle used to constantly tell my mother it was obscene of me to be seen with bare legs. But she’d always tell him to mind his own business,” said Sandhya. The censure isn’t limited only to the older generation, unused to seeing their womenfolk scampering about a sporting field. “Girls my age are married and raising children. They never took to rugby, or they tried and couldn’t play, and now they’re jealous and talk about us behind our backs,” said Sandhya, who is 17.

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Sandhya in action for West Bengal

Do the globe-trotting rugby girls, back from Paris and Singapore, assume that marriage and babies is not for them? Not at all. They like the idea of a boyfriend, preferably an athlete himself, someone who will understand equality. They face no discrimination on the field and don’t think they can ever settle for it in their inter-personal relationships. This, if anything, is the biggest change the game has brought about. For the first time, girls from Saraswatipur can dream of equality. “My husband should never be able to throw his money in my face and tell me I’m dependent on him forever,” articulates Sandhya, firmly. She understands the need to have the wherewithal to make her own life as well as inspire younger girls in the village to follow this not-so-beaten path.

Perhaps there really is something about sport that lends clarity of thought. The girls have learnt to be optimistic but practical about the life that lies before them. Though they’ve grasped an opportunity with all the doggedness of a forward, they see the struggles awaiting them – of having pinned their life’s ambitions on a game that might receive rejection from governing bodies, of making their peace with defeat at international tournaments “because the other team was bigger and stronger”. And through it all is the will to live a life that makes a difference.

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Swapna breaks through for West Bengal

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