Nicola and I recently came back from India where we were conducting research connected to place-keeping, looking at how green and open spaces have changed over time in the rapidly urbanising city of Ahmedabad, in Gujarat.
In true Indian networking style, I got talking to Jamshed Chinoy via another contact, and found out that he was the founder of Saamarthya Foundation, the organisation responsible for creating the Sharpshooters Football Academy. This chance encounter led to conversations about the work that Jamshed and others were doing with young football-mad slum-dwellers, and to us spending a sunny Wednesday morning in the Gulbai Tekra area of the city, at the Father Donald Dias Football Tournament at St Xavier’s College where the Sharpshooters were competing.
Saamarthya Foundation is a registered charitable trust established in 2008. Their mission (see the website) is for a healthy, educated and cultured India, free of prejudices related to religion, community, class, caste or creed. The Sharpshooters Academy is one of the Foundation’s many activities. They also sponsor slum-dwelling children through education programmes. Through football and other forms of exercise/sport including classical dance (Jamshed’s wife and Foundation co-founder, Richa, is a professional dancer) the organisation seeks to improve young slum dwellers’ levels of health and education. Most kids in the team will leave school at 14-15 due to the pressures to bring in income for the family.
Many of the academy youngsters come from the Gulbai Tekra ‘Hollywood’ Basti (or slum), home to about 7,000 people. The slum is famous for its colour, the individual ‘Hollywood style’ of residents and idol making community who create religious idols for festival time.
We met Rama Makawana, one of the the Sharpshooters players who in 2013 represented India at the Homeless World Cup in Poland. Rama is an auto-rickshaw driver who joins with many other Hollywood residents in idol making for 4-5 months of the year. Rama is also an unpaid mentor for the academy and leads one of two daily practice sessions with players on any space they can find.
Nicola and I were struck by the Sharpshooters’ struggles to find somewhere to regularly practice their football. There is no open space in the slums where many of the players live, and unfortunately Ahmedabad’s parks do not allow this kind of recreational use. Despite the large swathes of space that we came across around the city, a lot of it is designated for urban development. The land owner (e.g. Ahmedabad Municipal Authority or private developer) will simply not allow access, even though such spaces can sit empty for years. The Foundation has approached some of Ahmedabad’s largest institutions with suitable space within their grounds for playing sports, but they won’t allow them access. This means that when Sharpshooters start using an empty space, within a couple of days, they are invariably moved on with the instruction you can’t use this space with no real reason given.
Later that day, we joined Rama and about 30 other members of the squad at their afternoon practice at a large events space a few miles from the Hollywood slum. The team practises twice a day, led by a mentor and an unpaid older member of the squad. The site is a huge piece of bare ground that they currently share with people playing cricket, resident families and construction workers setting up an exhibition site. The team have to clear the space of litter before they can start playing, and use the cones and training kit provided by the Foundation, knowing that they may be asked to move on at any point. Meanwhile just down the road there are a number of private pitches not being used…
At present, Jamshed is in discussions with a local landowner to rent a football ground on a 3-year lease, but it could fall through if an urban developer targets the site. Through fundraising and some keen negotiating, the Foundation hopes to be able to pay for half the costs to make the site usable and rentable for a range of sports groups. They hope that with a ground to call their own, they’ll be able to offer even better opportunities to their players.
It was fantastic to see the players’ fun and enjoyment playing football, and the positive experiences they get from being part of a team sport. It was inspiring to meet Jamshed who is so committed to giving opportunities to those who have none. But the planning system is failing Amdavadi residents who want to play sport and can’t afford to do it in private clubs. The political rhetoric is all about publicly accessible space for all residents, but two of the city’s high-profile parks have entry fees, and ball games are not allowed in most green spaces!! Talk about mixed messages…
Thanks to Jamshed, Rama and all the Sharpshooters players for making us feel so welcome. For more information about the Foundation visit: http://www.saamarthyafoundation.com/