How Mumbai's civic schools landed a goal

Updated: Oct 15, 2019, 13:15 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

How did the 13-year-old daughter of a taxi driver from Sewree slum get to London to train in youth football? Mumbai's BMC schools are producing district-level champions, thrashing premium school teams in football, boxing and basketball

Akurli Hindi School in Kandivli East has produced national boxing star Bhavesh Kattimani. The school doesn't have a ground, which means football, basketball and cricket aren't an option. It's in just one classroom that the kids train to attack and defend punches supervised by sports teacher Nilesh Churi. Pic/Atul Kamble
Akurli Hindi School in Kandivli East has produced national boxing star Bhavesh Kattimani. The school doesn't have a ground, which means football, basketball and cricket aren't an option. It's in just one classroom that the kids train to attack and defend punches supervised by sports teacher Nilesh Churi. Pic/Atul Kamble

At Machhimar Nagar in Cuffe Parade, residents wake up before the sun comes out. By 5 am, men bundle their nets, dragging their boats into the sea, while women replenish their baskets and leave for Colaba's Sassoon Docks. Fish is livelihood here.

But, not for Jagdeep Dattaram Dhanu, 37, who lives with his mother, a fisherwoman, in one of the many shanties that dots the enclave. Instead of accompanying his friends to the boats, he heads early to the grounds at Campion School, Fort. Dhanu has been an assistant football coach here since 2012, after he was spotted by head coach Wilfred Alex Alva. It assures him a monthly pay cheque, part of which he now uses to support his passion project: to build a competitive football team at the Colaba Municipal Secondary School in Azad Nagar.

Jagdeep Dhanu, football coach, Colaba Municipal School
Jagdeep Dhanu, football coach, Colaba Municipal School

Last month, on September 24, when his boys beat Campion in the U-16 Mumbai School Sports Association (MSSA) Knockout tournament at Cooperage Ground, the feeling was bittersweet. "We owe our success to Campion," said Dhanu, "They helped me fulfill my dream." It was in 2011 that Colaba Municipal School made its debut at the inter-school football tournament.

Since then, the players, many from the slums of Badhwar Park and Ambedkar Nagar, have outperformed themselves. The team had their best run in the third division of the MSSA tournament early this August—they won all their league matches against St Xavier's High School (Bhandup), Campion School 'B' (Cooperage), Bombay Scottish 'B' (Mahim) and Hill Spring

Boys from the U-16 team of Pahadi MPS in Goregaon East at a DSO tournament in September. Pic/Ashish Raje
Boys from the U-16 team of Pahadi MPS in Goregaon East at a DSO tournament in September. Pic/Ashish Raje

International School (Tardeo), to qualify for the semi-finals against Powai's Hiranandani Foundation School. While they didn't make it to the finals, they are now a team to reckon with. Colaba Municipal School is not alone. Several BMC-run schools have been clinching top awards at the inter-school basketball tournaments.

Last week, at the end of the District Sports Office (DSO) tournament, girls from Pahadi MPS School in Goregaon East stood third in the U-14 and U-17 categories, while Pantnagar BMC School from Ghatkopar came second (U-14) and Vile Parle's Dixit Road School's U-17 boys bagged first place.

The U-16 football team of Colaba Municipal Secondary School celebrate after beating Campion School at the Mumbai School Sports Association (MSSA) Knockout tournament, Cooperage Ground, on September 24. Pic/Suresh Karkera
The U-16 football team of Colaba Municipal Secondary School celebrate after beating Campion School at the Mumbai School Sports Association (MSSA) Knockout tournament, Cooperage Ground, on September 24. Pic/Suresh Karkera

A decade ago, representation of civic schools in sports was restricted to local favourites like kabaddi, sprinting and wrestling. "We are no longer the underdogs," says Rameshwar P Lohe, senior supervisor and physical instructor, BMC. On October 2, 13-year-old Aditi Pandire of Educo Sai Baba Path Municipal Public School, Parel, packed her bags to leave for London. "She is the first in our family, to travel abroad," says an emotional Milind Pandire, her taxi driver father.

Aditi and Sagar Rathod of Colaba Municipal Upper Primary English School, are among four students shortlisted from 6,500 young footballers from South Mumbai, to train at the London-based Queens Park Rangers Football Club's youth academy for two weeks. The kids were selected as part of the QPR-South Mumbai Junior Soccer Challenge, an initiative organised by Sanjiv Saran of Saran Sports, and supported by politician Milind Deora.

Rameshwar P Lohe, senior supervisor and physical instructor, BMC
Rameshwar P Lohe, senior supervisor and physical instructor, BMC

Aditi's sports journey began barely two years ago, when she was first introduced to the game by coach Chhagan M Chauhan. "I did not know what a football looked like," says Aditi, who until then trained in martial arts. Chauhan was hired by NGO Educo India in 2016, to prepare the students within six months, for an amateur Junior Football Kids (JFK) league. He, however, had bigger plans. "I realised these kids had the potential to play at the state and national level. Six months weren't enough to make star players," he says. Chauhan, who coaches at PIFA Sports FC, then requested Educo to allow him to continue to work with the students for free. He only started earning a stipend last month.

What was Chauhan's motivation? "Municipal school kids are treated like dust bins," he says. "Nobody takes them seriously. There is a lot of prejudice, too, on the field. I have seen parents associated with international and private schools ask coaches to ensure their sports kits are kept away from ours. They fear we will steal. I come from a poor home, but sports gave me a step ahead. I want the same for these children."

Table tennis coach Govind Ghadi trains six and seven-year-olds at Nityanand Marg English MPS School in Andheri East. Pic/Nimesh Dave
Table tennis coach Govind Ghadi trains six and seven-year-olds at Nityanand Marg English MPS School in Andheri East. Pic/Nimesh Dave

The Pandires live in a one-room tenement in a Sewree slum. Aditi is the second of four children; the youngest son turned one recently. "When she joined the school two years ago, she told me about Chauhan sir. I have never stopped my daughters, but honestly, I didn't have that kind of money.

My wife, Alisha, is a housewife. I have five mouths to feed, and with the taxi, there's no fixed salary coming home. Today there is money, tomorrow there may not be," admits Milind. After seeing Aditi play, Chauhan paid a visit to her home to assure the couple that he'd look after their girl. "In all these years, we haven't invested a rupee in the game. Thanks to Chauhan sir."

Mahesh Palkar, BMC education officer
Mahesh Palkar, BMC education officer

Chauhan isn't only behind Aditi, but also 14-year-old Priyanka Kanojia, who in August scored two goals, ensuring a clean 3-0 win for Educo Sai Baba Path School against Juhu's Jamnabai Narsee in the girls' U-16 second division match of the MSSA tournament. Together with Dhanu's boys, Chauhan's girls are now giving schools across the city, a run for their money. Aditi also recently qualified to play at the district level from Gujarat.

The day we meet Dhanu's U-16 team at Colaba Municipal School, the boys are getting ready to leave for a match in Naigaon against Matunga's Don Bosco High School. Since the coach has insisted that they "eat well", one of the boys dropped in at a friend's place by 9.30 am, and devoured an early lunch of rice and dal, because there was "no food at home".

Colaba Municipal School football coach Jagdeep Dattaram Dhanu, 37, with his mother at their Macchimar Nagar home. Pic/Atul Kamble
Colaba Municipal School football coach Jagdeep Dattaram Dhanu, 37, with his mother at their Macchimar Nagar home. Pic/Atul Kamble

"Mummy kaam ke liye jaldi nikalti hai," the 13-year-old says of his house help mother. "Nutrition is a major problem," says Dhanu, an alumnus of the same school. "Most of their parents work as labourers, taxi drivers or fisherfolk, and can't afford two square meals. There have been occasions when the boys have been on the field the entire day, without a morsel. I get them a vada pav or banana. You might wonder where they get the energy to play. They survive on determination. Height unki kam hai, magar fight bahut hai."

Nilesh Churi, sports teacher and boxing coach, at Akurli Hindi School, Kandivli East, who has fought the odds to make champions, shares a similar concern. "In boxing, kids need to train hard and have an equally good diet to supplement the rigorous workout I put them through." Churi trains the children two to three times a week, for two hours, out of a small classroom within the school.

Boxing coach and sports teacher Nilesh Churi shows off the medals won by the students of Akurli Hindi School, Kandivli East, at inter-school tournaments. Pic/Atul Kamble
Boxing coach and sports teacher Nilesh Churi shows off the medals won by the students of Akurli Hindi School, Kandivli East, at inter-school tournaments. Pic/Atul Kamble

"They are supposed to have protein shake, banana and eggs daily, but I can't afford it. Neither can their parents." Even so, Churi is the man behind national star Bhavesh Kattimani, the 23-year-old World Youth Boxing bronze medallist boxer, who enrolled at the Army Sports Institute (ASI), Pune, in 2016, after a successful stint at the municipal school. Last week, Churi's boys and girls won two gold medals, and four silver and broze medals each at the DSO event.

The afternoon din of young footballers running amok at the ground of Educo Sai Baba Path Municipal School falls silent when coach Chauhan shares the good news: He has got them a goal post. As Chauhan's assistant Tushar assembles it, the children immediately huddle around the post, almost as if they are hugging it, till they are asked to disperse. It's an emotional moment for the players and their coach. It's the first time in three years that the children will be able to practise striking goals in a net they can call their own.

Chhagan M Chauhan. Pic/Atul Kamble
Chhagan M Chauhan. Pic/Atul Kamble

Chauhan has rented the goal post, worth Rs 12,000, from a friend. "Look at their excitement!" he smiles, tearing up. Even though the school has a ground, it is overrun by bushes, restricting the play area to a small chunk. The jerseys and shoes are usually given by the NGO supporting the school, or procured by Chauhan, who has had to do begging and borrowing to ensure everyone looks ready for the game. "My kids feel inferior when they play against the big schools.

They can't speak English or own expensive studs." Chauhan spends around Rs 10,000 every month on the players from the money he makes at PIFA and through private coaching. A good pair of studs cost anywhere between Rs 8,000 and Rs 10,000. Jay Rathod, the 14-year-old captain of Colaba Municipal School, shows us an oversized stud.

Aditi Pandire has been selected among 6,500 young footballers from South Mumbai, to train at the London-based Queens Park Rangers Football Club's youth academy for two weeks. Pic/Atul Kamble
Aditi Pandire has been selected among 6,500 young footballers from South Mumbai, to train at the London-based Queens Park Rangers Football Club's youth academy for two weeks. Pic/Atul Kamble

"I borrowed it from a friend," he admits. "Sometimes, the ill-fitting shoe flies along with the football. We've been warned by the referee, but are helpless," says Dhanu, who in the initial years also got friends to lend him jerseys used by the govindas of Dahi Handi mandals, because they needed to have a common uniform to participate at the DSO and MSSA. Often, organisations like Sanjiv Sports also help bear the costs of entrance fees, coaching and kitting. A former parent of Campion School, Rajiv Daryanani, has sponsored the kids on many occasions. But, it is hard to live on the benevolence of others indefinitely, says Dhanu. Registration fees for every MSSA tournament amount to Rs 2,000. Dhanu, who makes a salary of Rs 18,000 from private coaching and assisting at Campion, has often had to pay out of his own pocket.

Sanju Rathod, 13, often walks from his home in Cuffe Parade to Cooperage Ground, Churchgate because he doesn't have the money for a bus ticket. "When we need to travel by train to Kurla or Matunga, I request sir to pay for me, or borrow a rupee or two from friends," he shares. Dhanu's mother sells fish at Sassoon Docks; his father has passed away, and his older brother went missing a few years ago. "I try and help my mother sometimes. After all, fishing is in my blood. But she understands my love for the game. I am married to it," says the bachelor.

Football players from Educo Sai Baba Path Municipal School huddle around a goal post they got after a three-year wait. Pic/Atul Kamble
Football players from Educo Sai Baba Path Municipal School huddle around a goal post they got after a three-year wait. Pic/Atul Kamble

One of Chauhan's biggest challenges is convincing parents to allow the children to play sports. "For most parents, it's tough to comprehend what it means to be a sportsperson. They think it [sport] is a distraction." But when you get a player like Aditi, apprehensions are put to rest. It also becomes permissible for girls to wear shorts.

The lack of a playground at these schools is another impediment. Akurli Hindi School doesn't have a ground within its premises, keeping football, basketball and cricket off bounds. Churi, however, uses the school foyer to get his kids to learn boxing. The classroom is where kids train to attack and defend punches. "The best boxers of the country have emerged from this tiny space," he says proudly. His latest gem is Lakshman Sherbahadur Kadayat, 15, a resident of Ram Nagar, who represents the Kandivli school, and stood second at the DSO (U-14) tournament in 2016 and 2017. "The game has taught me to be mentally strong," says Kadayat, who assists coach Churi at the school. "I have been boxing for nine years. This is all I know. I now want to play at the internationals."

What has, however, been a blessing in disguise is the interest that the BMC is taking to expose its students to newer sports. Although it has an annual sports budget of Rs 5 crore for 1,500-odd schools, supervisor Lohe, who himself played basketball at the national level, says the lack of an effective system means that they haven't been able to utilise the resources adequately. "Whenever there is a requirement [for a sport], we start the process of transferring the money to the said school. But, it is a government body at the end of the day. Clearing a file for one project can take six months." Lohe adds that the present set of physical education teachers are also not qualified to coach in professional sports. "We don't have the funds to hire professional coaches. It comes at a high cost."

The much-needed impetus has, however, come from non-profits like Hi5 Youth Foundation and Saran Sports. In 2015, Hi5 took 1,200 students from 12 municipal schools under its wing, professionally coaching them in basketball—a sport, which until then, was alien to them. Hi5 also built four basketball courts at the cost of Rs 30 lakh each, to train the kids. "We picked basketball [over other sports] because children in these schools weren't exposed to the game. The sport requires infrastructure investment and professional coaching, and there is very little awareness around it," says R Sundar, who co-founded Hi5 along with wife Usha. "It was never meant to be an activity. We followed a structured and clinical programme, with a proper curriculum." The intent, he says, was to create competitive, professional players. "What we didn't see coming were sparkling results in a short time," he adds. Araafat Memon, who coaches at Pahadi MPS School, says, "When I started out, none of the kids had touched a basketball. Today, eight of my students play at the state-level."

Sanjiv Saran believes that municipal school kids have the brightest future in football. "In Mumbai, for every kid playing cricket [Harris/Giles Shield], approximately 40 are playing football. Football is an easy and inexpensive game. All you need is a ball, and four stones or crates, to serve as goal posts. You can play in any open space," he says. Through the South Mumbai Junior Soccer Challenger, Saran has provided a platform for several municipal kids, including Aditi, to showcase their talent.

Today, BMC schools participate in at least 15 sports tournaments, Lohe informs. In October last year, director of Eleven Sports, Kamlesh Mehta, who is also former captain of the Indian table tennis team (1982-89), along with Vita Dani and Niraj Bajaj initiated the UTT Table Tennis Development Programme with the help of NGO Mumbai First, to promote table tennis in BMC schools. "The first phase kick-started in October 2018 with 11 schools. Each school was provided with a table, balls and bats and a professional coach, who visits twice a week," says Mehta. At Nityanand Marg English MPS School in Andheri East, coach Govind Ghadi has been working with Class I and II students, and the results have been impressive. "They are like earth, easily moulded. There is enough talent to create state- and national-level champs," says Ghadi. With the programme underway for almost a year, Mehta and team are planning an inter-municipal school tennis competition in January 2020, after which the best teams will compete at professional tournaments.

"The goal is to encourage children to play a variety of sports. We are in talks with a New Zealand NGO to introduce cricket in our schools. We are doing it in a phased manner," says BMC education officer Mahesh Palkar, adding that the BMC offers scholarships to students who win at the state level. "We want our kids to play at the Olympics by 2024," adds Palkar. That dream, he believes, is not too far.

02
No. of gold medals Akurli Hindi School won at a recent DSO event

Rs 8,000-Rs 10,000
Price of a good pair of football studs

Why nutrition is key

Mihira A R Khopkar, lead sports nutritionist at Sir HN Reliance Hospital, says, children, in general, have a high requirement of protein, carbohydrate and vitamins because they are in "an anabolic state", where the muscles are growing, organs are developing and bones still building. "When they are made to engage in a sport, the calorie expenditure is humongous. They spend anywhere between 300 and 700 calories. The major fuel used here is carbohydrates. Also, their muscles are susceptible to tear. After strenuous training, they need to be fed protein to build the muscle back." Lack of nutrition is one of the reasons why children from municipal schools are lean and petite, despite playing sports. She suggests drinking nimbu paani during training, having a banana before and after, or sugarcane juice as a refuelling option along with sprouts and peanuts.

SMD x Ketto.org for Hi5

Sunday mid-day and crowdfunding platform Ketto come together to help support 12 municipal centres pursuing basketball backed by non-profit Hi5.

  • Six balls each @Rs 500 for 12 centres: Rs 36,000
  • Cones & Ladder: Rs 6,000 (marker cone) + Rs 3,000 (saucer cone) + Rs 7,200 (ladder) = Rs 16,200
  • Line marking @Rs 3,000 at 12 courts locations: Rs 36,000
  • Tournament jerseys @Rs 300 for 500 children: Rs 1,50,000
  • Total support sought Rs 2,38,200 

Help the champs
If you wish to extend help in kind to the following teams, write in with your support to jane.borges@mid-day.com

Akurli Hindi School, Kandivli East
10 blue and red pairs of 10-ounce tournament gloves
5 red and blue headgears
1 carton of Wispro Protein Powder (200gm/Rs 275 a box)

Educo Sai Baba Path Municipal Public School, Parel
20 jerseys each for 10 teams (U-14/U-16/U-12/U-10/U-8 boys and girls)

Colaba Municipal School, Azad Nagar
60 jerseys and shorts, and stockings
Help with annual tournament fees (Rs 25,000)

How to help: https://www.ketto.org/fundraisers/Midday-for-Hi5YouthFoundation 

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