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Integrating Sport for Development within sport policy frameworks in India

Sport for Development (S4D) is increasingly being acknowledged within several policy frameworks of national governments and multinational agencies as an integral tool to aid in social, economic and humanitarian efforts, across a wide range of geographies and contexts.

In 2016, the United Nations recognised “sport as an important enabler of sustainable development”, in particular, its growing contribution to the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Though several organisations and initiatives in India have been propagating the use of S4D for the past many years, a missing link has been the integration of S4D within various policy frameworks in India at all levels of government, especially within sport policies.

Current scope of sport policies in India

Sport policy in India is developed and implemented at two levels – the national level (overseen by the central government) and the state level (overseen by respective state governments). India’s original sport policy, developed at the national level in 1984, mandated sports participation as a state subject whereas sporting excellence was assigned as a central subject.

Sport policy at national level

At the national level, the last sport policy developed by the central government was in 2001, however, this has been used in conjunction with the National Sports Development Code (NSDC), which was adopted in 2011. The national sport policy along with the NSDC focus on both mass participation and excellence in sport, however, policy provisions are geared towards developing the area of sporting excellence.

The sport policy at national level in India focuses on sports infrastructure development, competition structure, sports science and equipment as well as support to sports federations, geared towards achieving sporting excellence at international levels. Though there is some focus on Physical Education (PE) and fitness through educational institutions, this is geared towards the larger objective of identifying and developing sporting talent at the grassroots, in order to feed into elite levels.

A closer look at these policies bring to light some aspects of social inclusion through sports, in terms of providing sporting access and participation to marginalized and rural groups, including women, scheduled tribes and rural youth. However, again, these are linked to unearthing and developing sporting talent. Moreover, the socio-economic benefits of sport identified in the preamble of the national sports policy of 2001, seem to have no further details within the policy, including no clear policy provisions regarding how sport can enable socio-economic development, health and well-being, and larger national and global development goals.

Sport policy at state levels

At the state levels,  various provisions of state policies focus on development of sports infrastructure, provision of advanced training to athletes (including exposure trips), upskilling of sports trainers and coaches, provision of cash incentives and awards to athletes as well as organisation of state-level sports competitions and festivals. All these policy provisions at state levels are geared towards identifying and nurturing talent for achieving excellence in sports.

There are, however, some exceptions to this. A few state’s sports policies include provisions for S4D, however, they are quite vague in comparison to policy provisions geared towards athlete development and sporting excellence. The Haryana state sports policy explicitly outlines intended social outcomes through sport. The policy also has a specific section on sport for development – leveraging sports for impacting socio-economic indicators across the state. However, this section of the policy only remains an intention, as there are no clear policy provisions on how to quantify and achieve these larger societal outcomes through sport.

The Gujarat state sports policy includes a specific section on para and special sports (sports for individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities), towards ensuring greater inclusion in sports. However, this part of the policy only focuses on enabling para and special athletes to achieve at elite sports competitions, along with receiving better awards and cash incentives, without any mention of increasing participation of differently abled persons in sport and how they could benefit from sports participation in their socio-economic development.

Sport policies and development outcomes

Addressing socio-economic factors are of the essence when it comes to framing policies around sport in India. While there is an imminent and constant need to develop a robust sports culture, there seems to be little understanding of what the term actually means. As sports culture goes far beyond the simple notion of members of a given society playing sport and/ or achieving milestones and accolades in the given sport –  it includes a greater, deeper and more far-reaching culture of actually perceiving sports as a viable way of life in society – not just as a sportsperson, but also looking at it as a feasible way to build a tangible solution for various socio-economic issues that plague Indian society today such as child marriage, declining indicators on girls education, lack of women’s empowerment, etc. 

Sports policies by and large have stressed on aspects like talent recognition, performance management and infrastructure management. Although these are vital components of any sports policy, we cannot hope to achieve consistently high sporting standards without an obvious emphasis on inclusivity and diversity. This rationale circles back to the importance of using sport as a tool for social, economic and gender development especially among marginalised communities and aspirational districts of India.

The role of the government for driving social outcomes

The need of the hour is a high degree of intentionality and deliberation over how we can best involve the government in advancing a sporting culture in their jurisdictions. Certain tangible actions need to be taken by state as well as local governing authorities in a way which can lead to a certain legitimacy within an entire state’s sporting ecosystem. Not only will this be useful to grassroot athletes in terms of exposure and an opportunity to compete with other recognised athletes, but also the chance for the government to encourage and push for socio-economic drivers in the sports landscape such as: greater participation of girls and young women in sport, advocacy around allied careers in sport, sports education and partnering with local NGOs that work on issues related to gender and sport.

These reforms at the very basic level of competitive sport in a state can help in aligning sport policies with the SDGs, thereby bringing to light their contribution to India’s overall national development priorities as well as the country’s alignment with the goals in a more global context.

Actionable steps to integrate sport for development (S4D) within the scope and framework of sport policies in India:

  • Most sports policies, as stated earlier, are primarily geared towards talent identification, bringing in medals and accolades in major national and global sporting events and for the state to become a sports tourism destination by hosting major sporting events and tournaments, which primarily focuses on infrastructure development. But this is not a long-term solution for creating a sports culture that would lead to even consistently good performance, if that is the aim. Given the high number of athletes that come from marginalised and/or economically and socially disadvantaged communities, the idea is to tie-up policy provisions and targets to quantifiable and measurable development outcomes such as youth development, education, women’s empowerment, women’s health, etc.

It is essential to frame and implement sport policies which are more inclusive,  especially in terms of gender and socio-economic factors. Building evidence towards the same will help greatly in informing as well as effectively implementing sports programs via various mediums such as schools, coaching institutes, colleges and university, communities, etc. 

  • There needs to be a clear buy-in from state governments in terms of their involvement in sports. Supporting the organisation of sporting events right from the Panchayat level (the lowest level of governance in India) to the state level brings in an automatic legitimacy to those particular sports and can also create an environment and ecosystem wherein allied careers in sports can be explored by athletes who cannot reach higher levels of sport. The upside here is that there is an interest from some state governments to bring back these athletes as coaches, train them in allied careers such as sports nutrition, sports psychology, mental health for sports practitioners, etc. This will tie into development outcomes as it will play a part in preventing them from falling back into the cycle of poverty once their active competitive sports careers have concluded.
  • Apart from the government, there are many other stakeholders that can and should be brought on board in the form of consortiums for each state – preferably a group of organisations that specialise in sport for development, NGOs, CSOs who could be supported by the sports department as well as private sector (Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR) funding in order to drive a development agenda in sport.
  • The effective management for the above will be of prime importance, with development of sports programming at all levels. The agenda for the social outputs as well as outcomes need to be clearly laid out when sports programming is being developed for the youth. There needs to be a clear understanding of how and why we need to have a focus on development and be able to connect it to consistent performance and development of a sports culture, based on evidence-based research and the formulation of related sports frameworks.

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This article has been jointly written by Suheil F. Tandon, Director-Founder of Pro Sport Development (PSD) and Shahana Joshi, Lead: Partnerships and Communications at Policy and Development Advisory Group (PDAG). PSD and PDAG have been collaborating to take forward research initiatives, government engagement and knowledge creation within the sport for social impact space in India.

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