Looking Glass | What the disadvantaged need is an opportunity

Looking Glass | What the disadvantaged need is an opportunity

I finally caught up with the Jungle Crows in Bhubaneswar this past week. The Jungle Crows is what the rugby team at the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, with the quirkyacronym KISS, calls itself. This team of 12 boys from Orissa beat South Africa to win the under-14 World Rugby cup last month.

What makes this victory remarkable is the fact that these aren’t just any boys. All of them come from terribly disadvantaged backgrounds; all their parents live below the poverty line (BPL). None of them had ever touched a rugby ball until a year ago, when they began training. None had ever been even on a train, leave alone aeroplane, before. And even getting a passport for them was a minor miracle: none of them had a birth certificate.

Take Rajkishore Murmu, a Santhal from Keshdiha village in Orissa’s Keonjhar district. Here’s a boy who knows deprivation: father’s death when he was six, leaving five children to be brought up; mother sells handia, a locally brewed drink, and works as a daily wage labourer whenever she can, earning, on a good month, Rs1,000. Rajkishore, along with a brother, was brought to KISS, a free residential school for tribal children, because his mother simply couldn’t afford to keep him at home. Today, he’s in the eighth standard and captain of the Jungle Crows. Rajkishore speaks with the easy confidence of a champion. “People laughed at us when they saw we were wearing shorts. But when we were given coats and pants, we felt like heroes," he says.

The Crows were in England as guests of Touraid, a charity that supports disadvantaged children by using rugby to build long-lasting relationships. The first match was against Zambia. The Crows won 10-0. The second match against Romania was won 36-0. Against Swaziland, the Crows scored 19 to their 12. Kenya was beaten 36-0 and then came the finals against South Africa: 19-5.

“It was not difficult for us at all," says Rajkishore. “Here we play on hard ground and in very hot conditions. There the ground was soft and the breeze was cool. It was easy to win."

The Jungle Crows could well have ended up as just another statistic in India’s poverty record where 70% of children aged between six months and five years were found to be anaemic by the National Family Health Survey of 2005-06.

Traditionally, the approach of “shining" India—the India of the booming Sensex and fancy malls—has been to regard these faceless statistics as a burden on development. Urban drawing rooms are full of chatter for the need for desperate population control methods. And in the week gone by, the Supreme Court itself criticized the government’s attempt to provide wider nutrition to pregnant women (the government gives one-time assistance of Rs500 to BPL women who have conceived their first or second child; it wants the two-child cap to be removed in order not to “penalize" women pregnant with their third child). “You cannot keep producing children and expect the taxpayers to pay money for such schemes," observed the court.

But if you were to regard India’s nearly 1.2 billion people as assets rather than a drain, miracles can be achieved. With better education, nutrition and health care, these people have the force to propel the country to greatness.

It is not my argument that people should have more children—quite the opposite. But India’s people—even those below the poverty line—have the potential to be our greatest resource, making up for deficient or expensive labour forces elsewhere in the world. With an average age of 26, we are a young country, younger than China. What we lack is adequate investment in our human resources—all our human resources—in order to turn the tide to our advantage.

KISS is the brainchild of Achyuta Samanta, vice-chancellor of the Kalinga Institute of Information Technology. From the fees obtained from KIIT and from individual donations, he funds KISS, which provides free education, vocational training, board and lodging to 5,000 tribal children.

Speaking at the National Commission of Population Meet in 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said: “The challenge of population management is to empower people so that those who are perceived as liabilities can be effectively transformed into assets… Therefore, even as our population policy focuses on population stabilization, it must also focus on altering the skill profile of our population. This, in itself, can help in limiting population growth."

Given the opportunity, even the most disadvantaged of our people can become heroes. The Jungle Crows are living examples.

Namita Bhandare will write every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to lookingglass@livemint.com