Movies like Chak De! India, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Dangal continue to capture the collective imagination of Indians well past their release dates. Most athletes will tell you that representing their country’s stripes is the biggest honour; winning even more so, because each international triumph induces an unparalleled euphoria amongst their countrymen.

Although it is far from being a frontrunner during election campaigning, the NDA has always been aware of the power of sport in coalescing populations overnight. Based on the Gujarat Khel Mahakumbh — the brainchild of PM Modi during his tenure as the Chief Minister of Gujarat — the flagship sports initiative of the BJP-led government has been the Khelo India Scheme. Launched amidst much fanfare in 2016, the scheme intends to incubate the development of India’s next-generation athletes who will dominate Olympic medal count charts and incentivize sports from the grassroots level.

…Narendra Modi Ji has said that the Khelo India Games is not just an event, it is a movement. Promoting sports and fitness among the youth and sensitising parents to motivate young athletes to pursue a sporting dream is a first step towards making India a sporting superpower.

Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju’s words from January 2020 embody the rhetoric with which sports is most often spoken about by governments in power. Fuelled by nationalist sentiment and spurts of adrenaline, sport has the power to unify people beyond their personal beliefs, priorities and intentions. Rijiju went on to announce in the same press release that the government had declared the Khelo India Games — which comprise of the Khelo India School Games, Khelo India Youth Games, Khelo India University Games, Khelo India Games for Differently-Abled Persons and the Khelo India Games for Indigenous Sports — as an event of “national importance”.

Playing for the Indian Olympic Dream

India’s performance at the Olympic games can be termed as unenviable at best. Having picked up only 28 medals from the 24 editions of the Games it has participated in, there is plenty of ground left to cover. A per-capita comparison of medals won by every country that has ever won an Olympic medal lands India dead last, with one medal for approximately every 44 million people. Granted, having the second largest population in which over 50% is below 25 years of age puts an unfair strain on our existing sports resources. Nevertheless, India’s meagre returns from the largest sporting spectacle in the world warrants inspection, analysis and rectification.

Minister Rijiju has grand dreams for the country’s potential, setting a target of finishing in the top-10 in the 2028 Games. For perspective, India’s highest position has been 19th, back in the 1932 Los Angeles Games. The government has pitched the Khelo India programme as the breeding ground for India’s next Olympic medal winners.

How does the scheme work?

The Khelo India scheme was launched to unify three existing schemes, namely the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Abhiyan (RGKA), Urban Sports Infrastructure Scheme (USIS) and National Sports Talent Search Scheme (NSTSS). Moving from a centrally-sponsored model to a central-sector scheme, the Centre has attempted to take over a large part of the onus to fund the development of India’s sports ecosystem. The scheme has twelve verticals such that sport and relevant infrastructure can be developed holistically.

Creating and upgrading sports infrastructure, talent search and development, sports for women, and annual sports competitions are amongst the twelve heads under which the Centre is channelling resources | Source: Khelo India

A major part of the scheme revolves around the much-publicised Khelo India Games, the third edition of which was held in Guwahati in January this year. Targeting the Under-14 and Under-17 age categories, the Games aim to enable athletes across the nation to showcase their sporting talent on a competitive stage at the national level.

Reply by the Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports to a question in the Lok Sabha on 06 February 2020

Being picked out as a prospective talent brings the bonus of being selected to train in world-class facilities by top coaches, along with other benefits such as an out-of-pocket allowance of ₹10,000 per month, lodging and boarding, sports kits, domestic travel, insurance, medical benefits and other facilities/amenities as required. Athletes from the most humble backgrounds could afford to dream of becoming India’s next big sports star.

The Proof is in the Pudding

Every few months, the government paints a promising picture of their proactive approach to sports and fitness in India. Whether the Scheme has managed to empower and encourage its targeted audience is something that is yet to be proven. But what is the proof? An issue that has plagued Central government initiatives over the years is the dissonance between the intention of the scheme and its actual implementation, let alone testing its outcomes.

The Khelo India Youth Games are mandatorily broadcasted by the state broadcaster Doordarshan, which is bound to garner attention for the ‘national event’ across the country. While this will serve as inspiration for aspirants to take up sport even in the remotest of towns, the sports ecosystem surrounding them is still difficult to access, deterring many prospective athletes. More on the impact of the Khelo India’s provisions to young athletes in the next instalment of Making India Play Again, later this week.

Featured image courtesy Khelo India


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