The real Kashmir: High passion, no facilities
UP AGAINST ODDS Growth of sports in J&K is suffering due to limited access to playgrounds and overall political climate
SRINAGAR: “There are two kinds of matches being played here. One is like the one you came for — in football, cricket, volleyball. The other one is between the army and the rebels,” said an elderly shopkeeper as he tried to convince this reporter to buy a shawl from his small handicrafts shop at Dal Lake’s famous floating market. Local club Real Kashmir had beaten I-league leaders Chennai City at the Tourist Reception Centre (TRC) Ground earlier in the evening but football didn’t seem to interest the gentleman much.
“I don’t understand this league-feague business,” he said frowning, referring to the I-league, before pointing to a shop assistant and saying that the young man had attended one of Real Kashmir’s home games.
Temperatures had plummeted in Kashmir with fresh round of snow in late January but the security situation continued to be volatile. Just two days prior to the game against Chennai City, Khonmoh, on the outskirts of Srinagar, had witnessed a gunfight in the morning. Local media reported that two militants were killed by security forces in the encounter. Last year saw 586 people including civilians, security personnel and militants killed in the valley, according to data released by Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), an umbrella institution of civil society organisations in the state. Official figures by the central government put the number of deaths at 361 till December 2. That made 2018 the bloodiest year in a decade.
Given the security situation in Kashmir, it was hardly a surprise that the TRC Ground was shrouded in a security blanket prior to the high-voltage clash between title contenders Real Kashmir and league leaders Chennai City on January 28.
This level of security detail in an I-league game is unprecedented but it is hardly an unusual sight in the valley: heavily armed armymen are visible on the city’s major roads. “When I first arrived, it was a bit of a shock to see so many armymen holding guns on the side of the roads. But once you are here for some time, you get used to it,” said key player Mason Robertson, son of Real Kashmir head coach David.
‘UNSAFE FOR KIDS’
Inside the ground at TRC, Azad Ahmed Khan scoffed at the state of grilled metal stands. “Kids can get their feet stuck in the gaps here. It’s not safe. It’s not comfortable to sit either. I am an old man and I am shivering sitting on steel. When something so basic is not in place, it just goes on to show how serious the government has been about supporting sports and the Kashmiri youth over the years,” he said.
The TRC Stadium, with its pavilion on one side of the ground being used as a makeshift press box, is hardly the most opulent of football stadia. The fact that it is also the only football ground available for training sums up the state of sporting infrastructure in the city, and, indeed, the valley.
A few metres away, a group of six girls, in their late teens, prepared to watch the ChennaiKashmir game. Afreen Khan, Muskan Bhat, Mehroosh Baba, Alka Naseer, Numrah Tariq and Tanzeel Sheikh are footballers training with the local State Football Academy (SFA). They were also part of the Indian Women’s League (IWL) qualifiers last season, where they played four games representing the J&K State Sports Council, winning one and losing three before bowing out in the preliminary round.
“It is a struggle to focus on football when there are frequent strikes,” said Muskan, adding: “But football is growing. Among girls, there is huge interest these days”.
Afreen explained that a lack of societal support continues to be a hurdle. “The weather is another issue during winters because sometimes our training sessions are affected as well,” she said.
So, did Real Kashmir’s promotion to the I-league help them? “They have helped motivate us but there is still a severe lack of facilities,” said Numrah.
“When I first played for India, people thought that there would be changes. But the sad truth is that nothing changed after that. Our association remained the same,” said Parvez Rasool, the only one from the valley to repre- sent India in cricket.
“Last year the Committee of Administrators (COA) stepped in and only then have changes started to come in. More professional people, like Irfan Pathan, have been able to associate with us since then. At least in cricket, things have improved substantially since last year,” he said.
“But overall, there is a lack of availability of grounds for kids. There are open grounds available in some places, in north Kashmir for instance, but they aren’t maintained for playing sport.
“The basic facility that a sportsperson should get is not available. The talent is there and can rise above the daily issues faced but the basic facilities must be there.”
The problem persists down south in Jammu, according to teenage gymnast Bavleen Kaur who won five of the state’s eight medals at the recent Khelo India Youth Games, including all three of their gold, in the under-17 agegroup. “We train at the badminton hall of the MA (Maulana Azad) Stadium. It is very small a space to accommodate the 200odd gymnasts who train there.
“I feel we have some of the best coaches in gymnastics here but the lack of facilities remains the biggest problem. There are many girls who train in gymnastics but they never get to devote much time because the space is so limited,” said Bavleen, who trains under Krupali Patel Singh, an Arjuna award winner, and her father Surinder Pal Singh.
Saleem ur Rehman took charge of Directorate General Of Youth Services & Sports of Jammu and Kashmir last year. Acknowledging the lack of playing facilities, Rehman said there are plans to improve things.
“There is a ~300-crore project sanctioned by the state government, under which we are going to have around 20 playing facilities in each district across the state. We will also have an indoor sports stadium in each district, which will be ready in three months.
“We have now laid the foundation stone for Khel Gaon (sports village), under which we will build facilities for major sports under one roof, like the Balewadi Complex in Pune. We are proposing to have playing facilities for cricket, football, hockey, tennis, shooting, gymnastics and a few other sports,” said Rehman.
At the TRC Ground, meanwhile, Real Kashmir have continued to punch above their weight this season after becoming the first club from the state to make it to the top-flight. Still in fight for the title race, Real Kashmir have made the right noises in their debut I-league campaign. A tie-up with sports goods manufacturing giant Adidas, albeit with negligible financials involved, hasn’t hurt them in terms of visibility either.
However, while the sports department says it plans to uplift the infrastructure, it remains to be seen whether it results in better access to grounds and facilities.
Until then, stories like Real Kashmir, Bavleen Kaur and Parvez Rasool could remain exceptions rather than the norm.
(Clockwise from above) A young fan at the TRC Ground watches Real Kashmir in action; women too turn up in numbers.