Children of a tribal village in Panna district see the sport as a way out of poverty
When a skatepark was being built at a village in Panna district five years ago, locals were confused: Is it a hospital? A hostel maybe? But as the structure began taking shape, children rolled down its slippery edges, roaring with laughter, content with finally having their own set of slides.
The same park, called Janwaar Castle, in Janwaar village, sent India’s two of the three skateboarders to a world championship in China in 2018. “It is because of skateboarding my parents haven’t married me off yet,” said Asha Gond, 21, a farmer’s daughter who has taken part in two national competitions.
The sport, yet to find a toehold in the country, is helping challenge caste and gender prejudices in the village. With children and youth as changemakers, and the disruptive force driving skateboarding has unsettled a few locals, but accorded an identity to tens of children and their families, most just below or above the poverty line. As agriculture remains unsustainable locally, children find hope in skateboarding to pull their households out of penury.
Inspired by a similar initiative in Afghanistan, German national Ulrike Reinhard asked artists worldwide to transform skateboards into art, and auctioned them online raising $17,000 to build the park in 2015. Currently, two such parks cater to around 50 children, the second one owned by Barefoot Skateboarder, which is managed Ms. Gond.
Ms. Reinhard’s non-profit organisation, the Rural Changemakers, has helped locals build skateparks in Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Rajasthan.
Young skaters must stick to three non-negotiable rules: ‘No school, no skating’, ‘Everyone is equal’ and ‘Girls first’. “This has improved school attendance,” said Ms. Reinhard. From 30, the attendance had jumped to 55-60 at the local school before the lockdown. Boys share their boards with girls during practice hours from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and in the evening after school.
“There are around 20-25 girls practising every day,” said Ms. Gond, who said they learnt mostly by watching videos online and peer-learning. When she started off, villagers told her parents she must stay home, do chores like other girls. “They told them I roamed around with boys. But when I won medals, they were ok with it,” said Ms. Gond, who shares her salary with her parents.
‘On same platform’
The sport has brought the village’s two communities — tribals and the dominant Yadavs — on the same platform. “Most importantly, a conversation ensued between the two communities who could hardly see eye-to-eye in the past,” said Ms. Reinhard.
Initially, only Yadav boys took part, but slowly tribal children were absorbed, creating an equitable space. When you want to change a closed system, a disruptive factor is required, she added. “You have to confront the predominant mainstream with a counter-culture. And in Janwaar, skateboarding was the perfect counter-culture, standing for open-ended development,” she said.
Skateboards, shoes and trips to tournaments are crowd-funded. “We are yet to receive any support from the government,” she said. She demanded that the government cover expenses while organising championships, provide medical support and offer training.