Thanks to the Anantapur Sports Academy (ASA), lakhs of children in rural Andhra Pradesh have been able to use sports as a means to inculcate holistic development, increase awareness on gender inequalities, and eventually pursue higher education and livelihood.
When B Anusha was in Class 7, her physical education (PE) teacher encouraged her to play for her school in the Rural Cricket Tournament for Girls, hosted by Anantapur Sports Academy (ASA).
Anusha comes from a remote village called Bandlapalli in Anantapur district, Andhra Pradesh. Her parents are farmers who have a small plot of land, and her father also works as a tractor driver for hire. Playing sports seriously was not considered an option for her. But the then 13-year-old left-arm spinner was named the best player of the tournament and received a scholarship from ASA to attend their residential academy.
Anusha, now 20, has since played for the Andhra Pradesh Under-16, Under-19, and Women’s Senior State teams.
“Playing sports at ASA has helped [me] in many ways,” she says. “It made me more confident than I ever was. It gave me exposure and financial help through playing for the senior State team, which I needed …Alongside, playing sports at ASA has given me the opportunity to train in one of the best cricket facilities in the state as I was able to improve cricketing skills.”
Anusha is currently in her third year of under-graduation at PVKK Degree College, where she is pursuing a B Com in computers. But her dream is “to continue to play cricket at a higher level and [one day] represent the Indian women’s team.”
A major emphasis on the grassroots
ASA is part of the Rural Development Trust (RDT), which has been working in communities in Andhra Pradesh for over 50 years. In the late 70s and 80s, the Trust taught kabaddi to encourage children to be active, but this was done in an informal way. Sport became a formal, and integral, part of its programmes only in the late 90s. That’s when the ASA was born. Over time, the ASA programmes have expanded to include eight sports — cricket, football, hockey, judo, tennis, kabaddi, softball and, most recently, archery.
“In the beginning, our programme used to provide financial and material support to teams travelling out to participate in tournaments,” Moncho Ferrer, programme director of RDT, says. “Later on, we started organising events such as grassroots level tournaments and camps to ensure children access their fundamental right to play in a safe and quality playing space, which later grew to a year-long programme with an emphasis on holistic development of children at all levels of the programme.”
The organisation’s programmes follow a traditional pyramid structure. At the bottom is their grassroots programme, which is conducted entirely in government schools in each community. Then there are the development centres, and at the top sits the residential programme, which is based at the ASA sports village that was built between 2000 and 2002.
“The major emphasis lies on the grassroots,” Sai Krishna Pulluru, executive director of ASA, says. “All the sports have a grassroots programme except tennis. We also have around 104 or 105 [development] centres, which include youth clubs, government schools, and sports centres.”
According to Pulluru, the difference between the grassroots and development centres is that the latter have their own physical infrastructure, such as computer labs and classrooms, and they provide English classes as well as nutrition. The residential programme at Anantapur Sports Village is for children who have the potential to excel at sport.
ASA also runs leagues from August to December for each of their sports where matches are held every Sunday. The rural cricket tournament is the longest-running league, and arguably the organisation’s crown jewel. According to Pulluru, over 100 villages used to participate in the tournament, with the final being held in Anantapur at a pristine cricket ground. However, it was recently restructured and now features 16 teams each in U-12 mixed-gender, U-16 and U-19 age categories. It has also been renamed the Ananta Premier League (APL).
ASA also runs an athletics meet exclusively for girls.
“In these leagues, we scout talent and provide full scholarship — academics, boarding and lodging, and access to competition — to whoever can pursue this,” says Pulluru.
‘Joy and happiness’
The programmes have been tailored for children ranging between the ages of 6 and 18. Over time, life skills were added to the programmes, for instance, a coach may conduct a session on topics such as communication, inequality, or gender awareness.
Pulluru estimates that 6,700 children were part of the programme at the beginning of the season, and roughly 1.5 lakh have gone through the programme over the years.
“It is a dream for me to be part of this kind of programme,” he notes. “When I finish my work, step out of my office, and watch the children playing, I can see the real joy on their faces. That is what gives me a sense of joy and happiness. That is one thing that really drives me.”
In 2016-17, ASA started a mixed-gender festival where girls and boys compete together, though this is reserved only for younger children. The age depends on the sport — for cricket it is U-12, for football under-9, and for softball U-14. Participants are brought to a single location once in two months and the festival is held over two days, with the final round being played at the Anantapur Sports Village.
Y Lahari, a 12-year-old from Dharmavaram, was first introduced to ASA when he played in the mixed-gender U-9 football cup a few years ago. In 2021, at the age of 11, he was given a scholarship to attend the academy.
“I like playing [football] because I can make a lot of new friends and also visit other places,” Lahari says. “I can maintain fitness by playing sports regularly.” He credits ASA with teaching him new skills such as teamwork and communication, as well as values such as respect and fair play.
“I am interested in refereeing,” he adds. “I want to become a professional FIFA referee where I can referee national and international matches.”
ASA relies mainly on volunteer coaches and physical education teachers – “They are the backbone of the programme,” Pulluru says. The programme has also created a pathway for participants to become coaches. “Not everyone can make it to the next level. To build a sports culture, you need more coaches.”
ASA encourages those who are interested to join the one-year Youth Leadership Programme and become volunteer or shadow coaches. As part of the programme, they are given the chance to organise events and conduct workshops. ASA then supports those who complete the programme and wish to become professional coaches by helping them get their coaching licences from the various state associations.
In particular, ASA wants to increase the number of female coaches in rural areas. “Though there is still a long way to go, it’s worth noting the changing perceptions among the wider community (particularly parents, teachers) about boys and girls equally playing sports,” Ferrer says. “The programme has enabled youth to gain skills to enhance their higher education and livelihood opportunities, particularly as a coach and/or a referee.”
‘Sports made me who I am today’
One of those coaches is P Hindu Kumar (24). He was selected for the residential programme as a 14-year-old in 2014 and is now a coach with the organisation. He comes from a village called D Honnur, and says his parents were “very happy” when he was selected, because it meant he would get a good education and could also keep playing sports.
“Sport made me who I am today,” Kumar said. “It gave me a career opportunity as a coach, [and] I learned a lot through playing sport; most importantly believing in myself and in my team, and helping each other to achieve a goal, which are the most important aspects in any part of life or profession.”
The programme also taught him to develop empathy, he says. “[The] programme supported me when I was in need, as I come from a family where my parents are farmers and daily wage workers,” Kumar says. “Today I can display the same qualities as a person and professional working with children who have the same background as mine.”
To measure the outcomes of its programmes, ASA uses different parameters for each level of their pyramid – Grassroots, League and Empower. At the grassroots level, they use the number of the children they have in the programme plus the number of clubs they have set up. In the case of the leagues, which are open to all the clubs, they measure the number of children who participate from each club in the league. At the empower level, they track the number of youth leaders and volunteers in the programme, as well as the number of internships and employment opportunities that they can facilitate.
ASA also uses a socio-emotional development index to track qualities such as self-esteem and self-confidence among the children, as well as social skills such as communication and relationship building. The organisation has also developed a gender equality index that at the programme level factors in the number of female coaches, the ratio of girls to boys in each centre, and the overall ratio of girls to boys across all their programmes. ASA also has a section on gender in its questionnaire for children between the ages of 10 to 15 that aims to measure their perception of gender equality. Students must rate how much they agree or disagree with statements, such as “I believe members of the opposite gender can equally participate in sport” and “I believe everyone is equal”.
As far as funding goes, ASA benefits from being part of the Rural Development Trust, which has its own sources of revenue. On top of that, the academy has project partners such as the La Liga Foundation and the Rafael Nadal Foundation. However, according to Pulluru, funding from corporates remains challenging because of a lack of information on how they can use CSR funds in tribal and rural areas.
“In the early years of ASA, many had questioned what an NGO had to do with sports, but now we see numerous sports for development programs doing great work across India,” Ferrer says. “So, we feel humbled to see the trust we placed in a new programme back in the early 2000s has managed to evolve and grow to become this big in reaching approximately 8,000 children every year in eight different sports. Over the years, we have had numerous individual achievements, but of late, to share, I see B Anusha, recently being shortlisted for the Women’s Premier League (WPL) auction as an accomplishment for her and our programme.”
Written by Sharba Tasneem; Edited by Divya Sethu