A grey childhood laden with poverty, abuse and addiction is forever engraved in the memory of Pankaj Mahajan, now a dynamic youngster of 24. Born in a family of four in Godhani village near Nagpur, Maharashtra, Pankaj was the youngest son. An alcoholic father and a differently-abled mother failed to provide him with a full plate of food every day, let alone ensuring a proper upbringing.
Today, Pankaj manages a team of ten football coaches, who are changing the lives of over 12,500 slum kids across India through football. In a conversation with Efforts For Good, Pankaj shares his goosebump-worthy story of transformation. His every word resonated how indebted he feels towards Slum Soccer, the organisation which uses football to uplift over 50,000 boys and girls from the slums of India.
Addiction was a family disease
“We ran a small shop of paan, beedi and tobacco, which brought little money. My father spent most of it on alcohol, leaving us scrambling for the basic needs,” shares Pankaj. His elder brother quit school midway to start working and pool in some money for the family while letting Pankaj continue his education. But, little did he realise that a different fate awaited him.
As evening descended on the dingy alleys of Nagpur, young shadows crept up in the nooks and corners, forsaking themselves to the dangerous addiction of Kharra (a strong tobacco-based drug), alongside smoking and drinking. Pankaj’s brother became one to join the helpless lads, and within a few years, Pankaj followed suit.
“I could not continue my studies after 10th. My family desperately needed money. So, I sought the help of the young earners in my colony, who found me the job of a painter. I used to earn 30 to 40 rupees per day for painting people’s doors, walls or houses. But, soon, the worsening poverty, violence and abuse at home drove me to join the gang of addicts and miscreants,” shares Pankaj.
It was just another day at home for Pankaj when during a heated argument, his father had thrown a plate at his mother which left the poor woman bruising. He was also at the receiving end of his father’s uncontrollable rage induced by excessive drinking. Helpless, he ran out of his home and suffered a breakdown in the middle of the road.
Football – a lifesaver
“It was then when Homkant sir found me. He had a brief interaction with me and offered me to play football,” shares Pankaj, who at that time was unaware of any sports other than gully cricket. Homkant Surdase, whom Pankaj reveres as his lifesaver, deserves a special mention here. He himself is the son of a marginal labourer, whose life once meant roaming aimlessly on roads for days in search of food, while the farmers in his village were turning to suicide.
It was 2010 when Homkant met Pankaj. The latter has not had to turn back ever since. He soon found his solace in football, sweating out all his struggles and hardships in the field. It did not take long for slum soccer CEO Abhijeet Barse, the son of founder Vijay Barse, to notice the incredible skills and indomitable zeal in Pankaj. He realised that he had found the next leader for his upcoming slum soccer teams.
From his sports kits to free training, Slum Soccer offered everything to Pankaj. In fact, Abhijeet Barse also provided all financial assistance for Pankaj to complete his schooling and get a college degree. The best part of the story perhaps is that Pankaj is only one among many such youth beneficiaries of Slum Soccer.
After participating in district and state level tournaments, in 2017 Pankaj got selected to represent the national team at the International Homeless World Cup in Poland. “It was way beyond imagination. I have never dreamt of representing my country at an international level,” reveals an exuberant Pankaj.
Overnight, the ‘gully boy’, who was shunned by his relatives for being a ‘bad influence’, turned into a poster boy of inspiration. Upon his return, he received a grand welcome where the whos who of the local community garlanded and celebrated him, amidst music, sweets and fireworks. For Pankaj, it was the start of a new journey ahead.
Soon, his mentor Homkant insisted him to visit girls’ schools in low-income communities to sprout the fire of football among them.
“We hardly find our women in football, let alone women from such underprivileged background,” asserts Pankaj. From “how can you go out wearing shorts?” to “girls are not meant for sports” – Pankaj found them encountering every single hurdle of a patriarchal society. But, with the backing of a strong team of Slum Soccer and his own iron determination, the shy guy persevered.
Today, he has managed to establish a strong trust among these girls’ families. “They are not restricting their daughters within the four walls and kitchen anymore. They know they will make everyone proud one day,” Pankaj’s voice echoes with brilliant confidence. Presently, 350 girls from 12 schools in Nagpur are training under him in the ‘Shakti Girls’ project.
Abhijit Barse shares what Slum Soccer does
Slum Soccer is an organisation whose contribution cannot be summed up in a few words, as evident from Pankaj’s gratitude towards Abhijit Barse and his squad of Good Samaritans.
“My father Vijay Barse founded the organisation in 1999 as Krida Vikas Sanstha with the focus on Zopadpatty Football, rechristened as ‘Slum Soccer’ much later. The idea had struck him when he spotted a group of slum children kicking a bucket around in the rain,” Abhijit shares with Efforts For Good.
Abhijit, a PhD holder from a reputed US institution, took up the onus of Slum Soccer in 2006. Under him, the organisation flourished far and wide throughout India, thanks to the unique projects he introduced- clubbing sports, education and life skills together into a wholesome training module. Right now they have a total of 48 men’s and women’s teams across 24 states of India.
From orphanages, rescue homes, slums and low-income schools, boys and girls between the age of 9 and 18 are invited to play, learn and grow up with football, all expenses paid by Slum Soccer. While their gender sensitisation programmes aim to dispel the gender disparity and stigma surrounding girls playing football, the ‘Game Changers’ programme moulds future leaders and mentors from present players.
Among an endless list of their initiatives, EduKick is a recent one deserving special mention. “EduKick teaches basic mathematics to students using the techniques of football,” informs Abhijit, whose brainchild the module is. In many government schools, Slum Soccer coaches can be seen teaching negative and positive numbers or X & Y-axes in terms of offside and penalty boxes.
Ever wondered how good it would be if you could learn while you are playing?? Watch this Film to understand how we did it. How football can be used as a tool to educate children from underprivileged communities and developing a sense of self respect and awakening within. Full film releasing soon here.Stay tuned. Directed By : Pranit Gedham. Produced by: Slumsoccer in association with Agrani Concepts & Visuals.
Posted by Slum Soccer on Wednesday, March 9, 2016
Efforts For Good take
In a country that lives, breathes and survives in cricket, football is often a neglected sport. The grievances from football players in the country continue to focus on the lack of infrastructure, funding and proper training. Yet, in recent times, India has proved her prowess in the football field while contending strong international opponents. In that light, Slum Soccer is not just an organisation, but a much-needed trendsetter for this generation, who is proving the real worth of the game. Not only are they grooming future athletes, but they are also changing lives which would otherwise have remained lost in the darkness of poverty and its darker nuances.