Vyasarpadi, a tough, working-class neighbourhood situated in the northern part of Chennai, has an unpleasant reputation, especially south of the Cooum river. Harsh poverty, sparse employment opportunities, and a history of gang violence has meant that this part of Chennai is often out of sight, and therefore out of mind, when it comes to its more affluent neighbours.
Fed up of a seemingly uncaring government, and concerned about the future of their close-knit community, two brothers sought to change things 16 years ago by setting up a community organisation to help teach slum kids football: The Slum Children’s Sports Talent Education Development Society (SCSTEDS).
“We wanted to help our community with what little resources and knowledge we had,” explains N Umapathy, an official with the Income Tax department. “Football was a perfect choice, because it arms these kids with vital skills: The courage to face all of the obstacles life throws at them, and the determination to get to their goals.”
“Most of the children here come from the neighbouring slums,” adds his brother, Thangaraj. “The majority of them only have one parent, which is what makes them susceptible to child labour and anti-social elements.”
When the brothers first began their fight in 1997, their biggest enemies were alcohol and tobacco. “There were no jobs,” says Umapathy, with the few available well beyond the reach of the residents, because of their lack of access to educational facilities. “So people just drank and smoked away their lives.”
It is in this context that the courage and determination that the brothers spoke about comes into play. “Sixteen years ago, Vyasarpadi had a huge suicide problem,” says Thangaraj, “but it’s become better now.” (According to the NCRB, Chennai was the city with the highest number of suicides in 2014, with 2,214.)
But the SCSTEDS is more than just about learning a sport: It’s about breaking down barriers and bringing development to this part of Chennai through education.
“Education is the ultimate aim for us,” says Thangaraj, who estimates that in the 16 years they’ve officially run the organisation (the SCSTEDS was formally registered in 2000), more than 1000 students have finished their schooling and attained degrees via sports quotas.
This is all the more impressive given the apparent disinterest of the government in helping out the residents of Vyasarpadi, who eke out a living despite appalling infrastructure and poor quality housing. “Most of us are Dalits,” says Umapathy when asked if vote-bank politics are the reason for the Jayalalithaa government’s lack of support. “So while I can’t say whether that is the main reason, it may be true.”
The success of the scheme has seen a young man, Nanda, play football for the state, and even achieve a dream of his earlier in the year by playing alongside legend Ronaldinho during the Premier Futsal League.
It’s not just the men who have benefited: As Umapathy talks about this project, clearly close to his heart, his brother Thangaraj is busy training several girls, many of whom were inspired by J Sakthishweri, who, against all odds, represented India internationally a few years ago.
“I now help train the kids,” the 24-year-old says, who managed to escape child marriage, a common problem in Vyasarpadi, thanks the opportunity the SCSTEDS gave her, and is now an apprentice to a criminal lawyer at the Madras High Court.
“Football as a sport was incredibly important to me, and is important for girls,” she says. “This is a place where girls are told what they can’t do instead of what they can, but the courage and determination helps you find and achieve your goals.”
“We are ready to develop our area,” says Umapathy. “All we need is technical and financial assistance from the government to do so.”
The brothers’ struggles for the better part of two decades echoes similar schemes and community organisation in the low-income portions of the city proper, north of the Cooum.
But more than that it is a story of how a neighbourhood, often maligned by its history of notorious gangs, and fed up of an apathetic administration, has banded together to help its residents escape poverty.