THE 2015 Youth Perception Survey that was conducted for the UNDP’s National Human Development Report, 2017, narrates a very depressing tale about the state of engagement of youth in social and civic activities. Out of the 7,000 odd youth surveyed, when asked about access to recreational facilities and events, 78.6 per cent said they had no access to parks, 94.5pc had no access to a library, 97.2pc had not been to a live music event, 93.9pc had not been to a sports event, 93pc did not have access to any sports facilities, 97pc had not been to a cinema — and 71.7pc reported that they did not have access to or attend any of the above activities or events.
When I was in school — this was more than three decades ago — we had regular physical education sessions and had sports in our school: cricket, hockey and football in particular, but also table tennis and a couple of other sports. There were regular inter-class tournaments, and the school teams participated in inter-school tournaments.
More than the school though, our neighbourhood had lots of children, and we used to have teams for almost everything. Some of the teams were even organised as clubs. We attended different schools, were part of different social and economic groups, but we played together and played almost any sport we could get excited about. When the Pakistan team played cricket, we all played cricket. When Pakistan used to win hockey tournaments, we would all catch hockey fever. We used to play cricket or hockey almost every evening, and matches were played on the weekends. The experiences of my friends, of around the same age group, is also similar.
Sports can teach our youth valuable lessons in how to live and work in harmony.
When I talk to school-age children of my friends or relatives now, I find they are usually in one of the following stages of being: preparing for examinations, giving examinations or just having finished giving examinations and preparing for the next string of tests or examinations. There is hardly ever any mention of any regular sports activities and/or tournaments.
Even elite schools do not seem to give the same importance to sports that they once did. We hardly ever hear of inter-school tournaments now. Even at the college and university level, sports have lost some of their importance. When Government College used to play Islamia College at cricket, it used to be quite an event in Lahore. We do not hear about such matches anymore.
At a recent public event, Najam Sethi also lamented the demise of school-based sports activities. He also linked Pakistan’s poor performance in sporting events at different levels to the demise of school and college level sporting activity. Schools used to be nurseries for cultivating cricket talent. They are no longer so. Colleges and universities, at one point, were producing players who would go on to make their name on the international stage. This does not happen anymore.
The issue is not just about sporting performance. It is much deeper and broader. Sports are activities that not only shape the body, they shape the mind as well as the community. People learn to work, play and interact with each other through communal activities. They learn how to perform individually as well as collectively, as members of a team. They learn how to cooperate and how to compete. A lot of this is about citizenship.
Pakistan is young. We have a youth bulge and we are still very much in the early stages of the demographic transition. The number of youth is going to continue to increase over the next few decades. The next many elections, as well as most other larger and important national questions, are going to be decided, on behalf of all, by the youth of this country. Their large numbers will tip any democratic decision-making process that is put in place.
This youth needs to be educated and skilled, and, equally importantly, they need to learn how to live with each other — how to coexist and create an environment for themselves and others in society that will allow all to flourish and live well. How is this going to be achieved if the youth do not interact with each other, do not meaningfully engage with the rest of society and do not have opportunities for participation in decision-making about their lives and about the life of the community and the nation?
Sports can be an important element of education, and an effective and meaningful way for engaging our youth. But, for this to happen, we have to start thinking locally again. Schools have to become the hub for supporting sporting activities. Local governments and communities have to step forward to provide the needed support. Resources are important, but, the willingness and ability to organise is even more essential than money. Local governments have to create spaces (grounds, tracks, courts, etc) but these need to be managed by schools and/or local groups.
Private-public partnership arrangements would probably be the best bet here. If local governments can create physical spaces for sports activities, schools, college or clubs, with backing from local communities, can manage these spaces and hold tournaments, training camps and so on.
I know of at least one social enterprise that holds local sports tournaments on a financially viable and sustainable basis. Their main issue is access to decent grounds. If they can get this, even if they have to pay for it, they are easily able to raise funds to hold tournaments. But getting permission to use grounds has been their main issue.
We need to move towards a revival of sports. This can play a large part in socialising and training our youth in the skills that we want them to have. This revival does not need plenty of resources, but it does need a lot of organisational ability at the local level. This might explain why it has been difficult to organise and catalyse.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor economic at Lums, Lahore.
Published in Dawn, January 11th, 2019