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In an interview, Ramesh Kumar, Vice President, Head of ESPN India and South Asia spoke to TNM about various aspects of the programme.

ESPN’s Global Citizenship Program, led by the ‘Safe Spaces’ initiative, is a programme that aims to provide a platform for change through sports, for the underprivileged communities globally. The program has seen heartening success across four under-served communities in Latin America and ESPN is bringing this initiative to benefit communities in India for the first time.  

ESPN in partnership with Magic Bus, has initiated the project for the community of Bandepalaya – a neighbourhood in the southern part of Bengaluru with a population of 7,000 in a 2 km radius. The community faces challenges such as low levels of education around health and hygiene, high levels of addiction to chewing tobacco, coupled with a school dropout rate of 5% and the average educational qualification achieved is 8th standard, besides other social challenges such as a severe lack of recreation facilities and lack of personal hygiene. The project is set to be inaugurated in Bengaluru on November 2. 

In an interview, Ramesh Kumar, Vice President, Head of ESPN India and South Asia spoke to TNM about various aspects of the initiative including its journey from Latin America to India, challenges in implementing it in India and the goals of the project. 

Here are excerpts from the inteview. 

Can you tell us how the ‘Safe Spaces’ initiative came about and why you decided to introduce it in India? 

This is part of ESPN ‘Safe Spaces’ Initiative which is a corporate citizenship initiative of ESPN and this is globally the fifth project that is happening. The last four have been happening in Latin America, and this is the first one outside of Latin America and the first one is in Asia in India and in Bengaluru. It’s primarily looking at sports as a platform and a medium to bridge certain need gaps in the society. We at ESPN clearly believe that sports empowers the spirit of youth and individuals and are using the power of sports to clearly look at any need gap in the society in terms of living conditions, sanitation, hygiene.

How did this programme originate in Latin America? 

It originated in May 2016 at a very conservative level. It had made a difference to 5,000 children in that region and almost 135 youth participated in various community trainings in that area. Close to 49 youth completed various vocational and training programmes. This was spread across four communities in Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Mexico and Sao Paulo. These are the four regions in Latin America that we looked at and where we clearly noticed success with this initiative. So, when we looked at where we want to expand beyond Latin America, we looked at a market where clearly there are pockets of under-served youth and after potential evaluation, we identified Bandepalaya. 

How did you go about identifying the under-served areas which you want to target? 

We work closely with our partners which are primarily Love Football and Magic Bus. With a lot of these under-served communities, Magic Bus clearly has a lot of grassroots level programmes in a lot of these areas. We identified areas looking at proximity to our office, and hence the natural consideration was whether to do it in Bengaluru where we have the strongest presence or Mumbai where we have another office. With Bengaluru, there were again other options which carried a lot of weightage like highest need gap, where the community is really under-served and where there are no facilities. There is a big crying need in terms of a facility of this sort where even our partners, Magic Bus as well as Love Football, realise that substantial improvement is needed. The various other attributes that we are looking for from this project are: marked change in development metrics for the youth, making a clear difference to the children in the school and especially for the girls. So, based on all this, we identified Bandepalaya as an under-served area, having low levels of sanitation and a high school dropout rate.

Are you looking at expanding this programme to other under-served areas in the city or other cities? 

If you look at it, this is a starting point. Clearly, we are very proud that outside of Latin America, Bengaluru is the first place ESPN is looking at. So as we see it, ESPN India, Magic Bus as well as Love Football are clearly excited about it. We would want to look at and evaluate the clear progress that we achieve at the end of one year. As I said, there are clearly identified areas that we want to make a difference in. There are clear structured programmes that we are looking at. Post that, we will look at what more do we need to do within this existing system.

What are the biggest challenges in implementing this kind of a programme? 

One is there are various stakeholders at the ground level. The local community needs to be actively involved but again they face a resource crunch. They certainly need to be a strong contributor to it and need to buy into the value to enthusiastically support it. Then there is the local government which obviously is a strong stakeholder. At the end of the day, it’s a government ground that we are using. They need to completely buy into this proposal. Partners need to have a strong relationship and also operational skill set which includes training programmes that are clearly modular. We are going to look at a very structured programme and evaluate what’s the progress and at the end of one year, come up with what kind of difference we’ve made to these thousand plus youth and present a report to the local government. 

Has the process of rolling out the project been smooth? 

As I said, our first biggest achievement is we spent four months now to set up this facility spread across 8,000 square feet and around 200 members of the community have spent time to lay out this entire astro turf facility, to fence the entire area and get it painted. They have created a facility where it’s not just a play area, but 300 people can sit as well. Setting up the infrastructure itself has been the first big achievement. Second, even as we are doing it, we understand from Magic Bus that they clearly have thought through and mapped the community in terms of firstly, the existing children in the government school, girls and the women in that area by using sports as a medium. So as a first step, the facility is set up for the November 2 inauguration for rolling out the various plans. 

How important a role does language have to play in interacting with the kids? 

Language is something which we recognise which is why we ensure at the touchpoint level, people are aware and conversant with the local language. We are even ensuring that some of the talent, the celebrities who are present for the inauguration are conversant with the local language. Obviously, Magic Bus are the experts. So they ensure that people at a grassroots level who implement these programmes are well-versed with the language. So, language is important  to ensure that our communication gets across, especially for a structured programme. 

Is there any particular sport you are focussing on? 

Football is the primary sport though the facility there is multi-functional. So, you can play football but there’s also a pitch laid out for cricket. There’s also basketball and volleyball. So, while we have all that, football is one which the kids naturally seem to love to play. 

What kind of investment has gone into the programme? 

The land is from the state government. While I can’t share the specifics of the investment, we were involved in laying out of the turf in terms of building the setup. So, our intervention will also be in terms of the regular training and input. The good thing again about this facility is that the local community will now take charge in terms of how to even use the pitch for additional commercial monetisation. So whatever money that they make from it will be used for regular upkeep. 

What are the biggest positives that you have seen so far? 

Just in the build phase, we have seen widespread participation from children, who could be diffident or suspicious about the motives. At the build stage, from whatever grassroots level experience say Magic Bus has had, there’s been active participation from the kids and all of them have been eagerly involved in terms of the challenges as they go around implementing the various programmes, specially with getting the girls to participate in sports. Implementing this phase by phase, this is something they have done across cities, not just in India but globally.  

What are the short term / long term goals with this project? 

The objective is to look at a clear target where at the end of one year, working along with our partners, we are able to make a difference to about 1,100 youth with clear indicators. Based on these indicators, we would know that there’s been a marked improvement in terms of sanitation, employability index, overall awareness and various other metrics that matter.