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From Rags to Rugby: How the Sport Changed Lives of Slum Kids in Delhi

A rugby team of correction house inmates, former beggars, school dropouts and slum dwellers has found its place in a sport few care about in India.

by Zeyad Masroor Khan; photos by Zeyad Masroor Khan
13 March 2019, 7:40am

The Yellow Streets rugby team

UPDATE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Rugby Leaders team is headed to Japan for the Rugby World Cup. However, the team is still awaiting an official confirmation on the same. VICE apologises for any confusion in this report.

It’s still dark on a wintry February morning when boys and girls from the slums of Jasola in south Delhi, slowly assemble on the football grounds of the upscale Jasola Sports Complex. Adjacent to a court where some middle-aged men in expensive sports T-shirts play lawn tennis, this football ground sees around 40 kids between the ages of 8 to 24 charging into a foam pad with as much momentum as they can gather. They are getting ready for a game of rugby, a sport few care about in a cricket-obsessed nation. And playing it is a team comprising former beggars, correction house inmates, school dropouts and residents from the south Delhi slums of Okhla Tank, Madanpur Khadar, Jasola Flyover, Jamia Nagar and Nizamuddin.

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Ready, steady, charge

“When people ask [what rugby is], we tell them it’s a game in which heavily-built players fight to take an egg-shaped ball across a line at the end of the ground,” says Danish Afzal, 18, the president of the team that is called Rugby Leaders.

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Danish Afzal

In India, the story of rugby is still at a nascent stage, owing to a lack of visibility and awareness. In 2018, a Nielsen survey conducted by World Rugby found that the sport has 25.7 million fans. But what’s interesting is how the sport is helping in the rehabilitation of marginalised youth—helping them not just channel their aggression constructively but also instil discipline, focus, team spirit and life skills. And now, it might also take these kids to Japan for the Rugby World Cup.

When I meet Afzal, he tells me about his troubled childhood while growing up in the lanes of Nizamuddin basti (slums). “I used to beat up anyone I could at the slightest provocation,” he says. “When I couldn’t find someone to harm, I would cut my own arms or hit my head against the walls of my house.” Talk to this group and you’ll realise that Afzal is not the only one with a painful story.

Rugby Leaders is an initiative of Yellow Streets, a New Delhi-based organisation that trains the marginalised youth of Delhi in sports and allied activities. It is run by Saif Ullah Khan (a national-level rugby player), his cousin, Yusra Khan (a social activist) and journalist Rohan Chandra. For close to two years, the cousins from south Delhi’s Jamia Nagar (an area with its own history of violence) have been working with street kids, delinquents and juveniles, and inducting them into their rugby team. “Rugby is a sport that is perfect for rehabilitation,” says Saif, who has assumed a rather father-figure reputation among the kids.

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“Rugby is a sport that is perfect for rehabilitation.”

In September this year, if things work out, the team will represent India at the Rugby World Cup in Japan—the first time the tournament is taking place in Asia. The team is still awaiting a final confirmation on this but if it does come through, Yellow Streets will be presented as “an inspirational story” by the organisers. DHL, the official logistics partner at the World Cup, will sponsor 20 kids from the team to watch the event from a separate enclosure, participate in events, and travel around Japan. “They found our story intense enough to be showcased at the World Cup,” says Yusra.

Saif, like many of the kids he coaches twice a week, himself started playing rugby to redeem himself from his troubled teenage years spent in Jamia Nagar, having fallen prey to depression, substance abuse and heightened aggression. “I was the school bully everyone was afraid of—the boy who took drugs to take his mind off things and had nearly given up on life,” he tells me. In 2014, when his school’s coach selected him for rugby trials, he went only to get a chance to beat up people without consequences. “When I did a tackle, everyone standing started to clap. For the first time, I felt accepted for what I was,” he says. In 2015, Saif went on to represent Delhi in national rugby matches and play for Delhi Hurricanes, a prominent rugby team in Delhi.

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Saif Ullah Khan teaches a boy while the rest of the team looks on.

It was while Saif was working with a volunteer for a social organisation that he came up with a plan to work with “angry kids”, much like himself. “I felt like my problems were nothing in front of theirs,” says the 23-year-old. As he sits with me, I notice his bright red jersey with the words ‘Alpha Wolf’. He explains, “When a wolfpack moves in a forest, other animals are wary of attacking them because of their unity. The oldest animals move in front, followed by the younger ones and lastly, the leader, the alpha wolf. This is how our group moves in the streets too.” In this pack, a new trainee is called 'baby wolf', who learns new skills to become a beta, then an omega, and, finally, an alpha."

When Saif and Yusra started out, they devised a unique recruiting technique to induct more kids into their team: saving money on bus fares. Before a training session, they would personally visit the homes of their students and take them to the ground. This small team of around eight would walk through the slums in their sporting gear. “Neighbourhood kids would ask: ‘Kahan jaa rahe ho (Where are you going)? Some joined out of curiosity, and others would come because they could see a friend in the caravan,” says Yusra. Now they have a team of more than 50, which has also taken on the task of talking to children and parents from their community and bringing them into the fold.

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"In rugby, we don’t have losers, just winners and learners."

As the morning fog ebbs, more people start pouring onto the field. Lineouts, scrums and tackles begin to get more frequent and intense. As a boy falls down with a thud, Saif asks everyone to clap for him. “We teach our kids to celebrate failures and even pain. In rugby, we don’t have losers, just winners and learners,” he says, as he runs towards the kid to ensure he’s not injured.

In 2018, the duo learnt of and tracked down Mahesh*, a 20-year-old boy who was arrested for his alleged involvement in an armed robbery. This led to the start of their work with kids in Delhi’s correction homes. Saif tried to get Mahesh out on bail. “The judge thought the boy will go back to crime. I promised that the boy would have a rugby certificate by the time of his next hearing,” says Saif. After getting bail, Mahesh was welcomed by the team as their own. “Because of his hard work, he got selected for a tournament, performed brilliantly and helped us come second. We took the trophy to Mahesh’s next hearing.”

After that, a juvenile court judge asked Yellow Streets to run a pilot programme at the same correction facility. The cousins started counselling the inmates, along with customised drills. “In our guided meditation, we focused on their crimes and inner fears,” says Saif. “Almost all of them had bottled-up aggression and anger. A few blamed their mentors in their area, who had taught them to pick pockets, rob or shoot people . Many of them cried.” After they successfully recruited more boys in 2019, they were invited by a correction home in Delhi’s Majnu Ka Tila area, that houses kids accused of heinous crimes.

The recruitment didn’t just end on the field. Saif, Yusra and senior students such as Afzal and Mahesh started giving classes to corporate organisations on team building, work ethics and setting smart goals. To keep funds flowing, they started teaching and charging kids from privileged backgrounds. “In rugby, you pass the ball behind to move ahead,” says Saif, “So we are passing on our expertise to these kids to make Yellow Streets grow.” At the moment, the group also wants to recruit international coaches to help them compete on a higher level and create a professional club named ‘Delhi Wolves’. They’ve already created the next line of leadership by training the kids in life skills apart from the game itself. “They are given positions within the team such as a treasurer, conflict manager, president and PR manager,” says Yusra.

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Yusra Khan with kids from Yellow Streets

Sometimes, the kids form their own roles on the field. Mahesh, for instance, has devised a move he calls "murgi pass (chicken pass)", in which he runs towards a player, commits like he is going to pass, and then passes to another just to confuse the opponent. Another boy, Roshan, throws the ball in a circle and runs to the spot to catch it, basically passing the ball to himself.

At the core of it all is the kids’ backgrounds that have manifested in some of their most powerful traits on the field. Azim*, for one, has had several relatives in prison due to their association with violent crimes; he is now one of the best attacking players in the team. Pinky, 13, delivers water containers on a rickshaw in her colony under a flyover, while Roshni works as a househelp in the nearby Madanpur Khadar. Both bring their strength to the game. Two other girls, Himani and Devi, come from the family of a local priest. Initially, their father was apprehensive about them playing with boys in sports attires, but they managed to convince him. “We wake up at four in the morning to come here before we go for our Saturday classes. Now our parents come and see our tournaments,” says Devi, 18.

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Equal treatment for girls and boys on the field translates to it off-field as well

Shashi Bhaskar, 14, says rugby has made him overcome his prejudices. “Earlier, I would wonder how Muslims or lower castes would eat. How do they live? After playing with them, I realised we’re more than our differences; we’re sportspersons and friends,” he says. Others like Puneet were concerned about playing on the same team as the girls. “How would I tackle her without accidentally touching her at the wrong places? But Saif Sir told me that I just have to think of her as another player,” he says. All the members of the team are friends and confidantes.

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“How would I tackle her without accidentally touching her at the wrong places? But Saif Sir told me that I just have to think of her as another player."

As I get up to leave, the children who live under the flyover invite me to their colony, barely a kilometre from my own home in Delhi. We get out of the swanky sports complex and head into a colony where garbage is routinely piled up in one corner, kids suffer from skin diseases, women cook rotis on wooden stoves, and drunk men struggle to catch our attention. Afzal takes out a speaker and plays a Bollywood song, much to the team’s delight. In a slum under a flyover, with speeding vehicles passing on both sides, we all dance.

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