One of the unforeseen but serendipitous fallouts in Manipur of the local area development funds made available to legislators, has been a sudden and quantum jump in the standard of young badminton players. The local area development funds, as we all know is a relatively new programme introduced by the Government of India in 1993 to ensure that durable assets are created at every Parliamentary and Assembly constituencies of the country, and under this scheme, a respectable amount of fund is earmarked annually for each legislators to invest in infrastructure building in his or her constituency during his tenure. Different legislators invest this fund differently to cater to the needs of their communities. As it has turned out, in the Imphal area, responding to the demands of their local communities, most MLAs have invested this fund in building community halls. Today, practically every locality has a community hall, and these have indeed been of great service in very many ways. As Imphal city gets progressively congested because of rapid urbanisation, traditional homesteads have transformed radically in response. One of the most prominent of these changes has been for the traditional courtyard and the shangoi (extended porticos) surrounding flanking it in practically in all direction, to either shrink drastically or else disappear altogether. This is the space where traditional family ceremonies, beginning from the feasting in celebration of birth to sankirtan held as part of last rites for the dead were once held. These disappeared but important spaces have now found a convenient common replacement in the new community halls.
But these community halls are serving their publics in another very important though unforeseen way. Almost all of them, when they are not used for ritual ceremonies, which incidentally is most of the time, become badminton courts for local children to hone their skills. As it is turning out, the reflex game that badminton is, is turning out to suit the sporting temperament of local youth very well. Indeed, arguably because of this phenomenon, Manipur today is becoming a force to reckon with in National badminton circuits, especially in the junior and sub-junior categories, with the promise that when the current generation of junior players come of age, they will retain the respect they earned in their junior days, to become champion materials in the senior and open categories as well. In the recently concluded National sub-junior badminton championship at Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, Manipur put a formidable show, especially in the boys section, bagging two golds and one silver. However, it is not just those who emerged at the top who impressed, but equally those who did not make it. On their given day, they could very well have beaten the very best and be at the top themselves. Even those who lost, did so only after giving their opponents, many of them who went on to win medals, big scares. The awesome team and bench strength of Manipur did not miss the audience either. It was flattering to hear many actually inquire as to how many badminton academies Manipur had. It was even more flattering to see they were in utter disbelief when the answer was, “none”. Mark our words, if nothing catastrophic happens to deflate the spirit, Manipur will soon see the emergence of champion materials from its current stable of extremely talented young players.
One other thing became clear after witnessing the Visakhapatnam championship. Indian sports, not just badminton, is coming of age and the days of amateur enthusiasts is getting over. Now you have young talents giving their entire time and energy to single sports in various sports academies. It is no longer a question of an engineering student also interested in badminton, but a badminton student also desiring at least a basic academic degree, and completing the formalities to get one. Young players and their parents are now increasingly putting their entire stake into the sports they pursue, hoping to win not just a career but also glory from them. Just as traditionally many students give everything to win a medical or engineering seat, or else to get through the civil services examinations, there are today young sporting talents equally focused on winning a place in society through sports. There will be heartbreaks, just as in all other fields, but given the energy invested, there will also soon be world beaters. In some of the elite sports such as badminton and tennis, this is already evident. There is nothing to say such breakthrough will not begin to happen in other sports as well. The upcoming Rio Olympics will be an interesting indicator if the dawn of an Indian sporting revolution has already come in sight.