The sound of whistles, the clash of hockey sticks and shouts of boys break the silence of a hot, still summer day in the northern Indian village of Pakharpura in the Amritsar district of Punjab. Some 60 boys are busy dribbling the ball and listening to instructions from their coach as they learn to master the game. One of them, 13-year-old Pavitrapal Singh, dreams of playing for the national hockey team and one day making India proud. He never misses training after school. Singh and other youngsters are being coached under a project begun by the Jalandhar Diocese in May last year to deter young people from drugs and other vices. More than 1,000 young people, including over 200 girls, are undergoing the training in hockey, one of the most popular sports in India. "We started it (the project) to counter the drug problem in this area," said Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar.
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The bishop explained that drug addiction is a major problem in Punjab, where Christians officially account for just one percent of the 28 million people in the Sikh-majority state. Bishop Mulakkal said drug addiction was not a problem among Catholic youth because "we have our own checks and balances. But the rest of the population is much affected by this evil." A government survey
showed Punjab has 232,000 drug-dependent people, 76 percent of them aged 18-35. Nationally, Punjab ranks second in the consumption of illegal drugs, behind Nagaland. Border areas with Pakistan are badly affected by the drug menace, says Father Sijith John, administrator of the Navjeevan Charitable Society, the diocesan social service wing, organizing the hockey training project. Coach Sarabjeet Singh gives some tips to young hockey players during a training session at Pakharpura village in the Amritsar district of Punjab. (ucanews.com photo)
Father John said they were getting an encouraging response, as evidenced by increasing registrations for training. This year over 1,000 children registered to play hockey, compared to 748 last year, he said. Father John said the diocese hopes to build a world-class hockey academy in the next five years to produce high-quality players who can represent India. The Indian national hockey team has historically been a powerhouse of the sport, winning eight Olympic gold medals, the last at the Moscow games in 1980. However, in recent years their dominance has slipped and they finished 8th
at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Young people from 15 villages are being trained at three hockey centers in Amritsar that the diocese runs for school children in and around the capital city. The training is accompanied by awareness about the harmful effects of illicit drugs. There are 10 professional coaches working with three age divisions and preparing them for competition at state and national level. Playing equipment is provided by the diocese and the project collaborates with with Bovelander and Bovelander B V Hockey Academy founded by Dutch Olympic gold medalist, Floris Jan Bovelander. Ajay, 17, who comes from a poor Catholic family, said the hockey project was a rare opportunity to experience top-rate facilities "without paying a penny." His ambition is to make his coaches, parents and country proud by winning an Olympic gold for India. The coaches also believe that some of their young charges have the potential to play at the highest level. "We can see some future players in these children," said Balwant Singh who coaches at the Pakharpura center. "If given proper training and guidance, they are sure to win trophies for the country."