As the excitement builds up towards Diwali, the festival of lights, two little sparklers from Navi Mumbai municipal schools are chasing a dream, armed with steady hands, bold hearts. Anshika Parajapti, 15, and Nutan Choudhary, 14, competing in the 10m Air Rifle on debut appearance at the National Shooting Championships, have gone down life’s rough roads for so long that holding a rifle is pure joy, time spent in sport is a happy adventure.
These two teenagers, trainees from a collaboration between Lakshya Shooting Club (LSC) and Agnel Charities at the LSC’s – Fr Agnel’s Sports Complex (Navi Mumbai) centre, happen to be the outstanding students emerging from a 2022 talent hunt organised as an initiative by the then Deputy Commissioner (Sports & Cultural Department) of Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) Shri. Manojkumar Mahale and supported by DSO Shri. R.H. Gurav to offer shooting exposure for under-privileged students from municipal schools in its jurisdiction, on 22nd and 23rd July 2022.
Anshika and Nutan were among the 13 girls and boys shortlisted in 2022 for a six-month project, aimed at changing lives through sport. Being children from under-privileged backgrounds from families struggling to make ends meet, municipal school kids balancing air rifles on the shoulder and taking aim in a shooting range is fantasy becoming reality. Perseverance from them, supported by family and coaches at Navi Mumbai kept them going.
Sporting activity for municipal school kids is dependent on grounds nearby managed by the local municipality. Shooting is such an equipment-centric sport, requiring an indoor or outdoor range, that access to normal citizens is difficult. NMMC kids got exposure to rifle shooting due to Shri. Mahale going beyond his call of duty. He got in touch with Agnel Charities and Lakshya Shooting Club to give kids a shot at history.
Students blessed with talent and focus were trained, prepared and sent for a state-level competition, a state championship and the pre-nationals, the G. V. Mavalankar Shooting Championship 2023, Mhow (Madhya Pradesh), where among four young Navi Mumbai student-shooters, Anshika and Nutan qualified on first attempt for the National Championships 2023 organised by the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI), in New Delhi from November 15th 2023 to December 02nd 2023.
Before rifle shooting became a part of their life, awareness about the background of these two sparkling teenagers from municipal schools is needed to know the hurdles overcome just to get to play sport. Anshika’s parents are from Azamgarh (UP), mother looks after the family after cancer took away her father this year. Taking care of three children, she does a labour-oriented job in a private company in Turbhe. The ninth standard student scored 368/400 in pre-national shooting competition, called the G. V. Mavalankar Shooting Championship, to gain a sub-youth category (10 – 16 years of age) berth in 10m Air Rifle for the Delhi meet, a chance to watch and test her mettle against shooters from other states. Nutan, also in ninth standard, whose qualifying score was 385/400, belongs to Haripur (Bihar) and father holds a marketing job in the private sector, mother is a homemaker.
Ramesh Mali, Head Coach, who has been with LSC since 2006 and is currently the coach at the Navi Mumbai shooting range that launched in 2010, explained: “Training starts in the afternoon after school is over. Anshika, Nutan reach here on their own, teaming up with other girls coming for training. Hungry to learn rifle shooting, rarely absent unless their presence is needed at home, both are more focused and as talented as the other kids. Qualifying for the Nationals is admirable.”
He adds: “From the municipal school children brought here by NMMC during the talent scouting, four girls stood out for not losing interest like others shortlisted for training, so will make a mark today or tomorrow. The two other girls, Manasvi Jadhav and Ankita Gupta who fell short of qualification for the Nationals need to tighten up game aspects and will perform next season. We try to give all four the best preparation possible within our reach.”
Anshika and Nutan will benefit by using equipment tailored to individual needs, from rifle to shooting gear to shoes. “When competing at the National Championships, shooters use personalised rifles, special clothing made to fit their body structure, shoes etc. Lakshya and Agnel’s are making arrangements with the resources available, but till when?” asks the coach, who will accompany the trainees at the Nationals.
Rev. Fr. Almeida, Managing Director of Agnel’s Complex reiterated its commitment “For Agnel Charities, empowering young minds and providing opportunities for their growth and development is a core mission. We are deeply committed to supporting initiatives that enable talented individuals to pursue their dreams, regardless of their background. Anshika and Nutan’s inspiring journey exemplifies the transformative power of sports and education. We are proud to be part of this initiative, and we believe in the potential of every child to achieve greatness with the right support and encouragement”.
The NMMC project in 2022 started with 13 students chosen after a talent hunt for shooting scholarships. Lakshya Shooting Club and Agnel Charities bore 50 per cent scholarship cost, the other half by NMMC. The four municipal school kids who displayed the dedication and drive to continue are training at the LSC – Agnel indoor range set up at the Fr. Agnel’s Sports Complex, using latest equipment, including imported pellets.
Competition expenses, equipment, pellets, travel and related expenses borne by LSC, Agnel Charities on four NMMC students is ₹ 55,000 so far. Anshika and Nutan will travel as part of a group of 116 shooters across 12 years to 40 years age groups from LSC to New Delhi, accompanied by coaching staff and a psychologist. “With the Nationals in focus, shooters who qualified are fine-tuned in body and mind,” said the LSC coach, once groomed by Dronacharya Awardee, the late Shri. Sanjoy Chakraverthy.
Life lessons for the young girls began with a train journey from Mumbai to Delhi via the Rajdhani Express. The anxiety of these first-time travellers on a long-distance journey was lowered by the sight of a familiar face at the destination station. Assistant Coach Onkar Patekar received the wards at Nizamuddin station and escorted them to the venue. One journey had just ended, the sporting journey continues.
Competing with a shared weapon, belonging to Angel Charities and borrowed jacket-trousers, Nutan shot 612.2 in 10m Air Rifle Sub-Youth women category to qualify for the Indian Team selection trials, part of the upcoming shooting calendar. Anshika shot 595.9 in the same event, same category. The girls returned home richer for the experience, armed with confidence of witnessing first-hand what happens at the National Championships.
The journey by Anshika, Nutan and friends from the NMMC schools, handheld by a dedicated team at LSC and Agnel Charities, has arrived at a point from where continuity in shooting will need more hands linking up, more resources especially funding, before the celebrations can begin. “From the moment they step into the range for action, the body language is so positive that any outsider will not be able to single them out as municipal school kids in a crowd of other shooters,” said the coach.
Indian shooting is reaping the rewards of investing resources and rupees in juniors and teenagers, as visible from the names hitting the headlines after the Hangzhou Asian Games 2023. Equally vital is the support to young ones along the journey of ups and downs, in a technical sport where families can only do so much, then the support system needs to take over for the talented young ones to be equipped before being pitted against the best. Even Abhinav Bindra, the 2008 Olympic gold-medallist, had once said at a scholarship award function for Sports for All – “Having a sports culture in a country like ours is extremely important. If we are serious about sports, we need to focus on grassroots, because grassroots is where we need to invest our efforts to create sporting champions of tomorrow”
By Nandakumar Marar
Renowned Sports Journalist