“padoge likhoge hoge nawaab, kheloge kudoge ho gaye kharaab”

We have all grown up listening to this; how it’s pretty worthless to spend time playing, but truly valuable to spend that time to read and write.

Pratik Kumar, COO at Magic Bus, tends to disagree with this rather traditional point of view. He works on a basic premise that children and youth love to play and it’s important to use that as a hook, for an all round development of the child.

Twelve years ago, Magic Bus was formed with the belief that sports could change the world. Over the next decade, as Magic Bus worked with children from Mumbai’s slums, it realized that issues of education, healthcare, livelihoods, could all be tackled if one tried to establish development programs that use ‘Sports’ as a means to community development. Pratik Kumar believes that ‘playing’ is and always will be a natural draw for kids, where one doesn’t need to force participation. With this as their foundation, they have developed a 4year curriculum, with the intention of having a longer engagement with the child. The activities are run by male and female volunteers, called community youth leaders, who are chosen from within the community, 2 for every 50 children. These youth leaders are then trained on sports for development activities as well as leadership, becoming role models for the community at large.  This, he believes, is a self- sustaining mechanism, where these volunteers start feeling a sense of responsibility towards the community aiming to become living examples for everybody else. On the other hand, the community finds it easier to relate to people from within their own community.

While this model can be applauded for its uniqueness and effectiveness, it is largely funder driven where support from corporations and individuals is crucial to keep it going. This is a challenge area for Magic Bus, where Pratik Kumar feels that they have a long way to go to effectively change mindsets on sports being viewed as a frivolous activity. “Sports is just the hook, not the end game”, says Pratik who finds it difficult to explain the impact of his cause, compared to projects where the end deliverable is more tangible like building a school or a hospital. Magic Bus uses an unconventional method, not involving a traditional classroom with a blackboard. Their service deliverable is building on softer skills like resilience, confidence, awareness, and leadership. “We teach the child why it’s important to go to school, the importance of education in one’s life, but its difficult to make people understand this. Most people prefer the beaten path, than experiment with something new,” says Pratik, “This however makes our work both challenging and exciting”

Having said that, they have been successful in establishing some very strong corporate relationships with companies like English Premier League, Australian sports commission, Nike Foundation etc. (For the entire list, please refer to this link) Companies take leverage of the fact that this program is highly visible where children sport jerseys, use equipment, sports kits etc while they are on the field, opening up unique branding options for them. Magic Bus also encourages long-term partnerships as they feel engagement over a longer period has a larger impact. Given that it’s a pre qualifier of sorts for partnerships, Magic Bus prides over the fact they have managed to retain every organization, which has ever partnered with them till date.

Getting children to play may sound like an easy concept, but Pratik confesses that there is huge machinery running at the backend, an MIS that tracks every activity. To begin with, they have a system that gives a unique id to every child, hard copies on the child’s demographics, parents, physical condition and health.Various formats of information that get captured then go to their office at the district level, which further maintains a log frame of deliverables. Simultaneously, Magic Bus runs training programs for the youth volunteers as well as the trained staff. “Its not just the operations, there is a lot of science, methodology and research involved in the execution of our work” says Pratik.

Talking about some of their successes, Pratik says “Using play as the medium for engagement has helped them scale in very little time” where they are reaching out to close to seventy thousand children at the moment, only in Delhi. All over India, their work touches 200,000 children. Their model also conveniently tackles the issue of attrition where the only reason why a child wouldn’t indulge in playing is if the parents don’t allow them to go out, if the child (specially girl child) gets married or if the family migrates. The Magic Bus volunteers who run the program have a 2% attrition rate. This program also sells itself as a very cost effective one where the cost per child per month for intense engagement, is only Rs 100. More importantly however, they have managed to break societal norms. In Hyderadabad, for instance, you get to see a rather distinctive sight of women in Burqas coming out and kicking the ball with the others. A spectacle that is symbolic of how Magic Bus has successfully managed to use sports as a medium for change.

“Throw a ball in a community and you already have about 15 children with you, to begin with… That’s the power of sports” says Pratik.

These initiatives have now spread to 14 districts, 7 states and 1000 distinct locations, under Magic Bus.