As every Indian knows, the country struggles to win medals of any colour in the Olympic Games. In contrast, Sweden, a wealthy country with fewer people living in the entire country than, say, in one of the smaller Indian cities like Hyderabad, won 11 Olympic medals in 2016. Most of us can intuit why India struggles to win medals in global competitions – we don’t invest enough in looking after our children and our youngsters. So away from the sunny uplands of the posh schools in our megacities, how bad is the situation. Sujeet & Anirudha from The Wire say “How deeply does India dig for its sports and its scientific talent? To what extent do people in different segments of Indian society have the opportunity to show their talents for sports and mathematics and painting and writing and other achievements? Little is known on the subject. Methodical studies are just beginning.

We contribute to this important and growing body of knowledge in our recent working paper, asking 806 students (410 in rural Bihar, 103 in slums in Patna and 293 in slums in Delhi) between 12 and 14 years in age, enrolled in government schools, about their access to eight different activities including painting, athletics, singing, theatre, chess, coding and mental mathematics. We also asked about these Class 7 and 8 students’ career preferences and willingness to take part in talent-spotting events of different kinds and about a small number of socio-economic indicators.

…42% of the Bihar sample have the lowest participation score, zero points, meaning that they had no opportunity whatsoever, at school or outside, for taking part in any of the eight activities over all of the previous five years! A total of 80% took part in a painting event on one or two occasions, a few took part in singing once or twice – and that was it, over all of five years. The situation in Delhi is only marginally better. Among the sample from Delhi slums, 24% have the lowest participation score, zero points, while as many as 90% have scores of 10 points or fewer, indicating that the individual took part in one or two activities at the entry level once or twice over five years – but had no chances of competing at any higher level nor even any regularity of training and competition.

The average participation scores for each activity are very, very low. Take for instance the score of access to athletics competition, the score for Bihar is 0.34, which means that at most 34% of sample had access once (and only once) to entry-level competition while the remaining 66% did not have a single opportunity for all of the past five years. In Delhi, 59% had no access whatsoever to sporting competitions and 88% had no access to mental mathematics or chess. If there is a hidden talent – and there must be very many hidden talents in these large populations – how are these talents going to be discovered?”

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