It happens nowhere else in India. Dozens of elderly ladies dressed in their traditional phaneks " Manipuri wraparounds for ladies " running entire marathons during the five-day Yaoshang or spring festival in Manipur. The throngs of people in track suits or sporting jumper apparel going about their daily life. Sports are a way of life in Manipur.
My driver Elangbam Ojit, 40, played football at the national level for his club Sagolband United. He also cycled across the country a few years back. The present chief minister Nongthombam Biren Singh played football for the Border Security Force (BSF) national team and was part of the 1981 Durand Cup winning team.
"Over the years, the interest in sports is only increasing. People are more health conscious than ever. But there are so many other reasons too," says Ojit as we speed past youngsters playing football under well-lit LED (light-emitting diode) lights on a rain-drenched evening.
Among the many factors that have led to this spiking interest is the easy availability of LED bulbs from just across the border with Myanmar where Namphalong market and Tamu town are located. Both are flourishing business hotspots where LED lights can be bought cheap.
In 2017-18, according to the World Bank, Myanmar's economy grew at 6.8%, driven by strong performance in domestic trade and telecommunications. It is expected to clock 6.6% in 2020-21. With robust economic growth, demand for consumer products has picked up rapidly, as has the size of the advertising industry where LED lights are needed for signage. With growing demand, there has been a proliferation of such lights from China, many of which find their way into the Tamu and Namphalaong and thence into Manipur.
Says Thoijam Harideo, a 20-something entrepreneur from Imphal's Khurai Thangjam leikei (Leikei is a small locality), who has set up a small football turf: "Every day, there are any numbers of matches played under LED lights. Students after school and college, professionals, businessmen turn up to play here late into the night." Harideo points out two engineers fighting for the ball with a government officer.
But what about the notorious power cuts that plague the state?
Says Thoijam Somorjit: "There is a sea-change in the power supply scenario now. Earlier there were many defaulters who were reluctant to pay their power bills. As a result there were frequent power shutdowns. Now with privatization of power distribution and pre-paid accounts, electricity is assured. Better infrastructure will only show better results in the sports arena in Manipur."
"With shrinking urban space in and around Imphal, playgrounds are getting smaller and smaller. Every 'leikei' has its own small playing space and it is not very difficult to light up a small space for sports like football, badminton etc."
LEDs consume much less power than conventional bulbs and emit more light too. So power bills are low. LED equipment also is less affected by the frequent heavy spells of rain that lash the state, making it much easier to maintain and service. Huge LED billboards light up Imphal in the evenings, many with big posters of the state's sporting heroes " posters which lure ever more Manipuri youth to take up sport as a career.
"Footballers P Renedy Singh and M Gouramangi Singh have done so well professionally as well as financially. And with so many leagues and clubs nowadays, football is attracting much of our local youth who are blessed with a natural ability," says Somorjit. Of the 21 Team India players for the FIFA under-17 World Cup in 2017, eight were from Manipur.
Indeed, there is no shortage of role models in any sport in Manipur. Even cricket, which doesn't have deep roots in the northeast, is picking up fast largely due to the exploits of a local 18-year-old, Rk Rex Singh. Singh became an overnight social media sensation with spectacular second innings figures of 10 for 11 in an U19 Cooch Behar Trophy match against Arunachal Pradesh last year.
Manipur is overrun with socio-economic problems. Insurgency is rampant here and it ranks 30th among India's 33 states and Union Territories in terms of GDP per capita. With few employment opportunities, there is not much to occupy the youth. Fortunately, the LED revolution is allowing for some of that pent-up energy to be spent in pursuit of sporting excellence.
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