India´s hidden swim gem: revolutionary origins & community service

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In March 2018, the TAGS team and film crew were hosted by the country’s oldest indigenous swimming association, the National Swimming Association (NSA), a little-known swimming gem in Kolkata, to learn about its history and activities, and to discuss the TAGS campaign with staff and students.

The Art Deco headquarters of the National Swimming Association may be just a few miles to the north of the prestigious Calcutta Swimming Club, but they are worlds apart.

While the former caters to the city’s elite, the latter serves its more modest income classes and is a fixture in the community. Located in a popular local park in Hedua, northeast Kolkata, the Club was founded in 1924 and served as India’s first nationwide swim association – Calcutta was the capital of Imperial India at the time.

Politics is never far from the surface of any conversation in Bengal and swimming is no exception. The manager of the NSA, Sanat Ghose, was keen to point out the revolutionary origins of the Association. The first president was none other than Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, legendary Bengali freedom fighter, revolutionary (and incidentally also former city mayor), and his associates.

Although the original spur for the NSA was a local mass drowning incident, Netaji wished to create a native-led swimming organisation, to counter those established by the British such as the Calcutta Swimming Club, which were only for whites. While the NSA included prominent Englishmen in its leadership, it was dominated by Bengali leaders, including its founder, the illustrious Desh Bandhu Chittaranjan Das (another former city mayor).

Although no women are known to have served in leadership positions at the NSA, there are several employed as swim trainers now and the club boasts several female swimmers and divers, some of whom travel long distances for daily training.

The NSA’s main swim facility is not a pool as such, but an extraordinary large open body of water bounded by a purpose-built Art Deco-style concrete structure, complete with diving boards on either end; including a walking/ jogging track around the perimeter. The entire length of the oval-shaped pool is well in excess of 100m.

The water is river-fed from the nearby Hooghly and free-flowing when the facility is in season. At the time of our visit, the pool was fully drained as it is only in season from April to December, and drained for maintenance in the cooler winter months.

In the off-season, training does not stop and the NSA’s swimmers and divers keep up their fitness levels with daily exercise sessions. A small indoor pool is currently being renovated as a baby & toddler swim facility. When asked about their aspirations, most students spoke of wanting to do well at the state level, with some aspiring to national-level glory. The Olympics were seen as a dream too far.

The NSA is a community-supported swimming club with a riveting and important place in the history of swimming in India. It provides subsidised swimming lessons for the low-income, and manages to reach the city’s more under-privileged communities. It has served the local population since 1924 and plays a key role in youth development and public health, through its swim lessons and year-round fitness provision. It is attuned to the need to attract and retain girl students and female swim coaches, if greater gender balance is to be achieved.

Although modestly supported by the local government, it receives no corporate sponsorship and is not on the radar of any of the city’s large corporate houses. This is a shame, but also an opportunity.

Since 2013, India has introduced a CSR cess, or tax, on India’s large companies, requiring them to use 2% of the company’s average net profit on corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities. This could be an ideal vehicle to support community organisations such as the National Swimming Association, and help diversify their income streams.

Corporate sponsorship could be tied to specific outcomes, such as improved access for vulnerable groups, greater professionalization, enhanced championship performance or gender metrics. If India is to improve its pitiable ranking in the Olympic league tables, new thinking is needed and swimming could be a good bet.

Kolkata has a unique swim culture. One that deserves wider recognition and support. There may well be a budding Olympian in the NSA pool in Hedua. She may well be India’s first gold medallist in swimming or diving. Who is to say?

We will never know unless greater upstream funding is provided to organisations at the heart of our communities such as the NSA, which train and nurture such talent. The opportunity for India Inc. and others is clear. The invitation open. Who will be the first in line?

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