The Mamata Banerjee government that has been organising district-level football matches in Jungle Mahal every year since 2012 is now ready to kick off a subdivisional tournament in the hills at a time elections are round the corner in the region.
The state sports department, along with the North Bengal Sports Development Council, has decided to start an Under-17 football tourney in all eight blocks of the hills from the next month.
The tournament for which the government has sanctioned Rs 43 lakh will be held across Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong subdivisions.
North Bengal Sports Development Council chairman Bhaichung Bhutia said: "This is a pilot project that is being taken up only in three hill subdivisions but we believe that it is one of the biggest talent hunt projects in the state."
The subdivisions are scheduled to go for municipal, panchayat and GTA elections this year and asked if the month-long tourney was being organised with an eye on the polls, Bhutia said: "There is nothing political. This is completely a sporting event. Even in the council, which is formed by the government, we try to keep it apolitical. It (council) is only for sports and to promote, guide and support sportsmen."
Sources said all local clubs in the eight hill blocks and four municipalities would be approached for participation. The clubs would be asked to send teams that would play against each other. Two teams from each block would be formed with the selected players.
"From each block, we will select two teams taking the best players. The teams will play against each other to form two subdivisional teams. The six teams (two from each subdivision) will play in the final phase during which we plan to bring in officials from various football academies and major clubs. We will also try to bring people from the Under-17 World Cup technical committee to spot talents," said Bhutia, Trinamul's Lok Sabha candidate in the last election.
Maan Ghisingh, president of the Gorkha National Liberation Front, is the vice-chairman of the council and former national-level footballer Shyam Thapa is the chief advisor to the tournament committee.
Asked why the tourney was being held only in three subdivisions excluding Siliguri, which is also part of Darjeeling district, Bhutia said: "The hills have always produced talented footballers. Moreover, this is a pilot project and in future, it may be extended across the state."
In 2010, the Left-Front government had started football tournaments in the Jungle Mahal to encourage youths to play sports so that they do not lean towards Maoist ideologies. In 2012, the government led by Mamata Banerjee, started a district-level Jungle Mahal Cup involving West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia.
Sources said the tournament had become a big event. The finals are held at Jhargram stadium.
Although Bhutia said the hill tournament had nothing to do with politics, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha has refused to buy it. "To start with, this is, once again, interference in the GTA's domain. But more importantly, the tournament is being organised to get youths on their side so that they can strengthen the TMC in the hills, with an eye on the polls. Why else would a tournament be held only in three hill subdivisions?" asked Morcha general secretary Roshan Giri.
Darjeeling district magistrate Anurag Srivastava said a proposal to hold the tournament had been sent "five-six months back" and the administration got the nod recently.(TT)