OPEN SPACES AND PLAYGROUNDS ARE CONSIDERED VACANT LAND THAT COULD BE BETTER USED TO PARK CARS, OR ERECT SPRAWLING TENTS
Kotla Mubarakpur resident Khairati Lal Kohli is not thinking medals or a career in sports for his grandchildren when he brings them and their friends to the park behind Defence Colony market. He is just happy to see them run around endlessly during a game of pakdam-pakdai. “All I know is that children must play… so I get them here,” he says.
HT FILE PHOTOOf the 13,915 MCD parks in Delhi, only 684 are for kids and 6,528 are ornamental.The lack of open space is an emotive issue for Kohli, his grandchildren and their friends who live in tightlypacked, unplanned homes of Kotla, one of Delhi’s 135 urban villages. “At home, we can only play Ludo (a board game) indoors,” says Diwakar (9).
Many of them attend private schools operating from similarly chock-full premises. “My school has a very small ground where we can’t play cricket or football. So we play carrom,” says Gaurav (11). “Our school playground has shrunk in size. Not many children play there now,” adds Pawan (11).
There is a moment of silence when they are told that a portion of their park might be taken away to build an automated multi-level parking.
An attendant at a surface parking lot next to the park claims Kotla residents will gain the most out the project. “Kotla is not what it used to be. Residents and shopkeepers own cars and many of them have more than one. They come to park in Defence Colony. In fact, they bring more cars than those coming to restaurants here,” he says.
Grandfather Kohli knows the parking requirement of his community too well and suggests that the space being taken away be compensated with another children’s park close by. The South Delhi Municipal Corporation says it will give additional green space in front of the market. “But what if this turns out to be another of those landscaped gardens of Defence Colony where entry of children is banned,” asks Kohli.
Landscaped or ornamental gardens are a big pull in Delhi. Out of 13,915 parks maintained by the three municipalities, only 684 are for children and 6,528 are ornamental parks. Here, municipalities and resident welfare associations jealously guard fountains, tiled walkways and fancy plants against trespassing children.
Since last year, Defence Colony resident Rajeev Suri has petitioned the high court twice alleging that children’s parks in the neighbourhood were being converted into ornamental parks and multi-level parking, in violation of the ‘right to play’. Last Friday, the court asked the municipal corporation: “So you are converting parks into parking lots. That is what Delhi is fit for now… where will children go to play?”
Delhi, the metro with the highest child population in India, should have long made child-friendliness a priority. Yet, open spaces and playgrounds are considered vacant land that could be better used to accommodate cars, build garbage stations, install power transformers or erect sprawling tents for weddings.
Among the 10 instances where the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights rescued public playgrounds in 2015-16, a garbage dump was removed from a park in the walled city, swings that were chained and locked by residents to prevent children from playing were unlocked in Mayur Vihar, and commercial dairies, with a large number of cows, were removed from a municipal garden in Nangloi.
Delhi clearly needs a policy that balances its infrastructural demands with mandatory provisions for playgrounds in every neighbourhood. Even the most crammed public places can be cleared up and made suitable for free play. A study by Delhi-based urban designer Sudeshna Chatterjee showed that children played as many as 34 games in an unkempt park in South Delhi’s Khirki Extension as opposed to only 16 games in the park that had a “well-maintained landscape and no license for children to manipulate the environment”.
Also, the authorities and resident associations need to strike the right balance. Many parks shut out children because their games can hurt old people using the space. For this, as Suri suggested in his petition, a minimum of 25% of the park acreage can be kept for active sports where children can play without restraint. The rest could be used as a shared community asset.
Watching the children play with total abandon, grandfather Kohli considers different priorities. “But can it really be an either/or situation,” he says.