The one happy memory I have from my childhood is the freedom I had to play from early morning until the streetlights came on. The area I grew up in had more than 30 parks.
The open space right behind my house did not even have a decent grass patch. But nobody complained. It had enough space where we learnt to cycle, played gully cricket, hide-and-seek, dodge ball, or just ran deliriously till we got tired or our mothers called for us.
Today, the open space is a parking lot, concretised and so packed with cars that it is difficult to move around without bumping into one. Most of the 30 parks in the locality have been turned into ornamental gardens with fountains, tiled walkways, furniture, plants and shrubs. There is little space to play. Most colony kids now stay home and the serious sporty ones go to professional sporting academies.
The best part about living in Delhi was the sense of space it provided to its citizens. Even recent studies show that Delhi offers more than three acres of open space per 1,000 people as compared to 0.03 acres in Mumbai. Yes, there are 14,500 parks, gardens and green areas in the city. But one in three parks is an ornamental garden where playing is prohibited, and one in 15 taken away by encroachment.
Union sports minister Ajay Maken started the come-and-play scheme last year to put to use stadiums that were renovated for the Commonwealth Games. More recently, he has asked Delhi Development Authority to instruct private schools (that got land on concessional rates from the government) to open up their playfields for local kids after the school hours.
The space-starved residents have supported the idea. But the schools have their reservations. Who will pay if their expensive basketball and tennis courts, and football fields are damaged by the local kids? Who will be responsible if there is a fight or a child gets hurt or doesn't return home? How would schools manage evening sport coaching they run for their own kids?
These are serious questions that need to be answered. Besides, as a Right to Information reply revealed, Delhi has 100 schools without any playgrounds. It is high time that the education department launched a survey to identify open areas that can be used by the students of these schools.
Opening schools and stadiums for public use alone will anyway not compensate for the open space deficit in the city. While these facilities can benefit those interested in serious sporting activities, millions of children will still need open space for free play. For them, Delhi needs to reclaim its playgrounds and create some where there are none.
The UK government has launched Places People Play programme that is aimed at improving the sporting health of the nation as part of the Olympic legacy. A £135million lottery-funded programme is being run for improving playing fields, sports clubs and gyms across the UK besides recruiting, training and deploying 40,000 sports leaders to encourage grassroots sporting activities.
We missed our chances during the Commonwealth Games. But the authorities can always conduct a city-wide survey, profile the land use and share the findings with the resident bodies. There are parks in municipal documents that have been taken away for parking cars, installing garbage stations, power transformers etc. Delhi needs a policy that balances such infrastructural demands with mandatory provisions for playfields in every neighbourhood. Meanwhile, we as citizens must assert our rights to guard the remaining open spaces fiercely.