The large and lively Banda Ground was the navel of the densely compacted neighbourhood around Bamboo Bazaar, East Bengaluru. The news of its takeover by the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL) in August 2017 brought me in contact with the playground and the community that lives around it.
BMRCL decided to move its station to the Banda Ground as part of its Phase II expansion. Citizens and mass transport experts opposed this sudden shift as the approved location, Cantonment Railway station was ideally suited to ensure seamless integration of multiple modes of transport. Apart from the escalation in cost and inconvenience to commuters, the bigger casualty in this scenario was the impending disruption to community life which the Banda Ground had nurtured for decades.
The playground was like an oasis in the midst of thick human inhabitation. Children and youth from a radius of 10 kms congregated there to play, socialise or simply ‘take the air.’ A young computer professional who grew up in its vicinity puts it succinctly: “Here at the ground, we connect through playing, we become friends, learn each other’s language and share our problems also.”
A young cycle-wheelie enthusiast referred to it as ‘sabka ground’ where everyone could play regardless of age, proficiency, or nature of the game: regular cricket, football, local and league tournaments or the homegrown ‘leg cricket’ where the leg substitutes for a bat.
Ten-year olds Sagai, Magesh, Abdullah and other children would run into the ground at the end of the school day with a sense of freedom and joy, some with home-made bats in hand. The playground also doubled as an idgah for community celebrations of Id and Milad un Nabi (the Prophet’s Birthday) because of its proximity to the Madina Masjid on the Southern edge. Ganesh, who is an expert ‘leg cricketer,’ fondly remembers neighbourhood Ganapati puja and New Year celebrations at the ground.
Today, there is a cavernous crater where the playground was. Clouds of fine dust billow onto the dwellings on the edge. Excavators shriek as they crack open the rock or ‘banda’ from which it gets its name. Its past life as a buzzing social space is now buried under the debris.
Sagai and friends are forced to stay indoors. The pandemic restricts them from walking across neighbourhoods in search of play areas. Surya, a strapping 18-year-old, seeks out the occasional carrom game in the neighbourhood, which is a poor substitute for the exhilaration of a game played in the open.
City authorities seem to view playgrounds as ‘open spaces’ that have no specific ‘use.’ A senior Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) official, when confronted with residents protesting the takeover of their playground in Nandini Layout, is said to have retorted, “I would also like to correct you that these are open grounds being used for playing and there is really no playground as such.”
This is only indicative of the apathy and lack of will to acknowledge the value of open spaces as sites where the social and physical health of communities are built and nourished. Rather, a playground is ‘cheap’ land that can be acquired without compensation. The cost of its loss to residents is left out of the equation.
The impact of loss is borne disproportionately by those in poorer neighbourhoods as playgrounds are often the only free and safe social spaces that offer much needed relief from cramped quarters and congested roads. Voices of residents who are affected by the vampiric acquisition of their spaces are silenced or ignored. Surya observes poignantly:
“We are nobody to question them – we are only children. If we did, they would scold us and tell us to get lost.”
Alongside the takeover of community grounds, we are also witnessing the commercialisation of ‘play’ with the mushrooming of basketball coaching clubs and skating rinks in grounds that were formerly open for free play.
If the trend of shrinking common spaces continues, we will produce a city where access to recreation will be the sole privilege of those who can afford to pay for play. This will come at the cost of a vibrant social life that is intrinsic to healthy communities.