Adhil, a 10-year-old from Kasaragod district, was very upset last year when a land near his house where he and his friends played cricket was gated and closed for the construction of a shopping complex. Akin to the 2017 Malayalam movie Rakshadhikari Baiju (Oppu), directed by Ranjan Pramod, his story revolves around a playground which many people, including children of different age groups, used for their sports activities. In the film, when the land is taken for a hospital construction, their leader Baiju (Biju Menon) writes a letter to the authorities.
"Let the cities develop. Let the basic facilities at our villages develop. That is good. But, along with that, for us to share our friendship, to sit quietly enjoying the breeze, for children to play, we need some land. Without that, what is the use of moving fast and developing big roads and bridges? When cities are constructed by destroying villages, nobody thinks about the children. We need some land for the children to play," the letter said.
In real life too, scores of kids like Adhil miss their neighbourhood playground. Along with them, youngsters and the elderly miss a public place where they can do physical activities, relax, and rejuvenate.
Houses, shopping complexes, hospitals and other buildings started appearing in many vacant plots of land which were once playgrounds. And while that is not unjustified as these plots could have been privately owned, it doesn’t take away the need for actual playgrounds. "School playgrounds and temple grounds were once used as public playgrounds. Later though, they were fenced as people started fearing miscreants. Further, land has become an expensive commodity," Prasanth N Nair IAS, MD at Kerala Shipping Inland Navigation Corporation, says.
While on one hand there aren’t enough designated grounds for children to play, turf culture has been picking up in Kerala, especially in cities and in Kozhikode and Malappuram districts where popular football tournaments are held. But not everyone cannot afford playing on a football turf, which are also rare in rural areas.
"There was a time we would run to these playgrounds soon after returning from schools. On holidays, even during the hot sun we would continue playing. But now children at my home play on their laptops or phones after reaching home,” says Sharath, a former cricketer, who played at state level tournaments from Kannur. “There may be other reasons that children are remaining indoors too, but one among them are there is no place for them to play outside,"
Prasanth, while seeing emergence of turfs is a positive development, adds that they should spread to rural areas too and be affordable for all. "Let good turfs come up. If the public sector contributes, it can even become affordable. Turfs cannot just remain as an elite commodity.”
"Turfs are commercially viable as they could provide income to the public sector, and also are a public utility. So local self-governments can work out a Public Private Partnership model to build turfs locally," Prasanth suggests. "Like we use Panchayat libraries, it is possible to have panchayat turfs.”
There are many projects to build stadiums in Kerala. But can they replace playgrounds?
"They just remain construction exercises. They don't actually come into public utility," says D Dhanuraj, Director Centre for Public Policy Research, a think tank based in Kochi. Playgrounds are a necessary part of every neighbourhood, and it is the duty of the local self-government to provide these, regardless of stadiums, he adds.
"We need space for the younger generation as well as for the elderly. A place where children can play and elders can do their physical exercises like a walk or jogging. It is important that these are in the neighbourhood as neither the children nor the elderly can travel long distances regularly. But here, in our state, we are not yet giving importance to this concept," he states.
Dhanuraj also points out that local community’s participation is a must when planning for playgrounds to ensure that they don’t end up like stadiums that do not come into public use and remain closed for years. He gives the example of the grounds which the administration spent crores on for FIFA U-17 World Cup in Kochi in 2017, most of which lie in disuse. "In Fort Kochi, they spent so much money for a ground. But after the World Cup it was not opened for the public. It remains useless. On the contrary, when people use an area, it will be maintained automatically. We should focus on where to establish a playground to make it useful for the public," Dhanuraj explains.
"There should be a playground within two to three-kilometre radius of the community. It need not even be large; bigger ones can be made as one in two panchayats," he adds.
For people, a high-level infrastructure is not necessary in playgrounds; rather availability and accessibility are the main issues. "The main issue is with Kerala Sports Council. Most of the stadiums are under them. All of them are locked and nobody knows how they can use those stadiums. But they do nothing to promote the culture of playgrounds," Dhanuraj states.
"Local self-government as well as the educational institutions can be involved together to increase the local participation in developing a playground culture," he adds.