'Let Tetultala be an inspiration to free all playing grounds'

Adil Muhammed Khan

Former general secretary of the Bangladesh Institute of Planners, Adil Muhammed Khan, is a teacher of the department of urban and regional planning at Jahangirnagar University. He carries out research on Dhaka's playing grounds, open spaces and water bodies. He speaks in an interview with Prothom Alo's special correspondent Iftekhar Mahmud about the importance and the protection of playing fields around the country.

Q :

Dhaka has a burgeoning population and limited space. How feasible is it to keep playing grounds in such a city?

A city does not mean simply roads and houses. It is essential for a city to have places to live and the necessary infrastructure. This includes fields, water bodies and trees. And then again, there are all sorts of fields. There are one or two-bigha fields for children's playgrounds, medium sized grounds for youth and large parks for the older people. Before a planned residential area is built up, land is first acquired for open grounds and steps are taken to protect this.

At least 600 hundred fields are required for the 20 million (2 crore) people of Dhaka city. There are only 200. Of these, the common people and residents can only use 40. The rest are owned by various government and private organisations and the public has no access to these.

Q :

Many well-to-do and important persons live in the Dhanmondi and Uttara residential areas. Why hasn't it been possible to maintain grounds in these areas?

The largest field in Dhanmondi was planned as a park, but that is now under the control of Abahani Club. Other fields too have been allotted to other clubs. The opinions of the people have not been taken into consideration. The people's rights to freely enter these fields have been snatched away. This is a serious injustice. It is against such an injustice that the people took to the streets. They launched a movement, but to no avail. When Uttara was built up, the number of fields kept in the plan were inadequate compared to the number of people. The few fields that were there were grabbed up by the various clubs. Only the club members can use these fields, not the residents of the area. And the local ward councilors, leaders of the ruling party and the concerned city corporation officials are noticeably silent on these issues. And when there are demonstrations against the occupation of these fields, those in power silently support the occupiers.

Q :

What is the situation in Old Dhaka and other residential areas of the capital city?

In Old Dhaka, Mohammedpur, Kalabagan, Mirpur, Bashabo and other residential areas around the city, there are many instances where the local ward councillors' offices have been set up on these open spaces. These fields are leased out round the year for fairs and other events. And the smaller fields of various localities are used as storage space for construction materials or for the commodities of the local powerful businesspersons. In some areas, the land has been grabbed and shopping centres are being built on these spaces.

When a movement was launched to protect the Tetultala grounds in Kalabagan, it gained national importance due to the arrested of protestors and other incidents. This was a huge achievement. The success of this movement should be an inspiration to protect other fields of Dhaka city.

Q :

The Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripkhya (RAJUK) is building up Purbachal, Jhilmil and several other residential areas in the city. Have an adequate number of fields been kept in the plans?

Initially only one third of the required fields had been kept in Purbachal. RAJUK has said 1 million (10 lakh) people would be residing there. Later this was expanded to plots for 1.5 million (15 lakh) people. Over a hundred other housing projects have sprouted up around Purbachal. These hardly have any fields. That means all the pressure will fall on the Purbachal grounds. The problems which exist in the rest of Dhaka regarding open spaces, will be faced by Purbachal too.

Q :

Dhaka is being expanded in an unplanned manner in places like Keraniganj by the banks of Buriganga and in Savar. What is the condition of these places?

Over the past two decades or so, alongside the unplanned growth of industries in Keraniganj and Savar, the residential areas there have spread too. Not a single playing field will be found amid the maze of dingy lanes and narrow alleyways of these areas. In other countries when there is rapid and unplanned urbanisation, the government acquires land for playgrounds and parks.

Q :

Why do you think our planners and policymakers totally overlook the issues of fields and parks?

If we look at the trend of population growth in Dhaka city, we will see people have increased in geometrical ratio. The number of fields in proportion to the city's population was fine up until the seventies. From the eighties the population growth accelerated but no initiative was taken to increase the number of fields.

The people of Dhaka suffer from all sorts of physical and mental ailments, depression and a propensity towards crime among the youth. A major reason behind this is the lack of any fields and open space for social interaction. People in Dhaka's large apartment buildings don't even know each other. If there were parks and fields for the people, playgrounds for the children, people would get to know each other. The criminal propensities growing among youth, the teenage gangs and such tendencies would lessen too. Hundreds of police stations can't make up for the lack of fields.

Q :

What about the villages and the small towns?

You won't be able to find any open grounds in the mofussils (district towns) either nowadays. Some of the educational institutions have grounds, but not everyone can use these. And in the villages, most of the fields are seasonal, to be used when the crops have been harvested. During other times of the year, the children don't have these expansive fields to play.

Q :

So is there nothing to be done to protect the fields and create new open spaces?

The government is constructing massive infrastructural projects. It is thought that these mega projects will bring massive development to the country. But there is no alternative to fields and grounds for our future generations to grow up well and our elderly citizens to live in good health. If investments are made in open fields, this will have a much more significant contribution to nation building that hundreds of huge structures. Human resources are most important in today's world. If the population is ailing, what will we do with this massive infrastructure?

Q :

Thank you

Thank you too

* This interview appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir