Dhaka is a sprawling city of over 150 million. The hub of all financial, political, administrative and cultural activities of the country, this mega-city struggles to provide its citizens with many of the civic amenities, not the least of which is the opportunity for its children to engage in healthy sporting activity. Rapid and unplanned urbanisation is taking a heavy toll on the greens, parks and playgrounds of this city, posing a big threat to the physical and mental growth of the next generation.
But things were very different, even two decades ago. There were ample open spaces and playgrounds for children to play.
Khaled Mahmud Sujan, former captain of the Bangladesh national cricket team, grew up in Dhaka at a time when urbanisation had not yet gathered much pace. His teenage years were mostly spent at the Siddheshwari playground, honing his early cricketing skills. It wasn't a particularly huge ground, but it was big enough to cater to the sporting needs of the children from nearby localities.
“I have lots of memories of that ground. Many of the former cricketers used to play tape-tennis cricket at that very ground. Lots of people used to come and watch and it made for such a very vibrant environment,” Sujan fondly remembers the days spent at his next-to-home playground.
But things are quite different now. The playground that Sujan and his friends used to play in has been lost. A spate of encroachment reduced the ground to the size of a mere courtyard. What is left of it now is being used to pile up construction materials for the under-construction flyover nearby.
This is not an isolated incident, rather a common picture of the fast depleting playgrounds of Dhaka. There are only 21 playgrounds left in Dhaka under the jurisdiction of the two city corporations and most of them are bearing a similar fate to that of Shiddheshwari ground, due to encroachment, lack of maintenance or dumping of refuse.
The Dhupkhola playground in Gendaria used to be a huge ground once. Aminul Islam Bulbul, one of the finest batsmen to come out of Bangladesh, learnt his cricket skills at that very ground. Now a part of the ground is filled with the construction materials for the Jatrabari-Gulistan flyover. Another part of it is used to hold political or religious programmes. The rest of it is under the auspices of East End Club, though it must be said that it is not in great shape. Same goes for the Golapbagh playground in Sayedabad which has been occupied for construction of the same flyover. A big portion of the Kalabagan Children's Park is being occupied by the Kalabagan Krira Chakra and the Dhanmondi Club has taken over the Dhanmondi playground, barring people of the locality from entering its premises.
The Armanitola playground, which once produced generations of national hockey players, lies in a shabby state now. Garbage is littered at one side, the rest of it is so ragged and unkempt that organised sport is hardly possible here. After daybreak, the ground takes on the look of a haunted place. No wonder places like these are safe havens for drug addicts and all sorts of antisocial activities. The city corporations and government agencies turn a blind eye to these things, helping these grounds disappear.
And this sad state of affairs is replicated all over the country.
Ironically enough, when the playgrounds are fast depleting, there seems to be no shortage of stadiums in the country. We have home of cricket in Mirpur, home of football at the Bangabandhu National Stadium and stadiums in all the districts to hold national level sports competitions.
But what good are the stadiums if we keep losing the playgrounds, i.e. the breeding ground of sports stars? If the amount of money that is spent behind building a new stadium was rather spent on preserving and maintaining some of those playgrounds, there would have been less antisocial elements for sure, not to mention the impact it would have on the sporting culture of this generation.
But as things are going now, there will hardly be any natural playgrounds left pretty soon. And where will the children go to satisfy their sporting needs? Probably they'll be left to simulate a Brian Lara or a Cristiano Ronaldo on playstations at the comfort of their homes.
The author is senior sports reporter, The Daily Star