The Dhaka City Corporation (DCC) opened the Dhanmondi-8 playground to the general public yesterday. The development was marked by a signboard on the entrance gate of the playground -- so far used as the private property of Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi Club -- proclaiming the field open to the general public. Celebrations followed the development in the residential area -- children would finally be able to avail the open space after being denied of that right for more than a year.
However, the question remains how long it will take the authorities concerned to fully comply with a High Court order in 2011 which stated that the ground be freed from illegal occupancy for public access. Unfortunately, in the years following the HC verdict half a dozen government bodies including the DCC and public works department not only brazenly defied it but also favoured the private club -- named after the Prime Minister's slain brother -- that has been illegally occupying the field with several structures.
The public works secretary, undivided Dhaka City Corporation, Rajdhani Unnyan Kartripakkha (Rajuk), Inspector General of Police, officer-in-charge of Dhanmondi police station were the parties at fault.
Not only that, money was spent from the public treasury to fund the illegal occupation.
In clear violation of court directions, the cash-crunched Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) last year funded a 1-crore taka boundary wall with ceramic brick and metal frames around the playground and a palatial entrance engraved with the club's name to directly facilitate the club's exclusive occupancy, said Mubasshar Hussain, a leading architect and resident of the area.
So entrenched were the occupiers in their law-ignoring ways that the club president Manjur Kader, during a meeting at the playground on April 19, audaciously announced that the playground is only for 'elites' and not for any 'street urchins'.
Taking full advantage of government support, the club tightened its grip further on the playground as an exclusive private property with round-the-clock security guards barring access to the general public for over a year now, said Hussain, who has been fighting a legal battle for this public space since 2004.
Meanwhile, local government ministry at the end of last year, granted a block allocation of Tk 1.63 crore in favour of Sheikh Jamal Club to build two lawn tennis courts with floodlights, two badminton courts and a basketball court, altering the existing greenery and triggering a series of public protests over the past several weeks.
Abdul Gaffar, a former footballer and in-charge of implementing the club's ongoing development schemes, said, “Access to these facilities will be exclusive and the local people and school children will have to pay to enjoy those.”
Local Government Engineering Division (LGED) was building the said courts without mandatory approval from Rajuk, said officials.
LGED chief engineer Wahidur Rahman said at the time, “It is not our mandate to do such work, but we are working on the dictates of the local government ministry, as Sheikh Jamal Club sought engineering support.”
Local Government Division secretary Manzur Hossain said: “I do not know about financing the club but I will look into how it happened.”
Official sources however said that immediate predecessor Abu Alam Shahid Khan allocated the money from the minister's special fund meant for DSCC at the fag end of his tenure.
When asked about compliance with the HC order to free the playground, DSCC chief executive officer Ansar Ali Khan said: “We are trying but could not due to different difficulties.” He declined to elaborate.
Former Rajuk chairman Nurul Huda said, “We did not go for eviction of illegal structures as the club used the space as a playfield.”
Public Works Department (PWD) is the owner of the13.5-bigha playground that was handed over to City Corporation in 1984 for maintenance and conservation. Public works secretary Md. Golam Rabbani said that PWD chief engineer Kabir Ahmed Bhuiyan would be able to respond as to what his ministry has done to free the playground.
But Bhuiyan did not respond despite repeated phone calls and messages sent to his mobile phone.
Dhaka Metropolitan Police Commissioner Benazir Ahmed chairs the club's governing body and frequents the illegally-built club office in the playground, said Mubasshar, who lives nearby.
When contacted for his version on his role as the club's governing body chairman, the commissioner assigned one of his deputies to respond to The Daily Star. The deputy however said he would have to communicate with the commissioner to respond but did not come back with any response.
While yesterday's action signals a victory for the residents after a protracted battle for their rights in the grounds' numerous illegal structures lies the threat that years of lawless occupation may yet continue to haunt.