Mumbai playground no longer haven for football-loving youngsters

Dahisar's Acharya Vinoba Bhave Maidan in Dahisar, where ace footballers once trained is now  manicured lawn with a ladies’ only gym; where do we kick ball, upset youngsters ask

In a city craving open spaces, and playgrounds in particular, the Acharya Vinoba Bhave Maidan in Dahisar, spread over 3428 sq mts, just slipped out of the grip of sport lovers.

Acharya Vinoba Bhave Maidan. pic/nimesh dave
Acharya Vinoba Bhave Maidan. Pic/Nimesh Dave

The park which was once training ground for ace footballer siblings, Dane and Keegan Pereira is ironically off limits for sport activities much to the disappointment of young residents from the area. They allege that a group of women from the neigbourhood have taken over a part of the BMC-owned park to run a ladies’ gym which charges users R300 a month as fee. The women keep the gym under lock and key when not in use, they allege.

Dane and Keegan Pereira
Dane and Keegan Pereira

sunday mid-day is in possession of three sets of RTI responses from the BMC to Nitin D’silva, a resident, stating that according to their records no ban on sports exists within the garden. Furthermore, the keys to the gym which ought to have been kept with a designated security guard, were in fact, with a resident from the area.

When this paper visited the garden on Friday, it found a signboard hung on its gate, listing a series of rules, and stipulated do and don’ts. It mentioned that no sport could be played inside the premises. The watchman on site, Kishore Atre, confirmed that walking on grass was off limits inside the park that’s pretty-looking, with landscaped gardens and immaculately trimmed lawns.

Residents speak up
Dane Pereira, 29, who plays for Mumbai in the I-League and Chennai in FC in the ISL, recounted how he and younger brother Keegan (27), who is currently in Dubai and plays for Mumbai City FC in the Indian Super League 2015, would practice here for hours.

“It was a rustic ground back then and unlike any high-end sports academy, but it would attract football enthusiasts from neighbouring areas. Banning sports here isn’t something I approved of. There is no harm in developing a garden or having a ladies’ gym, but a certain area can surely be designated for coaching and to play rink football,” he said.

Nitin d’Silva, a resident who has initiated a citizens’ campaign, by collecting 160 signatures on a petition to reclaim the garden, said that an entire generation had grown up playing football in the maidan.

“Our objective is to have a place to play and practice football, without disturbing the peace and tranquility of the area. Everybody cannot afford to be members of plush gymkhanas. We are told to go and play in the Geetanjali ground, but that too has been converted into a garden and has less than half the size of open area here to play,” he said.

The other side
When contacted, former Mumbai mayor and corporator, Dr Shuba Raul rubbished the claim of complainants, saying that the garden was little more than a dumping ground until recently, roamed by drug addicts and alcoholics. “With great effort, it was cleaned and spruced up. It now attracts up to 3,000 visitors every day, many of whom are senior citizens.” She admitted that there was a group of volunteer ladies, who were keeping an eye on the functioning of the ladies gym and garden, and were often confronted by those who wish to use it as a playground.

“There is a nominal fee that’s collected from gym members on a monthly basis and account books maintained. This money is utilised for the upkeep of the gym and maintenance of equipment. The women also organise picnics and social activities like haldi kum kum with collected funds. Some of the footballers who are complaining do not reside in the locality and have no right to interfere in the matter. We have developed another open space, Geetanjali ground, which is round the corner and suitable for sports. We are recommending this requisite change in the new DP,” said Raul.

Santoshkumar Dhonde, assistant municipal commissioner, R (North) ward, said it was impractical to have a playground in the garden after lakhs had been spent on renovation. “Finally,” he said, “it’s a matter that must be decided among the locals.”

One of the women who maintain the gym, and refused to divulge her full name (she called herself “Thakur madam”) refused to comment.

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