In a city where open spaces are getting scarcer by the day, it came as a shock for the residents of Sainath Nagar in Ghatkopar (West) when an entire park turned barren in the scope of one afternoon.
More than two weeks after play equipment from a park got stolen by a set of thieves posing as Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) personnel, residents and children who used to use the swing and hanging bars to play on are still faced with a patch of bare land. When you take into consideration the paucity of grounds for kids in the city and the opportunity to go outside their homes and play, this farce becomes doubly tragic.
To rewind to the incident, on November 24, between noon and 2 pm, a group of men arrived at Rajkamal Udyan, Ghatkopar, near Shreyas Cinema, armed with heavy gas cutters, and chopped down the playground equipment. They took everything — an S-shaped structure for children to climb on, a frame for a swing and some horizontal bars for kids to hang from, a mini roundabout and did not even spare the gate at the park’s entrance! The only thing they left behind was an old, rusty slide. Area residents claim that the men told them that they were representatives of the BMC and were on official duty. They allegedly loaded all the pieces into a tempo and drove away. The men then allegedly sold the pieces to a local unsuspecting recycler or bhangarwallah. It was only when word of that got about did the residents realise that the men were actually thieves.
Residents’ enquiries at the BMC office revealed that they had not sent anyone to break down the equipment. Sanjay Bhalerao, corporator of Ward N 119, under whom Rajkamal Udyan falls, said, “I don’t know what the thieves said but we have not taken away the playground equipment. The BMC has filed an FIR with the local police station. I have spoken to BMC officials, but there’s only that much I can do.” Brave residents have filed a complaint at the police station at Chirag Nagar (API Ungle confirmed he had registered a complaint).
Rajkamal Udyan is a small playground littered with coconut shells, bits of rope and waste paper. One of the two boards that proudly announced its name has now fallen by the wayside. There is an arch to mark the playground’s entrance. Two schools in the area — one next to the playground and one directly opposite it — have reopened after the Diwali vacations. When MiD DAY visited the area recently, morning classes had just ended and the primary classes were about to begin. Parents had gathered at the gates of the school with their children. The youngsters excitedly jabbered away while their parents hurried them towards home or dropped them off at school, depending on which class they were studying in. No one even glanced towards the deserted playground just next to them. The state of Rajkamal Udyan is not a topic anyone wants to discuss, thanks to the robbery that occurred there in broad daylight.
Mothers whom we spoke to outside KVK Ghatkopar Sarvajanik School refused any knowledge of the incident, even though they admitted that they are familiar with the playground since they come to the school every day with their children and Rajkamal Udyan is directly opposite it. ‘I don’t know anything, the playground’s always been like this,’ ‘My children don’t play in the playground,’ ‘I don’t know anything’ were their responses. An official of KVK who refused to be quoted said that in the past 10 years, the garden had been renovated thrice and had good equipment. Children used to play there regularly. Another parent, who refused to reveal her name for fear of reprisals said, “Children who attend classes in the morning used to play at the garden after school.” Where can they go now? She then answered the question herself. “There is a garden within the school premises. They can play there.” Those in the municipal school next door to Rajkamal Udyan won’t find it that easy. As one teacher explained, “Our students used to play in the garden after school hours.” So where do they go now? She thinks for a moment, and shrugs, “They can still run around in the ground. There is another one up the hill, about 10 minutes’ walk away.”
Meanwhile, the few children who dared to gambol around at Rajkamal Udyan miss their playthings. They pointed to various spots in the garden and recalled what stood where: the S-shaped climbing structure used to be directly opposite the gate, the frame for a swing and a couple of horizontal bars near the now-vacant caretaker’s room, the mini roundabout in the middle of the garden. With no equipment to play with, they lost interest in the playground and left it to go back home. Before parting, they revealed that there wasn’t anything installed at the far corner of the garden, near the small police station. While the municipal school is on one side of the garden, the police station is on the other! There was nobody in the police station and it has remained shut.
While citizen groups continue to fight for more open spaces in the city, and builders promote their housing complexes with the promise of green open spaces, it is a shame that children from two schools lost an entire playground in one afternoon! The rusty old slide, the lone survivor of the thieves’ greed, stands testimony to the callousness with which we treat the few open spaces remaining in the city.
Meanwhile, there is a sense of confusion among the authorities over reinstalling the playground equipment. While Bhalerao said it is the BMC’s responsibility to replace the equipment since what was stolen belonged to the BMC, an official from the municipal corporation said on condition of anonymity, “We’ve made the complaint to the police. Their investigation is ongoing. If we get the stolen equipment back, then we will reinstall it. If the police confirms to us that we are not going to get the stolen equipment back, then we will take a call as to what to do next. Till the police confirms one way or the other, we can’t do anything.”
Until then, the children in the area remain the worst affected as they have lost their place to have fun.