Where Have all the Swings gone?

School kids hold up a sign given to them by activists at a demonstration at Langata Primary Road School.Photo Courtesy : Brian Inganga/AP

Who ‘stole’ our playground ?

There are occasions when simple questions raised by innocent people – even by kids – invite brutal wrath of the authorities. The kids of Langata Road Primary School in Nairobi learned it a very hard way.  Back from Christmas vacations when they found that the playground of the school – which provided them enough space to unwind themselves – has just ‘disappeared’ behind ‘iron walls’ with security people guarding it, they had raised this simple question. Sympathetic teachers had told them that a dominant politician in Nairobi, who wanted space to park cars of people visiting a neighbouring mall owned by him, has ‘taken over’ their playground.

Definitely it was not an unusual event – at least in Nairobi which happens to be one of the fastest growing real estate markets in the world – where real estate mafias are so powerful that with the connivance of political masters they are able to ‘acquire’ vacant or unmarked land plots without much difficulty. And land belonging to public schools is considered ‘under threat’ of land sharks as it is not properly delineated to them.

But nobody could have predicted that the kids in Langata School would prove to be biggest stumbling block in their ‘peaceful’ expansion and would literally ‘make history’. As rightly pointed out by an analyst these kids did what ordinary Kenyans are rarely able to do: defend disappearing public space.

It is widely known how the silent protest by the kids – some as old as 8 years – and their attempt to recover their playground was met with brutal lathicharge and firing of tear gas shells on the kids, with fresh reinforcements from police and military being called to ‘quell’ this ‘mini revolt’.

The whole incident caught on camera sparked outrage across the city and also on social media. The shocking images and videos of the ordeal caused so much uproar that President of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta, had to personally intervene who condemned the use of tear gas, suspended a senior government official and sent his interior minister to the school the very next day, who personally apologised to the kids. It does not need underlining that their playground which was literally taken over by the real estate man and properly fenced was restored to the kids.

As if to redeem itself of its guilt the government had rushed in bulldozers to the playground supposedly to ‘gift’ the students a brand new flattened soccer field.

Gregory Warner, International Correspondent of NPR ends his story on this episode with these words.

That’s not how these stories usually end. Land grabs are such a divisive issue in Kenya that the most controversial ones have sparked deadly ethnic riots and even acts of terrorism.

And he also tells us how in a different part of the city he witnessed ‘another victory for the public’ where ‘Government bulldozers were destroying the fence, reclaiming public land, to a surprised and swelling crowd. It seemed that, at least for now, the school kids in Nairobi had won more than just their own playground.’

Acquisition of playgrounds, gardens or every other vacant space supposedly to satiate the hunger of the land sharks and the corporate honchos is not specific to Kenya alone. Gradual shrinking of space for the kids to play or just loiter around freely is happening at a feverish speed everywhere.

In a recent write-up in ‘Guardian’ titled ‘Children in our towns and cities are being robbed of safe spaces to playGeorge Monbiot quotes Jay Griffiths who in her book ‘Kith’ tells how

“Today’s children are enclosed in school and home, enclosed in cars to shuttle between them, enclosed by fear, by surveillance and poverty and enclosed in rigid schedules of time.” Since the 1970s the area in which children roam without adults has decreased by almost 90%. “Childhood is losing its commons.”

Coming to the remaining 10 % space and trying to explore how that is being utilised/designed to bring out children out of their homes Monbiot discovered to his dismay that how they are rather ‘designed out’ where ‘housing estates are built on playing fields and rough patches children used to inhabit.’ And he discusses further how in government’s masterplan of England, children rarely find any mention and when the parliament reviews these plans there is no mention at all and he wryly comments ‘ Young people, around whom our lives should revolve, have been airbrushed from the planning system.’

According to him

The exclusion of children arises from the same pathology that denies us decent housing. In the name of market freedom, the volume housebuilders, sitting on their land banks, are free to preside over speculative chaos, while we are free to buy dog kennels priced like palaces in placeless estates so badly designed that community is dead on arrival. Many want to design and build their own homes, but almost no plots are available, as the big builders have seized them.

Would it be proper to say that the only ‘culprits’ in this silent takeover of playgrounds or open spaces are the corporate bosses and the real estate mafia. Perhaps it would not be a balanced presentation of the picture. In fact, ‘takeover’ of empty spaces, government lands or parks is also happening with ‘consensus’ in the neighbourhood. The explosion of religiosity and the sprawling of temples and growing unholy alliance between the ‘faith merchants’ and the law and order people is having a telling effect on such spaces, at least in parts of the third world.

The area in Delhi where I have been living for the last two decades could be said to be a microcosm of the phenomenon which is unfolding elsewhere.  One can cite at least twenty sites in my close neighbourhood which have suddenly witnessed emergence of ‘ancient’ temples on government or common land, with lot of paraphernalia around. Most of such temples are doing ‘good business’ which has further encouraged enterprising people to replicate it elsewhere.

The growing fascination for cars and lack of space for parking them in the metropolis and cities-towns around could be also said to another reason behind Children’s Park’s suddenly metamorphosing themselves into ‘Parking Space’ for the neighbourhood community. The other day when I was sadly watching how a little park from across the street – where I use to come with my little daughter – has become a parking lot, a friendly face suddenly appeared and  invited me for a cup of tea in his house. As if talking to himself he told me about three cars in their house and how this ‘parking lot’ has eased their daily tension. I just wanted ask him but what happened to the swings there much enjoyed by the kids around but I did not feel like even continuing the conversation.

Is it possible to measure the impact on children’s health when we are encountering a situation which is being described as ‘loss of commons’ by ‘childhood’?

There is no denying that children’s  getting confined to their homes is having a very disastrous impact on health of kids and young people. The return of Rickets in Britain- a disease of the Victorian times – is partly attributed to sunlight deficiency – which arises because children have no enough places to play around.  In a survey reported in media (Guardian 25 Oct 2013) it was mentioned that in the areas surveyed it was found that 25 percent – at times more also – kids suffered from Vitamin D deficiency. The Chief Medical Officer has suggested that Vitamin D tablets be made available to kids below five years to offset the lack. It is true that rickets and other similar diseases of ‘Victoria Era’ are more observed in marginalised section of society and ethnic minorities, but it cannot be denied that their ‘confinement’ – because of various factors – has also contributed to it.

Apart from housing complexes, malls etc the installation of mobile towers is also contributing to the ‘disappearing of the commons’.  A recent write-up in Scroll.in discusses how 4G ‘mobile towers are set to invade at least 20 gardens and playgrounds’ in Mumbai‘. Interestingly the city Municipal Corporation has granted approval to a single private company – Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio Infocomm – in this case. It is learnt that many telecom companies were vying with each other to set up 4 G services but Mukesh’s company proved to be the lucky one.

And the list of public open spaces where these 25-metre-high base transceiver stations would be installed includes ‘parks, gardens, playgrounds, and some open plots, including a playground opposite a Santa Cruz-based school.’ It is a different matter that the same committee which has approved this venture has in November 2014, agreed to ban 4G mobile towers near schools and hospitals.’

On closer scrutiny one discovers a strange commonality between the encroachment of playground which happened in Nairobi and which one encountered here.

The issue of cell phone towers in open spaces came to light on Friday, soon after Reliance began work on the installation of a base transceiver station right barely 5 feet away from a children’s play area in Almeida Park in the Bandra neighbourhood.

Despite objections raised by residents fearing for the physical safety of their children, encroachment of their play space as well as potential health hazards of mobile power radiation, the work continues unabated since ‘all approvals have been granted’ to the company.

It is observed that Mumbai has approximately 0.9 sq metres of open space for each of its 12 million residents, whereas the central government’s norm is of 10 sq metres per person. Asif Zakaria, the local councillor raised a valid question while talking to the reporter “Why should open spaces be compromised for these towers?”

Perhaps the idea of development which the custodians of this country have does not entertain any empty space and would like to transform every bit of its portion in pure money.

While thinking about the kids playing in Almeida Park, I recollected what Kevin Sande, 10 year old and his classmates in Nairobi had shared with the reporter about how tear gas shells were thrown at them by the police personnel  and how the ‘gas was so bad !’ and their being ‘happy’ with a new playground.

One just wishes that somebody would tell the kids playing in the ’20 gardens and playgrounds’ in Mumbai which have recently faced ‘invasion’ of a different kind, the story of the kids studying in Langata Road Primary School and how they made history!

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