When the tragic incident of a 13-year-old schoolboy falling from the terrace of an apartment block and losing his life made news a fortnight ago, there was one detail in the media reports that epitomises, in a single sentence, the criminal gap between proper city planning and the ground realities of Bengaluru as it is developing today. It said, "As there was nowhere for him to play, Allan went up to the terrace to play" – and the rest is a tragedy that has already been reported in the press.
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High-rise apartment blocks have sprouted like rashes all over the city, particularly in the last ten years. Where once we had bungalows with greenery and gardens, we now have a suffocating crowding of apartments, with anything from 12 to 150 dwelling units in the place of what used to be one family’s residence. When the owner of the bungalow adjacent to my father’s site in south Bangalore passed away, that plot was bought over by a developer and within months a multi-story complex replaced the bungalow.
Three years later, when the elderly owner of the bungalow on the other side passed away, that bungalow too was demolished and we now have a high rise in its place. The bungalow across the road made way last year, to yet another high rise block. And so it goes – boom time, according to the construction lobby, but what happens to the children in the families that move in? Where do they play? The law requires that there should be an offset on either side of a site, but one can see hundreds of new blocks that flout even this mandatory minimal open space, with impunity. And the sanctioning authorities turn a criminally blind eye to such violations (it actually benefits the BBMP, because they can charge a penalty in the name of Sakrama !)
A Citizen Matters report reported last month, about a police station dumping seized vehicles in an open yard that used to be a playground. Earlier, there was another report about a proposal for building an underground car park in a children’s playground. Last year I wrote about a nine year old child complaining to me that the playground that he used to go to, for using the slide and seesaw, was being encroached upon by a temple erected almost overnight, by some ‘devotees’ in Jayanagar. The temple grew, extending its compound wall and slowly took over a major portion of what used to be a play area and cordoned it off.
So where do children go, for recreation and relaxation?
Grand, and well-meaning declarations, but where does a child like Allan, living in a high-rise apartment block, go, for playing? Why is ground space evaluated only in terms of what it will fetch (by way of rent, or car park facilities, or commercial complex) and not in terms of what a family and its children need, for proper growth and development? How does one put a money value on playground space, or evaluate the cost of the absence of play areas, in terms of stunted personality and physical growth?
Playing is vitally important for children because it teaches and develops team spirit, cooperation, and enthusiasm for competing and excelling. It also helps shed the stresses of sedentary learning in classrooms.
We see schools being set up with classrooms but no playgrounds (more classrooms means more revenue through fees, whereas playgrounds bring in no profits!)
Forget about the medals that a city of 60 lakh residents could win, in prestigious games events if we had enough playgrounds for the city’s children. They are now dying because they go to the terrace, the only space available, to bounce a ball or toss a shuttlecock. I see kids playing on the roads outside their apartments, and was once hit by a ball as I was passing by. I scolded the boy for playing on the road and endangering passersby. My neighbour had his car windshield cracked by two boys who were playing cricket in the parking lot. The children were punished. But, where do they go, if apartments provide for no play area?
What are we doing to our children who are our future generation? Are the city administrators bothered about this question?
It is sickening to see reports that the BBMP is "evolving safety designs" for apartment blocks and norms for terrace parapets. It takes death, no less, for our city administrators to wake up to action, whether it is closing open manholes or storm water drains or missing slabs on treacherous footpaths, or questioning a contractor who builds a sub-standard wall that kills a teenage girl. A VIP visits the bereaved family, one lakh is paid as compensation, and that’s the end of the matter.
Whether it is a building violation or negligence, or lack of safety norms, no one gets punished. Except the family that lost a life.
What shall we call this state of affairs – "criminal" or "obscene"? Or both?