The saga of Akkithimmanahalli ground

In a rapidly urbanizing context in Bangalore, public playgrounds face multiple challenges. The Akkithimmahalli ground in Richmond Town is no exception.

"The world is a playground, and life is pushing my swing." – Natalie Kocsis

The Revised Master Plan 2015 of the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) designates playgrounds as, ‘premises used for outdoor games’.

Bangalore has many such grounds which are managed by the city’s municipal corporation – Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP). These grounds have unrestricted access; open play areas with some play equipment and courts, where multiple groups of youngsters are involved in various sporting activities – cricket, football, basketball and some unique hybrid sports.

Akkithimmanahalli playground Jun 2008

The Akkithimmanahalli playground before the encroachments in June 2008 (pic Rohan D’Souza)

These playgrounds that provide much needed space for youngsters to release pent up energy are facing  problems due to increased and rapid urbanization. One such example is the Akkithimanahalli playground located in Richmond Town. This ground is located in one part of what used to be the tank bed of a tank earlier called Akkithimanahalli Tank or Mud Tank, which was breached in the early eighties under the malaria eradication programme. The ground is located next to the Karnataka State Hockey stadium and a commercial complex, Divyashree Chambers.

The ground is currently used by boys and young men, living or working in and around Richmond Town. This includes locals as well as youth from north-east India and employees of various offices located in the Divyashree Chambers. It is mostly used in the mornings and evenings on weekdays and throughout the day on weekends, where one can see  groups of people playing simultaneously. Cricket is most often played, apart from football and some other sports. Apart from the daily games that go on, one can occasionally witness organised competitions such as tennis-ball cricket tournaments being staged here. Some local schools also occasionally use the playground for their students.

The ground is fenced all around with three entry points. The main gate was removed a while back. There is a raised platform in the south-eastern corner of the ground where one can see three large trees in addition to the other trees located all along the ground. On the northern side of the ground, there is a pavilion and some play equipment such as slippery slides, jungle gyms et cetera.

BBMP’s parking lot plan

The BBMP came up with a plan in 2007 of converting this (as with as many other playgrounds in the city) into an underground parking lot, to cater to the needs of private vehicles. There was widespread opposition to this plan, following which it was dropped.

While the logic of the city administrators was that the ground could be put to multiple uses (recreation as well as parking), there were many drawbacks to this plan. Construction work required for this change might divert some frequent users of the park to other parks.

Excess construction and concretisation for an underground parking lot would mean replacement of natural mud based surface with a hard cemented surface, not ideal for some sports such as cricket and football. At another level, this is one of the few open spaces left in the area, which facilitates the permeation of rainwater and replenishment of the underground aquifers.

Akkithimanahalli playground Dec 2008

The Akkithimmanahalli playground with cars parked inside in December 2008 (pic: Rohan D’Souza)

Just when one thought that after this plan was scrapped and the ground would be free from distortions of this nature, mounds of mud appeared almost overnight in December 2008, which renewed fears of the ill conceived plan. Enquiry by journalists of The Hindu  revealed that the BBMP had plans of developing the ground to facilitate sporting activities. This included construction of basketball courts and other such facilities.

While this allayed fear for the time being, a dilapidated gate, which prevented vehicular entry into the ground, was opened for a while and finally removed recently. This allowed people to park their cars and bikes inside the ground. People working in offices located especially on the road overlooking the ground, took advantage of this gap and promptly parked their vehicles inside. This became a regular occurrence.

I filed a Right To Information (RTI) application with the BBMP, whether permission had been granted for parking within the ground. BBMP replied that it hadn’t. However, the agency was silent on the question of action taken against defaulters. They said the gate was removed to facilitate the development activities in the ground and once that was over, the gate would be replaced and parking will be dissuaded.

It has been a while since this development plan was made public (ref: The Hindu article). There has been no activity after that, except for the increase in the number of vehicles being parked there.

The ground is occasionally used for various cultural and religious purpose during festivals such as Navaratri, Ganesha Chaturthi, Deepavali, during which structures are set up for the duration of the festivities, which range from a day to a week. These structures are temporary and are usually located in one part of the ground, leaving some space for the playing to continue.

While these festivities are not threats to the ground as of now, given their temporary nature and infrastructure set up, it is important to ensure the frequency of using the ground for such activities is limited and there is no scope for permanent structures to be set up, such as religious shrines (which has happened in other grounds and parks in the city).

As Bangalore urbanizes and there is greater demand for land, I fear for the future of playgrounds such as Akkithimanhalli. The location of such playgrounds makes them susceptible to use for purposes other than sports – formal schemes such as the BBMP’s multi parking lot, informal encroachment as parking spaces or even conversion of land use to commercial and residential purposes (which has happened to a playground in Uttarahalli).

I hope that the current high level of usage of the ground, possibly bolstered by the development plans of BBMP (construction of basketball courts, et cetera), will ensure it remains a playground. One has witnessed numerous instances in the city where a high level of ownership by the public has helped protect many public spaces, such as Cubbon Park, from encroachment and change in land use.

Increased use and ownership by citizens is one of the strongest ways in which public spaces, such as playgrounds, can be preserved and protected. With the proposed council elections, the elected representatives can also be roped into protecting such vital public spaces.

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