Shimla: Playgrounds and parks vanish in the name of development

In the once-green British-era hill town of Shimla, unplanned urbanisation and construction have gobbled up most of the parks and grounds that children used to play in. Thankfully, there is a strong citizen-led movement that may force the government to take action to reverse this.

In 2010, a 10-yr-old school girl Vipasha Srivastava, wrote a moving letter to the Chief Justice of Himachal Pradesh High Court complaining about lack of recreational spaces in the state capital, Shimla. The letter triggered instant action. A Bench led by then Chief Justice Kurian Joseph (who later retired as a Supreme Court Judge) sent notices to the state’s Chief Secretary seeking answers to Vipasha’s questions. The bench termed the issues Vipasha mentioned in her letter as very important since it concerned the healthy, all-round growth of children. The Court also ordered Shimla Municipal Corporation to get funds from the state government and create recreational and general purpose open spaces for children and the public.

In the 10 years since, the lack of open spaces in Shimla has become worse. Vipasha, now a 20-year old college student, was the first voice in the town to raise the alarm about shrinking open spaces. Her letter and its aftermath did bring together citizen activists, writers, film makers and youth together to start a movement for developing parks and creating playing spaces. “I wrote that Shimla is turning into a concrete jungle with no parks, open spaces or grounds for children left,” recalls Vipasha. “The children have no option but to remained glued to television. This is not good for our health and growth. I thank the hon’ble High Court and then Chief Justice Sir, who really made the authorities realise that playgrounds in Shimla are a must for the healthy growth of children.”

Since then, Vipasha has moved on for higher studies to Chandigarh but back home, she still feels that children of her age (when she wrote that letter) continue to struggle to find open spaces. “I still see kids playing in street corners,” said Vipasha. “Most facilities created are insufficient and unsatisfactory. When I look at parks and play grounds in Chandigarh, facilities in Shimla are far from being satisfactory.”

There is little option for children to indulge in free play, except perhaps in the crowded lanes. Pic: Vivek Mohan

Who needs parks?

Urban open spaces — Urban planners highlight their importance; Shimla’s city managers agree that such spaces are needed. Yet, despite repeated court orders and government policy guidelines to make sports and games an integral part of school curriculum, Shimla continues to deprive its boys and girls of playgrounds and parks. The town, known for its British-era boarding and day schools, has grown in size and population. And the biggest casualty of this haphazard and unplanned growth has been urban spaces, with city authorities unable or unwilling to do anything to prevent it.

Shimla, in the first decades after independence had plenty of open spaces, playgrounds and other spaces used by city residents for recreation and sports. Most of these spaces are today occupied by multi-story buildings, government quarters, hotels and guest houses even in the core town areas. Except for its sprawling iconic Ridge are and some British–era convent schools, most children have no access to playgrounds and open spaces.

Veteran journalist Prakash Lohumi squarely blames the government for grabbing every inch of unoccupied land and even playgrounds in the name of development and urban infrastructure. “This mad process is spoiling the town’s landscape,” said Lohumi. “When I was a child, every locality, rather every house, used to have open space and playgrounds. Kaithu for example, a downtown locality where we spent our childhood, had many playgrounds. The sprawling Annandale ground, now given to the army, which also doubles as a golf course, was open to children who spent their vacation time here playing games.”

In the rush to supposedly develop the town, most open spaces around places like Kaithu jail, Central school Jakhu, Rich-Mount, Snowdown hospital, Anjali, Nabha, Summerhill, Chaura Maidan, Kusumpati, Panthaghati, Nav-bahar and Chotta Shimla were gobbled up for bungalows and office complexes leaving no free space, says Lohumi. “And whatever space was left along the lanes, roads and streets got taken up by vehicles parked everywhere. In Jutogh area there was once plenty of open space for children to play. There is a long list of boys who got trained on the Jutogh ground and won laurels at the national level”. Like Arjuna awardee Suman Rawat, who won an athletics bronze in the 1986 Asian games at Seoul.

Inevitably, in the face of government apathy, the courts intervened again. In October 2019, a High Court bench headed by Justice D C Chaudhary took suo moto cognisance of a letter written by a resident of Nabha locality, one of the oldest residential areas near Shimla Railway station, to stop the government’s plan for raising a new block of three to four buildings for government staff by taking over an open space meant for children.

“Earlier, children used to play in the streets and The Ridge but today the streets have become overcrowded with large numbers of vehicles parked and children playing on The Ridge are shooed away,” said Shilpa Chauhan, a resident of New Shimla, whose son is in Class VII. “There is hardly any space for children, who are forced to restrict themselves to indoor activities and remain glued to TV sets, internet and mobile phones.”

Night time play at the rider. Pic Vivek Mohan

Land ahoy

Other organisations have also contributed to this shrinking of open spaces. Land owners with land to spare have sold them to private builders who built high rises. Shimla’s heritage zone, where no construction is permitted, now has a new luxury hotel coming up next to the private bungalow of former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, who once had been a strong votary of saving Shimla’s greenery and open spaces, even as his government flouted rules. Even under the present government, the urban development authority has auctioned land marked for open spaces as commercial plots or residential sites.

Another landmark open space, the Lalpani ground adjacent to Shimla’s oldest Government Higher secondary school has been taken over by the state cricket association to set up a cricket academy. The famous Titla Hotel grounds in Jakhoo, part of Shimla’s heritage area, which used to be a hub of children’s activities has also disappeared under concrete, while the once ubiquitous tennis courts dotting the city have virtually vanished.

“Some reputed educational institutions like Bishop Cotton, St Edward’s, Convent of Jesus and Mary, Kendriya Vidyalaya and Himachal Pradesh University are the only places to have saved their playgrounds,” said Bhanu Priya Verma, a popular presenter with AIR Shimla.

To highlight issue of lack of playgrounds, a Shimla born and national awardee Bombay film maker Vivek Mohan even made a documentary film, “Shivaji Park of Shimla” showing how children playing were being chased away by the police at the Ridge. Vivek, who later ran a consistent campaign on this issue with other citizens activists, feels the documentary and his activism did help in creating an impact on the Municipal Corporation, state government and the political class.

The issue relating to lack of playgrounds was a talking point in the last Municipal Corporation polls, which followed the release of his documentary. “When people and authorities like Shimla Mayor Satya Koundal (a councillor from Sanjauli) acknowledge my effort about the need for open spaces, playgrounds and parks, I hope it pays off in the long run for betterment of Shimla’s kids,” said the film-maker.

Shimla Municipal Commissioner Pankaj Rai admits that space constraints are a reason for lack of playgrounds and parks in Shimla town. But after the High Court orders, the Corporation has taken a series of steps to develop places for children and senior citizens. “Some innovative projects are already underway,” said Rai. “Right now, we have 44 parks, like the ones at Sanjauli, New Shimla, Nav Bahar, Annandale, Banmore, Mall Road and Ridge, which were recently developed. There is an ultra-modern multi-purpose park coming-up at Annadale and another Rani Ground in Sanjauli area for children and senior citizens. One Dada-Dadi park, which opened next to the Ridge on the road connecting US club and Rich-Mount, is drawing crowds. We have also added some infrastructure at Dada-Dadi park for recreational activities. The concept will be taken forward,” he assured.

Hope certainly springs eternal.

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