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Priority for playground or police station!

Different environmental organisations formed a human chain at Tetultala playground in the city's Kalabagan area last April 26 protesting against the construction of a police station at Tetultala playground and harassment of local people —FE file photo Different environmental organisations formed a human chain at Tetultala playground in the city's Kalabagan area last April 26 protesting against the construction of a police station at Tetultala playground and harassment of local people —FE file photo

The status of Tentultala playground located in the city's Kalabagan area has needlessly been made a contentious issue. If the latest Detailed Area Plan (DAP) of Dhaka, already gazetted, maintains the playground as an open space, how can its status be changed without a subsequent gazette? Chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), Syeda Rizwana Hasan has validly raised this question. The police argue they have followed all relevant procedures to take over the open space of 0.2 acre for construction of a police station in the public interest.

Now, before making such a tall claim, the police should provide satisfactory answers to a few questions. If the people in whose interest the law enforcement agency is going to construct a police station there do not want this, should the agency conclude that it knows better than the target people how to serve public interests? Perhaps this would be too much to ask of them.

In advanced countries' cities with local governance system, no one in his wildest imagination can think of such a conflicting attitude when it comes to preservation of an open space as a children's playground. Even when there are genuine issues on which opinions vary, the local residents' opinion arrived at through a referendum decides the matter. In this case, hardly any resident ---young and old ---of the crowded community of nearly 0.30 million in a small, congested area will be found who does not favour retention of the open space as a playground.

Even if all procedures have been followed for handing over the playground to the police, those are unlikely to stay strong because those have violated the Playgrounds, Open Spaces, Gardens and Water Bodies Conservation Act 2000 in the first place. The authorities concerned including the Rajuk and the office of the Dhaka district commissioner and the department of environment (DoE) have all infringed upon the legal provision. If the country's higher courts ask them to answer why they violated the above Act and also went against the DAP, they will be hard put to answer to the question.

Had there been city governance, such matters would have been an exclusive preserve of the mayor. What is intriguing is that the incumbent mayor of the Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) during his tenure as the member of parliament (MP) of the constituency to which the locality belongs sent a DO (demi official) letter to the home minister for setting up a police station on the playground. Now that the two mayors are serious about recovering lands, including canals and other water bodies illegally grabbed under their respective jurisdiction, how does he look at the issue? It is indeed a test case for the mayor to prove that his office is in favour of not only maintaining this breathing space in Kalabagan as it had been for its residents but also do so for similar other open spaces along with recovery of government lands from illegal occupation.

The two mayors have by now demonstrated enough resolve to take the fight to the land grabbers and recover the city's arteries in order to give it a fresh lease of life against the fast deterioration of living environment earning it the second most unliveable city in the world. Even if all legal issues were addressed in favour of the police station on the playground, reason and reality would suggest the plan of going ahead with the construction of the police station were abandoned. In fact, more such open spaces, if there were any under illegal occupation, had to be designated for children's sports and games.

If public interests are a priority, this city should have got more open spaces for children's and elders' outdoor activities. Prominent urban expert professor Nazrul Islam discloses for our understanding that in cities of the advanced countries, an acre of land is left open for every 1,000 people. Considering the reality here, an open space of one acre should be preserved for 10,000 people, he suggests. If the young generation's addiction to smart phones and computers has to be avoided, they must be given ample opportunities for games and sports or at least the liberty to run for the sake of running.

A playground is not just a facility for sports and physical exercise outdoor, it serves as a cradle for budding sport enthusiasts who may become iconic sports personalities for millions at home and torch-bearers of a nation abroad. Nothing decides the criterion of public interests better than this consideration.

So what the police view as public interests may be rated secondary to the future generation's healthy physical and mental growth. Also, such an open space within a locality serves as a venue for various social, religious and cultural programmes. The suggestion made by the police for use of Kalabagan playground for sports and games can be redirected to them. As the home minister has remarked a search for an alternative place for the police station may resolve the issue. He also gave it to understand that a negotiated settlement is possible.

If this is so, the police should have stopped construction work. But they are going ahead with the construction of the boundary wall. Several rights organisations, environmental groups and eminent citizens have opposed the building of a police station on Tentultala playground. Bringing the people and the police face to face on such a matter is highly concerning. The sooner it is resolved, the better for all concerned and, above all, society in general. 

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