Not getting to play: Of jogging pigs and old men on swings

Published: January 21, 2013
Garbage strewn right next to a park (top); a missing manhole presenting danger to children playing nearby. PHOTO: WAQAS NAEEM/EXPRESS

Garbage strewn right next to a park (top); a missing manhole presenting danger to children playing nearby. PHOTO: WAQAS NAEEM/EXPRESS

Garbage strewn right next to a park (top); a missing manhole presenting danger to children playing nearby. PHOTO: WAQAS NAEEM/EXPRESS 
Garbage strewn right next to a park (top); a missing manhole presenting danger to children playing nearby. PHOTO: WAQAS NAEEM/EXPRESS

On a cloudy Sunday afternoon, Muhammad Shareef, a government employee, is slumped on a bench in a public park in Sector I-9/1. Shareef is not the park’s caretaker, but grey bristles on his cheeks and his khaki sweater lend him a false air of authority. He takes a break from brushing his teeth with a miswak and starts speaking about the field in front of him, where the neighbourhood children are running around on dry, worn out grass.

“There is a gardener who receives a salary for maintaining this park, but I have never seen him around,” said Shareef, who has lived in a flat next to the park since 1996. “There have been no efforts to improve the condition of this park in the recent past.”

Around him, patches of grass have completely withered away, puddles of water remind of long forgotten rains, swings are either missing or rusted, most of the rides need urgent repair, and the metal boundary fence is broken from many places, making it more popular as a virtual clothes line for some.

Add an occasional broken bench or an overflowing trash container to the above and the general description could fit most public parks in Islamabad. A majority of the city’s 170 Capital Development Authority (CDA) parks have fallen into a state of disrepair due to the administration’s neglect and citizens’ apathy.

Raja Altaf Hussain, a cab driver and area resident, stands next to the park in Sector G-9/2. Here, the children play in close proximity to the foul stench from a trash container and cracked mud that has turned green with algae.

“The authorities built this park but they have never returned to inquire about its state,” Hussain says. “They don’t care if it thrives or rots.”

He thinks the CDA’s neglects the park because no “important people live in the sector”. A claim that CDA’s Parks Directorate officials deny.

“All parks are allocated the same resources,” said one Parks officer, who requested anonymity. “We don’t discriminate among the parks.”

The officer says the rundown condition of some parks is due to high usage and the level of education and awareness among those who use the parks.

But the officials admit CDA has not spent enough on structural maintenance.

“We have looked after soft aspects such as plants and shrubs, but other things such as walkways and fences have been overlooked due to lack of funds,” a senior Parks official said.

Consequently, the stairs of a playground slide in I-9/4 have been missing a protective fence on one side for some time now. The chain of one of the swings has come unhinged and needs to be welded, too.

“Broken slides and swings are dangerous for children,” says Ali Akbar, a government employee who had brought his children to the park. “You cannot expect the children to be careful.

The playground attractions need to be fixed to avoid accidents and injuries.”

In G-8/2, the residents have another problem in addition to broken benches and swings. They cannot let their children out in the evenings, because the jogging tracks used by local people, are occupied by the area’s wild boar population after sunset. The park is right next to a strip of foliage and trees which the boars call home.

Ajab Khan, who works as a salesman for a mobile network company, said the residents have complained to the CDA several times but the issue remains unresolved.

In areas where they can help, the residents have also stopped to care.

“You see that board,” Shareef says while pointing to a sign listing important instructions in white script on a black background. The first instruction prohibits any vehicles inside the park.

“People use the space to park cars all the time,” he said. “They just drive in through broken patches of the fence.”

Litter in the parks can be avoided if the public is more sensitive toward cleanliness, says Irfan Hamid, a resident of Sector G-6.

Hamid and his friend Faraz Hafeez Khan were on an outing with their families, including five young children altogether, in the Kohsar Market children’s park.

Alongside some parks in F-10, this park — neatly tucked away next to Islamabad’s posh little market — is one of the better public spaces in the capital. Hamid is not completely convinced, though. He thinks the park’s swings need to be fixed. But there is more than just regular maintenance that draws families to a park.

“You also look at the general surroundings,” Hamid says. “What kinds of people visit the park? Is it safe for families?”

His concerns seem valid. The F-7/4 Park, the Jubilee Park and the Argentina Park in G-6, are all quite well kept, but there are hardly any families to be seen there. These parks are mostly occupied by teenage boys and grown men playing cricket, lounging on the grass, and even using the swing sets made for children. Mian Sameer, who lives near the F-7/4 park, said he often sees adults and older students from a nearby madrassa using the parks instead of the children for whom they were set up.

These concerns aside, the quality of some of CDA’s prized parks is also slumping. For example, the upkeep of Kachnar Park in sector I-8, which has perhaps the best infrastructure among Islamabad’s public parks, has declined since Kamran Lashari’s time, according to park regulars such as I-8 resident Naseebullah.

The Parks Directorate claims it has recently received some funding from the Planning Wing.

“We are going to improve the state of the parks in phases starting with the most underprivileged areas,” the senior Parks official promised.

People still visit F-9 Park regularly, and the Japanese Children’s Park and Lake View Park receive plenty of visitors on weekends, but the ease of access and comfort provided by quality sector parks is unparalleled.

Shareef, however, has given up hope that the I-9/1 Park will ever improve. It remains to be seen whether the current CDA administration, with its emphasis on environment conservation and cleanliness, can change his mind.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 21st, 2013.

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