N Muthukumar is over 60 years of age and works out at the public gym in Thiruvanmiyur. The gym has a building with equipment for hard exercise indoors and mild workouts outdoors. There is an Anganwadi across and the intervening area is roofed.
Muthukumar is oscillating gently on the low pendulum outdoors. On one side he can feast his eyes on flowering plants and on the other, a set of colourful playthings meant for the Anganwadi kids. It is 7.30 am. He stops, breathes deeply, closes his eyes and says, “Forty years ago, this was just a mud pit that filled up during the rain. We would splash around for fun. Some people in the adjacent Marundeeswarar Nagar slum put up a thatched roof and started working out here. More joined in and a gym took shape. During MG Ramachandran’s time, the Corporation built pucca rooms for the gym and Anganwadi. The next generation of boys took over, but couldn’t afford the maintenance. The place began to be used for cooking/catering and went to seed with drinking, gambling and drugs.”
Gym in Thiruvanmiyur in ruins
I came to know of the gym in late 2016 when a group of young men stopped me in the street. “We have been running a public gym nearby. It needs to be refurbished. We need your help,” they said.
By then the gym was a building with just basic equipment which was mostly broken. It had a tattered floor mat, cracked mirrors and an air of neglect. The area outside had paver blocks and mud in equal measure, covered with all kinds of litter. The low walls meant easy access for vandalism, drinking and drug abuse. The outdoor gym equipment consisted of bent steel bars. An illegal sewage sump was part of the compound.
The Anganwadi building too was crying for a coat of paint. The play equipment attached to it was mounted on a shabby cement base.
Yet, the brick buildings, the open central area and the roof had the potential for development. Space like this is precious in Chennai.
I said, “I’ll do what I can. Do you have any papers related to its past?”
The old file the boys unearthed presented sparse history. With added research, I shared the story of how a group of boys from Marundeeswarar Nagar slum were keeping the gym going, and how, with restoration, it could stand to benefit the community.
The then Member of Parliament for Chennai South, J Jayavardhan, visited the place and promised help. I sent petitions to the Zonal Officer (ZO) and the Regional Deputy Commissioner (RDC) of the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC).
Efforts for upgradation of the gym
In 2018, the RDC gave his nod for upgradation of the gym.
Two weeks into the work, one of the boys noticed that half of the flooring was tiled while the other half had M-sand. We found the tin sheets meant for the roof were now rain shades over the window. The roof remained leaky. Following our complaint, the work was stopped and the Assistant Engineer (AE) in charge was transferred. Soon after, the RDC left for a new posting. We were back to square one.
In June 2019, on the strength of a Residents’ Welfare Association (RWA) we had registered, we made a fervent appeal to the then Deputy Commissioner (Works), GCC, Govind Rao, IAS, asking for repairs and restoration of the gym and attached a list of things to be done.
Within days, the Executive Engineer and the Assistant Engineer from the Parks Department of the GCC visited the gym. The new contractor assigned to the project did a good job and in about six months, a refurbished gym emerged from the ruins.
The Executive Engineer of the Parks Department suggested I look into a provision the civic body had for individuals and organisations to adopt public parks and playfields, by paying a refundable deposit.
By undertaking to maintain the gym, there was a chance to ensure that our efforts don’t go waste.
An application to adopt the gym was made and the department issued an adoption certificate in 2020, valid for a year. It had 58 attached conditions.
“They are all for playgrounds!” I protested.
“You are doing something new. We have no rules for gym adoption,” said the then DC Works.
Physical transformation of the gym
With new roofing, raised walls, tiled floors, sewage pipelines, new equipment and a lovely play area with EPDM flooring, the gym looked clean and inviting. Two areas were designated for planting shrubs.
A unique feature of this work was how much of the old material was recycled. The old roof now protected the gym from neighbours throwing garbage into the premises. The old floor tiles were repurposed to pave pathways in Mylapore. The gym equipment was repaired for re-use.
As part of our maintenance work we also painted the walls of the gym and the Anganwadi; planted flowering shrubs and raised a herb patch; white-washed the interior of the gym again, installed a mirror, covered the floor with rubber matting, and blocked an opening in the wall. We added lights and fans, appointed a watchman, started fitness and yoga classes and made sure the back door is off-limits for trespassers.
Contested claims to the gym in Thiruvanmiyur
When COVID-19 struck, the gym had to close down for months. When the lockdown was eased a new conflict emerged. Sprucing up the gym meant there was no longer room for drinking and drug abuse or any other vandalism on the premises, as the community had assumed ownership of the gym.
We’ve since had instances of individuals barging in and asking the users of the gym to leave the premises, specifically singling me out to focus their ire. When such incidents were brought to the cognisance of the police, they said, “They do this because you have put a stop to their commercial activities.”
Little was done against the individuals who tried to forcibly occupy public space and intimidate and harass a senior citizen.
When the Zonal Officer intervened after my posting about the incident on the WhatsApp group, the individuals who wanted to usurp the gym for unlawful activities accused us of gatekeeping.
We made our case by showing photographs of the gym being used for unlawful purposes prior to the refurbishment and maintenance. I submitted a petition signed by the local residents asking for the gym to be used purely as a place for exercise.
The ZO reaffirmed that our part in maintaining the gym was in line with what was agreed upon with the civic body.
Despite this, vandalism and harassment have continued. The individuals who were against our involvement came in regularly to check on us. They snatched the keys from the man-in-charge and even broke open the gym door to gain entry at night.
Despite such instances, when it was time to renew the lease for maintenance of the gym, we won the right to continue the work and received approval from the civic body.
The public gym in Sivakamipuram is in many ways a model one. Youngsters come in the morning and evening to exercise, elders use outdoor equipment. Every Saturday, Sivananda Yoga Centre teachers conduct yoga sessions for the neighbourhood children. Sundal is served in the end. Adults have their classes on Sunday mornings.
A magic show, a comprehensive medical camp by the Rotary Club, Children’s Day celebrations, and sports programmes are events that have been held in the recent past. Kids play table tennis, carrom and chess in the evenings. Herb plants are given away for free. The premises are spotlessly clean as we have undertaken the maintenance of the gym. Old-timers are amazed at the changes made to the place.
We invite all of Chennai to walk in any time – especially on Saturdays to witness the transformative power of collective action, even in the face of adversity.