Eight-year-old Sarath’s eyes light up at the sight of the skating rink at Sivan Park in K K Nagar. He had been using the facility for a few months before the lockdown and was eager to continue improving his balance and form. He had even persuaded his parents to buy him skating gear.
Sarath is one of the many children who have been affected by the recent imposition of charges on the use of the skating facility at Sivan Park. The private contractor who has been entrusted with maintenance of the facility inside the park now charges Rs 500 per month for the use of the skating rink for an hour a day.
Similar stories are heard across the city where facilities such as badminton courts, skating rinks and tennis courts have been handed over for maintenance to a private entity.
The concerns raised by the users of these facilities comes on the heels of an announcement by the Chennai Corporation of its intent to transfer the maintenance of more than half the parks of the city to private entities. The civic body has issued formal tenders for some of the parks.
Chennai has a total of 669 parks within city limits. Some of the parks also have facilities for skating, tennis and indoor badminton. The civic body’s park department has been maintaining these parks through various models such as direct maintenance using the field staff of the corporation, maintenance by contract by private entities and maintenance through adoption by firms and industries as part of CSR.
In the past, the parks department has come under the scanner for poor maintenance of the facilities and neglect of parks. The civic body also has dwindling field staff who find themselves unable to manage the upkeep effectively. The department spends close to Rs 50 crore per year in managing the parks, said an official. The authorities however did not respond to questions on exclusion due to charges levied by private contractors.
“Over the years the park has gone from a space that the kids could use and a space for us to gather as a community, to a space that is full of garbage and one for miscreants to convene. We do not send our kids here anymore as there are bottles of alcohol and cigarettes strewn everywhere. I would rather have them play by the street than come here,” says Kavitha of Vembuliamman Nagar.
Many parks suffer the same plight, with the facilities available also suffering from neglect. Kids’ play areas and playing equipment have been found to be old and rusted, often proving to be dangerous for those who use them. “Some of my kids’ friends got hurt using the slide at the local park here as the edges were sharp and rusty. No care is taken to maintain the swings and slides there. The ground too is uneven with jagged stones protruding. It is not worth the risk,” says Shanthini K of Gill Nagar.
While each park is mandated to have a security guard, their absence is keenly felt in many areas where entire parks are taken over by those engaging in prohibited activity such as drinking.
“We would love to take the children to an open space, especially during the lockdown and when the beach is shut, and the parks in our area could have been the ideal spot. Unfortunately, our local park, though spacious, is not properly maintained. Even when the park is shut, people manage to climb in and use the space so we see garbage and booze bottles everywhere. We are unable to take the kids there due to this,” says Keerthivas L of SIDCO Estate.
Privately managed facilities
While the corporation reels from issues of manpower and lack of funds, the facilities that have been handed over to private entities for maintenance have come under the scanner for restriction of access.
The corporation outsourced the maintenance of 16 skating rinks, 12 tennis courts and 9 badminton courts within parks for private maintenance in 2019. Since then, there have been various complaints of exorbitant charges being levied for using the facilities, which were previously free for all residents.
In one instance, it was exposed that an entire badminton court with state-of-the-art facilities maintained by the private contractor was booked for a year by politically connected individuals, barring access for all from the space.
“While they have stated that children from corporation schools can use the facilities free of cost, there are others who cannot afford to pay the 500-2000 rupees being charged for skating and tennis. Now we have to find other alternatives to using the space, which was previously inclusive free for all,” said Raman of K K Nagar, speaking of the charges now being levied at Sivan Park.
What residents want
Residents are caught between the civic body’s inability to maintain the facilities under its care or the prospect of having to pay user fees in the case of maintenance by private contractors.The residents of K K Nagar recently held a signature campaign against the charges imposed for use of the facilities in the park premises.
“They now say we have to pay to use the skating rink, but where is the guarantee that in the future we will not be asked to pay to even use the park? It’s the duty of the civic body to ensure upkeep of public places and easy access for all. We cannot ask poor people from working class families to pay thousands per month just for their kids to play or engage in some recreational activity. This will discourage kids from taking up any physical activities,” says Sandeepan C.
The fresh tenders issued by the Corporation inviting bidders for the maintenance of parks bears no mention of the charges that could be levied by the bidder on the facilities in the park.
The tender has outlined key points on maintenance, ensuring the presence of a guard and unrestricted access to the park from 5 am – 9 pm. However, the primary grievance of citizens on the possible exclusion of many from using the facilities remains unaddressed.