Sunday, November 15, 2009

Oh Maria, my Maria

When a park falls into disuse because it has been sold, it breaks a few hearts along the way

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few years ago, on most weekends, my children would say, “Baba, let’s go to Maria Park.” And so, we would head for this sylvan setting in the suburb of Padivattom in Kochi.

Maria Park was set in five acres of greenery. There were large doll-statues near the entrance, apart from figures of Vishnu, Krishna and Jesus Christ. Inside, on the right, there was a badminton court. For the children, there were numerous slides, see-saws, swings, and open grassy lawns to run about. There was a pond which had several fishes in it. An attraction was a stupa-like structure at one end. We could climb up and look around.

The park catered to people of all ages. “In the early mornings, a lot of elderly people would come for walks,” says M.G. Radhakrishnan, who lives opposite the park. “During the day there were a lot of ‘lovebirds’.” It took me quite some time to realise that he meant romantic couples.

So imagine my surprise when I revisited Maria Park last week. There is a signboard stating that the ‘property belongs to Unique Estates Development Co. Ltd. Trespassers will be prosecuted.’ A forbidding message, indeed. The statues have all been torn down. All the equipment has been removed. The gate is locked. The watchman refuses entrance. And the park has been overrun by grass and weeds. There is no sign of life.

Locals say that a Mumbai-based company has brought the property and plans to make buildings there. Owing to the recession, the work has not begun.

Meenakshi Nair, who also lives nearby says the silence in the park is unnerving. “Earlier, there were always the cries of children laughing and playing,” she says.

As Kochi develops rapidly, the loss of open spaces like Maria Park is happening all over the city. Rapacious developers, in collusion with corrupt government officials have been taking over open spaces wherever it is available. It will have a telling effect on children who will soon discover that they have no place to play.

Says Dr. C.P. Somanath, consultant psychiatrist at Lakeshore Hospital: “Children need adequate sensory and motor stimulation to develop their physical, emotional and mental capabilities. Parks and playgrounds are adequate places to provide this.”

He says that it is only through playing that children develop social and inter-personal skills. When this is missing, owing to the lesser number of parks, children tend to stay indoors. “They watch a lot of TV, which gives them a distorted view of reality, and tend to become ego-centric,” he says.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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