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The price of not having a place to play

The price of not having a place to play
Sounds of children playing–the giggles, shouts, and high-pitched cheers–should bring a smile to anyone’s face. But Kathmandu residents say it often puts them on edge. Without open spaces, children have been forced to play on the streets and, even if these are inner alleys and roads, they aren’t safe spaces. There’s always an accident or two, with children frequently getting injured. Laxmi Tamang, a 30 year old mother of two from Ratopul, Kathmandu, says her sons play in the road in front of their two room apartment. They are either getting scolded by the neighbors for creating a ruckus—breaking of flowerpots, and hitting parked cars with the basketball—or nursing injuries after being hit by cyclists. Since no building in the area has a big enough compound, the children of the community are forced to play out on the streets, says Tamang. This doesn’t sit well with the parents but they also don’t want their children to sit at home, glued to their phones.

Sushila Dahal, a 42-year-old mother living in Thimi, Bhaktapur, says she is constantly worried about her 12-year-old son. Once, he nearly got hit by a truck while riding his bicycle on the street. There are no open spaces in her area which is why her son, along with other children of the locality, play on the road. “We can’t keep them confined in the house, but there is no safe space for them to play outside as well,” she says.

Many parents ApEx talked to share the same concern. Sabitra Prasai, a 31-year-old mother of two living in Boudha, Kathmandu, says around seven children, along with her 11-year-old son, regularly play on the road. It’s a three-way junction, and there are many two-wheelers passing by every five minutes. It’s dangerous, with vehicles regularly coming to screeching halts as a ball rolls in front of them or to avoid hitting a child. Prasai is always cautioning her son, telling him to be careful and not go out in the middle of the road. But she knows it’s not enough. Unfortunately, there is little else she can do. Although their locality has a park meant for children, Prasai says it’s a bit far. Her son can’t walk over alone, someone will need to chaperone him. “I would rather have him play on the road, where I can check on him, than let him visit the park,” she says. But according to the Nepal Police, children playing on the road is a huge risk factor for accidents and injuries. Poshraj Pokharel, spokesperson of the Nepal Police, says it’s one of the reasons behind the increasing number of road accidents in the past year. In the past six months, 235 children below the age of 16 have lost their lives in road accidents, while 1,386 have been injured. The data, Pokharel adds, is a gross underrepresentation of the actual number of cases. When children get hurt while playing on the street (suppose they are hit by bikes or cars), provided there is no serious injury, the issue is mostly resolved on the spot. Though children aren’t supposed to be playing on the road, the driver of the vehicle is always the one who is in the wrong in case of an accident. Suman Meher Shrestha, senior urban planner, says uncontrolled urbanization has left very little open spaces in Kathmandu. It has made the city congested and chaotic, and the situation will only get worse as the population density increases. Children have no space to play inside their homes and communities and thus they spill out onto the roads. “We could learn a thing or two from places like Thimi, Bungamati, and Sankhu where people seem to have realized the importance of community spaces. They are renovating open areas like courtyards and temples,” says Shrestha, adding open spaces are necessary not just in case of natural disasters like earthquakes but to prevent regular accidents as well. Sudhir Aryal, a 46-year-old father of two from Sinamangal, Kathmandu, says urbanization has indeed made it difficult for homeowners to enjoy open spaces in their areas. There isn’t a plot of land where construction work isn’t going on. Aryal feels it’s unfair to ask children not to play outside when they don’t have space inside their homes. One of the major reasons behind the lack of public spaces, according to Shaurab Dhakal, spokesperson at Kathmandu Valley Development Authority (KVDA), is illegal plotting of lands which is quite rampant in the valley. According to Dhakal, anyone who wants to plot a land requires a permit from KVDA. Their policy requires the party to ensure five percent of the total land area is allocated for open space but that rarely, if ever, happens. Majority of plotted lands, Dhakal says, haven’t followed this rule, thus reducing the number of empty spaces in many localities. “We have prepared a list of lands that have gone through illegal plotting, and will be taking the necessary actions soon,” he adds. The KVDA has been working on constructing parks inside the valley since 2012. Dhakal says they have opened around 70-80 parks in the past decade, and that they are still working on it. The KVDA was also working on a 20-year plan to ease congestion in the valley and make it more habitable, which unfortunately didn’t get approved by the Physical Development Committee. Now, KVDA is working on a much more comprehensive ‘Brihattar Master Plan’, whose draft is supposed to be ready by Feb 2024. “The strategy for the 20-year plan will just be a small part of this master plan,” says Dhakal. The Nepal Police is also doing its bid. It has been involved with different governmental authorities that are responsible for building and maintaining communal parks in Kathmandu valley. They have also been organizing awareness campaigns regarding road safety so that children don’t play on the streets. But without an alternative, the children have nowhere to go and come out on the streets to play, especially after school hours which is also when traffic is at its heaviest, with offices closing for the day. If there were more open spaces in the valley, it would foster a better sense of community as well as give children a safe space to play, says urban planner Shrestha. But Kathmandu in particular, he adds, has many constraints and it’s going to take different approaches from various agencies to work around them all. Arjun Koirala, urban planner and former general secretary of Regional and Urban Planners Society of Nepal, says there are lands that can be developed into parks and playgrounds but many of these haven’t been identified yet for various bureaucratic reasons. There are plots of lands that are illegally occupied as well as public-private partnerships through which plots of land that should have been public spaces have been leased out. “Kathmandu valley needs a better land management system. That’s the only way to identify and create more open spaces,” he says.