HIDING AND SEEKING – Playing in India’s dense cities

Street Cricket. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Early childhood development is strongly influenced by the child’s environment. [1] India has 472 million children (0–18 years), constituting 19% of the world’s children (2011), and out of this, around 130 million children dwell in urban areas.[2] This number must have grown considerably today, six years after the last census. The “Convention on the Rights of the Child” (CRC) states the right to sport and play as one of the fundamental rights of every child.[3] Even so, less than 10% of India’s children have access to playgrounds and usually take their games to streets and other potentially risky areas.[4] While the mainstream development discourse views children as a “homogenous group”, it is critical to take into consideration the varying degrees of vulnerability originating from lack of housing, access to education, child labor, natural calamities and more. Since there is no official separate data recording the issues faced by vulnerable children, their injustice is played down in the larger statistics and hence made invisible to authorities.[5] Moreover, owing to the range of children’s issues in India, provision of the one of the most basic rights of “playing” is easily sidelined, and its capacity to facilitate a child’s development is undermined.[6]

Figure 2: Playing as one of the fundamental rights of children. Source: https://www.unicef.org/crc/index_73875.html

Divide and Play
I grew up in Gurunanak Nagar, a residential neighborhood near the historic center of Pune. My neighborhood was composed of three streets with bungalows and apartments in a linear grid. On stepping back a few thousand kilometers from home and rethinking my urban environment, I recognize how development decisions can favor some groups of children while compromising access to others.

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Enter aFigure 3: Kashewadi (North) and Gurunanak Nagar (South). Source: Google Maps 

The density of the informal settlement Kashewadi to the north and Gurunanak Nagar to the south can be seen in Figure 1. The children from the two areas competed in claiming the streets of Gurunanak Nagar as their playground. Except that there wasn’t any real competition. My neighborhood more often than not disrupted the street cricket matches of the boys from Kashewadi, by shooing them away to go play in their own streets, or rather their slum alleys (which have an average width of 1.5 humans). The alternative was a small plot of land in our street which lay vacant. That was the one place different socio-economic groups of kids could play.

A few years ago, a political party took up the work of upgrading this “undeveloped” wilderness, to a landscaped park with a massive badminton court, forming a new source of revenue for the park’s maintenance. This development gave the park a gate, high peripheral fencing and even a watchman. But, the kids from Kashewadi were no longer welcome. It turned into an exclusive enclave for the ‘formal’ home dwellers. Even the street space for playing is further cramped with more and more room occupied by car parking and an increased thoroughfare.

A child’s socio-economic class and even gender primarily determine the urban environment he/she has access to. I’ve only seen the “boys” from Kashewadi play on the streets. There is almost no opportunity for girls from the informal settlement to play in the streets for reasons that linked to culture and security. More enquiry is needed on where they play and what opportunities they have to engage with their urban environment in comparison to boys.

Figure 4: The upgraded and gated park in Gurunanak Nagar. Source: Sonia Malani

Pune’s Urban Fabric
Consider access to open space on a city scale. Below (figure 2) we see the tremendous contrast in the urban fabric of gated communities versus informal settlements. Options to play in an open space within a dense informal settlement are very limited and can possibly narrow down to occupying a street till you’re asked to scoot! On the flip side, it is common to provide parks, playgrounds and in some cases even golf courses as added amenities to gated community projects. Granted this does provide the much-needed room for children belonging to a large section of middle and higher-income households, it does so in the “private” realm. As a consequence, you do not usually see these groups in most of the public parks. Further, due to increased privatization of open spaces, the municipality has failed to consider the dearth of public open spaces as a pressing issue. A growing trend to fill the gap of open spaces for the middle and higher income groups is ironically enclosed in gaming arcades of shopping malls

pune maps
Figure 5: View of Pune’s neighborhoods. From the top i) Sindh Society of gated bungalows, ii) Kashewadi slum iii) Density on either side of East Street. Source: Google maps

Development Plans swallowing open spaces
With the growing value of land, open space in Pune has shrunk from 9.8% (1987–2007) to 6.9% (2007–2027).[7] A study conducted by Center for Development Studies and Activities (CDSA) in 2015 has scrutinized the city’s Development Plan (DP) in detail and pointed out a number of discrepancies in the municipality’s land use plans. The study observes that the new DP is based on a tampered and incorrect “Existing Land Use”. [8] There are cases across the city, where the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) and other interested predators have attempted to usurp land for privatization, while citizen groups have struggled to retain the open spaces for civic amenities in their neighborhoods.[9]

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 9 sq. m. of open space per person in urban areas. [10] Indian metropolises average way below this figure such as Mumbai (1.1 sq. m.)[11] and Bangalore (1.9 sq. m.).[12] This gives an estimate on the lungs of the city from an environmental perspective. But in our car-dominated, sprawling yet dense cities, the per capita open space index does not reveal the distribution and accessibility to open spaces. In addition to the basic provision of open spaces in the city, planning decisions are crucial in asking the questions of “whose access”. For example: Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa, bagged the first prize in the national competition of India’s “Smart City Mission”. One of the elements contributing to its big win is its focus to turn into a “Child-Friendly” Smart City.[13] Those are great intentions, but ironically Bhubaneswar Smart City has also made it to the news for its plans of mass evictions in slums. Approximately 50.000 slum dwellers will be evicted, [14] many of which are children! A gentle reminder to the municipality that child-friendly goes beyond changing swing heights and painting cartoons on zebra crossings.

Initiatives for and by children
Despite the lack of planning regulations to serve children’s needs, there are a number of independent organizations from across urban India engaging with children’s issues to reclaim their rights, including the right to play. Project KHEL (Kids Holistic Education and Life skills) based in the city of Lucknow is one such initiative. KHEL introduces lessons, for example: based on gender, hygiene and non-violence to vulnerable groups of children, through games and sports in public parks, vacant plots, public school grounds and other accessible urban pockets.[15] “Humara Bachpan” (translates to “our childhood”) is another campaign active in 23 cities, engaging 35.000 children in urban affairs through child clubs, and carrying out children-led neighborhood planning and advocacy initiatives.[16] These are steps in creating participatory models that include children. Such efforts along with many others, do not suggest an obliteration of the state’s responsibility, but instead underline the amplified possibilities if the local municipalities collaborated with such initiatives through the provision and preservation of open spaces and a child-friendly planning direction.

The government has recently included green spaces in their agenda through the AMRUT scheme (Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation), wherein 500 cities will undergo transformation through the provision of various services including the development and management of parks–with a special focus on children’s needs.[17] Even though the mention of green spaces on such a scale is a positive step, its application and ownership by communities will be greatly impacted by their inclusion within the process of transformation, contrary to the current top-down regime.



CRC — Convention on the Rights of the Child
DP — Development Plan
CDSA — Center for Development Studies and Activities
PMC — Pune Municipal Corporation
KHEL — Kids Holistic Education and Life Skills
PPP — Public Private Partnership
AMRUT — Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation



[1] Chatterjee, P. (2017, April 21). Seeing Indian Cities through the eyes of children. Citiscope. Retrieved from http://citiscope.org

[2] NIUA. (2016). Status of Children in Urban India. Retrieved from https://cfsc.niua.org/sites/default/files/Status_of_children_in_urban_India-Baseline_study_2016.pdf

[3] Conventions of the Rights of the Child. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org/crc/

[4] Leveraging Sport for Development. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.dasra.org/cause/leveraging-sport-for-development

[5] NIUA. (2016). Status of Children in Urban India. Retrieved from https://cfsc.niua.org/sites/default/files/Status_of_children_in_urban_India-Baseline_study_2016.pdf

[6] Bhosle, K.D., & Adane, V.S. (2014). Future of children’s play in cities in India. Journal of Planning and Architecture, Photon (106), 130–138. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/9479090/Future_of_Childrens_play_in_cities_in_India

[7] Paranjape, A. (2013, April 13). Development Plan for Pune 2007–2027 — A 6 Point Agenda for Modifications. Retrieved from http://anaghaspeaks.blogspot.com.tr/2013/04/development-plan-for-pune-2007-2027-6.html

[8] CDSA. (2015). Comparative Analysis of Development Plans. Retrieved from http://www.cdsaindia.org/Pune%20Dp_analysis_CDSA.pdf

[9] Citizens fight to keep hawks away from open spaces. (2017, February 7).

The Times Of India, Retrieved from http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com

[10] World Health Organization. (2010). Urban planning, environment and health. Retrieved from http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/114448/E93987.pdf

[11] McLaren, C. (2013, March 28). 10 Things Every Urbanist Should Know about Mumbai. Retrieved from https://www.guggenheim.org/blogs/lablog/10-things-every-urbanist-should-know-about-mumbai

[12] Bharadwaj, K.V.A. (2015, June17). Per capita open space shrinks from 8 sq m in 1983 to 1.9 sq m today. The Hindu, Retrieved from http://www.thehindu.com

[13] Bernard van Leer Foundation. (n.d.). India’s first smart and child friendly city. Retrieved from https://bernardvanleer.org/cases/indias-first-smart-and-child-friendly-city/

[14] Goldberg, E. (2016, September 28). Slum Dwellers Face Eviction As India Builds New Smart Cities. Huffington Post, Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/slum-dwellers-face-eviction-as-india-builds-new-smart-cities_us_57ebe6c4e4b024a52d2be0be

[15] Salian, P. (2017, May 3). The Transformative Power of Play in urban India. Retrieved from https://www.citylab.com/navigator/2017/05/the-transformative-power-of-play-in-indias-slums/525228/

[16] Humara bachpan Campaign (2016). Retrieved from http://www.humarabachpan.org/index.php

[17] The Mission (n.d.). Retrieved from http://amrut.gov.in/writereaddata/The%20Mission.pdf


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