An extraordinary adventure park created out of waste has brought a smile to the residents of the predominantly Muslim neighbourhood of Juhapura in Ahmedabad.
The transformation of ‘waste’ into forms of throbbing vitality holds a spiritual message of rejuvenation for the community as well.
In popular imagination, a border belongs to the frontier, barbed wire and all. But the 3,00,000 residents of the predominantly Muslim neighbourhood of Juhapura in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, know that sometimes a border can invade the body politic to become its core, driven by extreme prejudice.
In the violence of March 2002 and its long aftermath, Muslims scattered across Ahmedabad had sought refuge in Juhapura’s numbers. A width of road between the neighbourhoods of Hindu-dominated Vejalpur and Juhapura now became the ‘border’.
Vejalpur thrived, but Juhapura lapsed into invisibility without any government school, college, dispensary or park; virtually sans any official presence except, ironically, the police. The passage of time accentuated the long wait for justice, creating distorted topographies of the psyche.
Dream come true
But in the past year, Juhapura has seen one dream come true for its young and old: a wasteland transformed into a 2,500 sq m adventure park, fashioned entirely out of recycled material. Aptly called “Muskaan” (smile in Hindi), the park also has exclusive spaces for women and the elderly.
Thrust out against the skyline in yellow, red, blue and orange (colour coding for age groups), the park is like a brave new city, with state of the art imagination: old telephone poles humming with new life as the mainstay of swings; sewage pipes reborn as play tunnels; used tyres as cushions on bamboo see saws.
A rock climbing wall and a hanging ‘commando’ bridge with a used cricket net wrapped around invite the adventurous to scrabble up. Here a higgledy-piggledy tyre tower tests the climber’s balance; there a weights and pulleys structure demands brain power.
Elsewhere, used pipes recast as a jal tarang invite you to co-relate varying sound pitches to the differing lengths of pipes being struck. It’s an infectious mix of playfulness, sportsmanship and everyday science.
The organisation that initiated the “smile” is Ahmedabad-based NGO, Society for Promoting Rationality (SPRAT), which started community empowerment centres called “Caravan” in five cities in the aftermath of 2002.
Its basic literacy programmes, Taleem, have concentrated on providing educational support services and vocational skills to the displaced and disadvantaged, focusing on Muslims and Dalits.
An ongoing campaign “Mahaaz” (meaning ‘front’) seeks to create a front against all forms of terrorism – by documenting the needs of victims of violence, as for instance in the recent serial blasts in the city, and by recognising extraordinary deeds of bravery by ‘ordinary’ people in trying times with ‘Salaam’ awards, among others.
Alongside, SPRAT realised the power of encouraging the smile that comes unbidden to the lips; the heady impulses of laughter and enthusiasm that are the building blocks of life and natural binding agents.
With the Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority (AUDA) persuaded to give land, SPRAT chose a spot near the ‘border’ to encourage greater interaction between both communities.
At AUDA Muskaan proud volunteers wearing badges monitor numbers to prevent over-crowding; among them is monkey-eyed Salman, 12, who treasures his ‘officially’ sanctioned extra half hour in the park after closing!
Each child is given a coloured ribbon denoting the section meant for her age group. The park sees an average of a thousand visitors daily; on holidays the number crosses three thousand. There are different time slots for the general public and educational institutions.
The idea was to have a wider community ownership through donation of small resources from a large base, says SPRAT CEO Hasan Jowher, former banker-turned-management-consultant.
There were heartbreaks: employee Ami Shah would call random numbers from the yellow pages daily to request donations — used tyres, discarded metal, anything. Upon knowing the CEO’s name or park’s location, the pleasant voices would frost over: a park for Muslims? No, sorry.
But there was also a Parag bhai who dug a bore well; a Jayanti kaka who gifted flooring material. Many contributed on condition of anonymity, fearing a backlash.
Encouragingly, Prof. Sudarshan Khanna, renowned authority on indigenous toys from the National Institute of Design and dedicated architects like Rizwan Quadri, and faculty from the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology provided guidance on structural matters, to the slew of play models inspired by Jowher’s long-standing passion. Big guns like ONGC and BSNL as well as local companies contributed materials. Mrinalini Sarabhai’s Prakriti contributed to the greening effort. Convinced that the park is not a land grab hoax, members of both communities have joined its managing council. Local school heads and professionals help in overseeing functions.
Reminiscent of a giant Leggo set, the park underlines the civilisational trait of the human being as a doer who possesses the ability to forge ‘dearth’ with imagination to create playful challenges. The transformation of ‘waste’ into forms of throbbing vitality holds out a spiritual message of rejuvenation for the community as well.
For SPRAT, adjudged the best small NGO in western India for 2007 at the All India NGO Awards instituted by the International Resource Alliance and Nand and Jeet Khemka Foundation, it is work in progress.
In a section shielded by netting and creepers, dozens of elderly couples congregate. Earlier they would wander aimlessly to give their newly married children some intimacy in their shanties. The place needs a fibre glass shed. Muskaan faces a constant crunch of funds and material to maintain the park and add new elements.
What keeps SPRAT going is the hum of togetherness in Muskaan: the symphony of children’s earsplitting shrieks, women’s murmurs as they swing; the conversation of old people in a place of their own. Moreover, youngsters who till some time ago sized each other up on both sides of the ‘border’ play together often. Now that is a beginning.
6 months ago