Our garden showed it takes a whole community to build

The cricket ball flew high into the sky and on its return, smashed into the glass window of Mr Mokashi’s flat. The splinters scattered across the street. “Run and hide,” yelled Suhas. On cue, Kishore, Bhalu and 10 other teenagers ran behind the bushes. They knew they would be subject to a barrage from Mrs Mokashi for having broken her window for the second time in a month.

All the residents of the Portuguese Church locality in Dadar, where I lived in 1956, dreaded those cricket balls and what they did to window panes. There was an expanse of open space, a two-acre maidan, where children from the buildings all around played cricket, volleyball, football, etc.

The maidan belonged to the Bombay Municipality so it was common ground and it was often used for annual sports competitions, Independence Day flag hoisting ceremonies and so on.

The maidan was enclosed by buildings, which were on higher ground. During the monsoon season, water from the adjoining areas would flow into the maidan.Within days, it would become a lake, the water standing about five feet deep in the centre.

Between June and September, the rain unleashed its fury mercilessly on the city. Nature took over. Our nights were punctuated with the croaking of hundreds of frogs who would suddenly surface from nowhere. Droves of mosquitoes buzzing around the lake and invading our bedrooms at night were a real menace. We would constantly spray insecticides, to keep these unwelcome guests away.

The maidan also served as a path to the bazaars for residents of the buildings near by. When it flooded, the more enterprising would row across the newly created lake in a boat. It was surreal; the maidan was a venue for cricket and volleyball for eight months and a lake to boat across for the other four.

Whilst we were enchanted by the fact that we had a natural lake every year during the monsoons, the croaking frogs, buzzing mosquitoes and danger of disease was a concern. So an idea germinated amongst members of the management committee of our Bhaweshwar Bhavan building. Why not persuade the Bombay (now Mumbai) Municipal Corporation (BMC) to fill this low lying maidan? Why not convert it into a garden? We wrote to the BMC. Many residents also petitioned them.

Gradually, we roped in local corporators and the local member of parliament. Putting a garden into the maidan, become a frenzied local movement. At times, the tardy progress frustrated us. But we refused to give up. We waged the battle one step at a time, one step a day.

It took us about three years of representations and discussions to convince the BMC. It would take the BMC roughly two years to transform the maidan.

Stones, broken rocks, sand and cement were used to raise the maidan’s level. It was sliced into eight parcels of green gardens with flower beds bordering each plot. Many trees were planted. Pathways looped around the plots for people to walk in the mornings and evenings. A boundary wall was built around the garden. Gardeners tended to the plants.

Finally, the day dawned, when flowers blossomed. The trees were growing quickly and well. The garden was officially ‘opened’ and christened the Deen Dayal Upadhya Garden, after a former national leader. A few years later, I moved away from the area.

Recently, I went back, visiting the garden to attend the 100th birthday celebrations of Mr Mokashi, whose window panes were shattered by that cricket ball back in 1960. The trees are mature now. The flower beds are well established. Early in the morning, older community members walk along the pathways. That trees, plants and flowers grow here, is testimony to a community’s zeal to create beauty in a wasteland.

So, when I read about prime minister Narendra Modi’s plan to build a hundrd smart cities, link towns with bullet trains, build millions of toilets and clean the streets, I hope people realise that he cannot do all of this alone. There is no magic wand to accelerate development. It took us five years to transform a swampy low-lying patch of ground into a garden in Dadar.

Individuals and community groups will have to build a new India themselves, at the local level in every village and town. One step, at a time.

Hari Chand Aneja is a 93-year-old former corporate executive who now keeps busy with charity work

Published: December 6, 2014 04:00 AM


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