It is an eerie place with hundreds of tombstones, a cremation pyre in the corner and a dead body that awaits burial. For Vicki and his seven friends, aged between 11 and 18, it serves as a playground. No wonder that Krishnampet cremation ground in Triplicane has turned into a playground with the Marina beach out of bounds. They assemble in the graveyard almost every evening to play cricket.

A cycle track in the rear of the graveyard is possibly the most levelled surface they can get and it becomes their pitch. At times, people defecate across the ‘pitch,' but the children cannot shift the playing spot. Search for a space to play is not easy for Karthik and his friends too. They get up at 5.30 a.m. on Sundays in order to reach the Lady Willingdon College playground fronting the Marina beach by 6 a.m. “If you are not here by 6.30, you would not get a spot to play,” says Karthik, who works for Neel Metal Fanalca, a private conservancy firm employed by the Chennai Corporation.

“I have a morning shift, so I cannot go to reserve the place, but my friends do and I join them later,” he adds. By the time the sun is up, every square inch of the playground is occupied.

The UN Convention on the rights of Child says children have the right to rest and leisure, and to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to their age.

However, Chennai's civic authorities seem to have overlooked the needs of children and fail to meet international norms.

The World Health Organisation prescribes a minimum of 9 sq.m. of green open space per city dweller. Chennai has only about 0.46 sq.m. per city dweller. The second master plan proposes to increase the city's open space area from 366 hectares (2006) to about 1,000 hectares by 2026. Even this would only amount to 0.83 sq.m. per city dweller – far from acceptable standards.

Old timers like S. Radhakrishnan (66) say that things were much better till the 1970s. “I have seen many playgrounds vanish right before my eyes.” As the built-up area increased, playgrounds along with other open public spaces have vanished.

Mr. Radhakrishnan, who in his capacity as secretary of the Tamil Nadu Cycling Association trying to promote a sporting culture, says: “When I was growing up, I used to practise in the Island Grounds along with my friends. Today, open spaces are either non-existent or out of bounds. Without infrastructure, there will be no interest in sport. Children cannot be blamed for staying indoors to play video games.”

A direct consequence has been the marked drop in fitness levels and a rise in obesity rates among the city's children, which has been highlighted by several studies.

Chennai has only 228 playgrounds, of which around 20 are categorised as major playgrounds by the Corporation. A well-planned city like Chandigarh also has around 200 public play areas, though it is just 25 per cent the size of Chennai. There are a number of Chennai Corporation wards where there is not even one playground.

To add to the woes, even the existing open spaces within the city are being used for development projects.

For instance, recently at least two large playgrounds, one near the May Day Park and another in Saidapet, were taken over by the Chennai Metro Rail, leaving the children, particularly the poor, to scout for places including graveyards to play.

(With inputs from Ajai Sreevatsan)

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