Vanishing Playgrounds, Emergent Votes

Pubsara, Sonipat, April 10: For those families who consider a monthly drive to their sprawling farmhouses as a ‘perfect weekend getaway’, village life is romanticized to resemble RK Narayan’s Malgudi. Set amidst endless fields of green and shady trees that children climb on and elders gather under to gossip, this community lifestyle is quite stereotypical of an Indian village. But unlike Malgudi Days’ Swami and his entourage, the children in rural Haryana are not running, playing and singing with each other anymore.

The field outside Pubsara’s Shiv Mandir – once a hub for villagers’ recreational activities – is filled with garbage and stagnant sewage water. Unlike the rambling agrarian landscape found in Malgudi, this playground is the only space in Pubsara where seventeen-year-old Sunil can hope to play cricket safely. But even here, ‘upper-caste children abuse him verbally and do not let Sunil’s friends join because they are Dalits, laments his father Devinder, who is a bus conductor in Sonipat.

Along with the villagers’ rising dependence on mobile phones, Devinder says that the dwindling avenues for recreation has deteriorated his village’s “health”. Without constant supervision, he fears that Sunil will join the growing number of young men who return from work only to spend their leisure hours and daily wages on guzzling alcohol outside the local theka [government-run liquor store, in picture]. Almost prophetically, Devinder declares, “Yes, we do need jobs, but our timepass can also be improved, no? Usme bhi vikaas ki baath ban sakta hain.”

The Theka (L) along Pubsara’s dilapidated main road

Why Parties Should Play Along

Residents like Devinder compare the public amenities that neighbouring villages possess. Improving the quality of such citizens’ leisure may never be the pillar of any election campaign, but is it wise for parties and their local candidates to completely ignore its appeal across all age groups? More than one in every five voters in Haryana is below 30 years of age. As the state goes to polls on May 12th, sports, recreation and leisure in rural Haryana can be tactfully sold as campaign promises.

Devinder is optimistic about Pubsara’s future in “Modiji’s Bharat”. This, despite no visible signs of investment from the BJP’s Ramesh Kaushik, who had ₹5 crores to disburse on public development projects from his Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) funds. The public character of maintaining parks, playgrounds and community spaces would have increased the payoffs for the Sonipat’s incumbent MP, had he channelled these funds towards deteriorating villages like Pubsara.

Viable sports projects under MPLADS. It is often understood to be a measuring tape for an incumbent MPs’ ability and willingness to serve their constituency.

Pubsara’s Sarpanch, a wrinkled Mr Dulichand Chauhan, complains about not having sufficient resources at his disposal – funds, labour and time – required to build and maintain secondary amenities. So, while the NDA’s flagship Khelo India programme has been gaining media traction alongside PM Modi’s Yoga performances, children in rural Haryana – a national hub for sporting talent – resign themselves to watching cartoons or spinning tops outside their houses.

Richpal Saini – Pubsara’s oldest man, at 86 years – has repeatedly urged the Sarpanch to fence open grounds and cover the surrounding sewage drains.

In the evenings, only richer families can afford to send their children to train at larger sports institutes in Rai. Others – like the landholding Chauhan families that Devinder points out – have erected boundaries around uncultivated plots of land to create their own volleyball and badminton courts.

There were rumours that the BJP would give Sonipat’s ticket to Olympic wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt. Besides nationalistic rhetoric during Indo-Pak cricket matches and the Olympics, even India’s sportsmen-turned-politicians are yet to act upon the socioeconomic promise that comes with developing sports and recreation for the youth. The BJP and Congress’ sports-related manifesto promises are just a rebranded version of the appeals made in 2014. Yet, Pubsara’s concerned parents and energetic children still hope that the “timepass” and drunkenness which plagues their village will be recognised as a serious demographic concern by parties seeking their votes.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. Aside from good schools and affordable healthcare, it takes a village with safe playgrounds and healthy recreational habits to raise children well. With the median age of an Indian citizen set to be 29 as of next year, it is about time our politicians took into account the needs of India’s young population.