- A park in sorry state
- Drug abusers use the open-air theatre as their den
- Law enforcers remain indifferent
- Visitors can use only 40% of the park space
The close to four hundred years old Suhrawardy Udyan, which has been witness to numerous events in the nation's history, has now turned into an encampment of homeless people, and a haven for drugs, petty crimes, rampant tree felling and unsanitary conditions.
The Ministry of Liberation War Affairs owns the grounds while the Ministry of Housing and Public Works owns the 95-acre park – which undeniably is a "too many cooks spoil the broth" situation.
The Public Works Department-run Ramna Park nearby the Udyan shows a refreshingly different picture – quite clean, calm, well-decorated and well-maintained.
People who come to the Udyan for morning walks point the finger at the authorities for failing to preserve the grounds, established in the Mughal era. On 7 March 1971, Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman sounded the call of freedom for Bangladesh from these grounds, which at the time was known as the Race Course. It was here that the occupation Pakistani forces surrendered to the joint command of the Mukti Bahini and the Indian army in December 1971, which resulted in the emergence of independent Bangladesh at the end of a nine-month bloody war.
A number of projects have already been implemented at the Udyan featuring the struggle for the country's liberation from 1947 to 1971, and more such endeavours are ongoing.
Open-air theatre overrun by druggies
A weekend afternoon visit to the grounds revealed that the open-air theater at the centre point of the Udyan meant for concerts and mass amusement programmes was swamped by drug abusers despite the government's "zero tolerance to drugs" campaign.
Drug abusers, belonging to a number of groups, even brought some musical instruments to the place on their own. There were policemen on the grounds and at the entry points, but they seemed to be indifferent to the goings-on at the Udyan.
Moti Mia (not real name), a cannabis peddler in his 40's who grew to adulthood in the park, said, "I live here to sell my things. I often work as a rickshaw puller. I love to live here because I know the place as well as the people very well."
According to him, there are at least ten drug peddlers in the park. They buy cannabis from the Karwanbazar railgate slum and sell it at the park in the guise of small hawkers and vendors.
Md Naoshad Hossain, secretary of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, said, "We cannot guard the theatre round-the-clock due to a manpower shortage. But we have recently taken an initiative to monitor it."
Only 40% accessible to visitors
The Udyan has some open spaces adjacent to the Shikha Chironton (eternal flame), Swadhinata Jadughar (independence museum) and Swadhinata Stambha (independence monument) that are not covered by trees. The open spaces amount to 40% of the park, where visitors move around with their families and friends.
In the rest of the area, beneath the trees, youths do drugs and gambling, while petty crimes often take place. The drug abusers seem unstoppable despite mobile courts often conducting raids.
Harun-or-Rashid, assistant commissioner of Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP, Ramna zone), said, "We are relentlessly trying to keep the park safe and accessible to all. I think the situation obviously will change."
At least 200 homeless people, including women and children, spend the night inside the park. They said there are no major crimes now at the Udyan though there used to be incidents of rape, mugging and prostitution there two or three years ago. But they said extortion in the guise of begging by transgender people has gone up alarmingly. Couples are the main targets of these people.
A private space?
A large number of the drug abusers at the Udyan are educated, and belong to the middle-class income bracket. Among them are students, private firm employees, artistes, aspiring poets and litterateurs and political activists.
"I come here after office hours and hang out for a couple of hours before returning home. For me, the place and occasional drugs are a stress reliever," said Shakil Akhter (not real name), an employee at a private firm.
Shahid Sadeki (not real name), a rising litterateur who comes to the park everyday, believes Dhaka should have free spaces like other developed cities where people can do anything that does not harm others.
"We citizens live in a controlled environment in Bangladesh. Our private lives are no longer private as there is no free space in our apartments. Against the backdrop of this situation, I do not think it is wrong to smoke cannabis, hang out and sing; I rather think these are our rights."
Both Akhter and Sadeki believe that since civil society people hang out at the Udyan, the law enforcers show a "sort of tolerance" of "the deviants", and so the place is safe for them.
A sharp contrast
Suhrawardy Udyan and the adjacent Ramna Park are patently studies in contrasts in terms of decoration, the scale of green topography, visitors' safety and cleanliness.
In the morning and in the afternoon, people walk at Ramna Park wearing face masks. The walkers neither pluck flowers from the park garden, nor smoke inside. There are law enforcers moving around in Ramna Park overseeing a strict enforcement of the rules.
According to officials of the Public Works Department, there are several institutions that have establishments inside or just adjacent to the grounds, making the boundary vulnerable.
Pradip Kumar, additional chief engineer (Dhaka Metropolitan Zone) of the Public Works Department, said the department only looks after the Udyan and follows orders as the grounds are under the Liberation War Affairs ministry.
Despite several attempts, The Business Standard failed to reach the Liberation War Affairs minister and the secretary of the ministry.
Rampant tree felling
Recently more than 100 trees were chopped down to implement a project on Suhrawardy Udyan. The move led to massive protests by environmentalists and the general public.
Referring to an earlier High Court (HC) order that mandates court permission for any establishment on the historical grounds, the environmentalists took to the streets and to the social media against the tree-felling.
The HC then stepped in, and ordered a stop to the chopping down of trees.