Dhaka Shishu Park (Chidren's amusement park) has been officially barred to visitors for the last six months. Few of the intending park-goers are aware of the closure, which is slated to be in force for one year --- from January 2019 to December 2019. Apart from those living in the capital men, women and their kids from distant areas still keep thronging the Shishu Park area. They are apparently unaware of its year-long closure.
The government has undertaken a massive project on renovation of the park. Many of the worn-out funs and games will be replaced with their latest versions. Apart from the addition of some amazingly new features to the existing ones, many will be taken out. Moreover, colourful murals or display of the country's pictorial history are expected to find a prominent place alongside the games and rides. All this is good news. But the children's dejection at finding the main entrance locked becomes evident in their faces.
Dhaka Shishu Park is not an upscale spot; but it is mainly the children from the largely lower middle class who visit the place for a fee. The lower class families having the ability to buy tickets also enter the fun-filled enclosure during festivals. The park authorities allow underprivileged boys and girls to enter the place for free once a week. From 2:00pm to 5:00pm every Wednesday the park is kept free of entry fees for slum-dwelling or street children. The time is too short for the overjoyed children to even have a full view of the games on offer. Thanks to the skewed social attitude in the country towards child and adolescent drifters, they remain traditionally barred from many public entertainments.
However, the Shishu Park and the child visitors and their parents are not the only spectacle in the area. There is a restriction-free and sprawling amusement ground in the adjacent Suhrawardy Udyan which is free to visit by anybody. It is filled with groups of children who pass the most part of the day in the grass-covered vast ground. They do not need tickets to enter the place and pass hours as long as they wish. There are hundreds of mid-size trees and shabbily grown bushes where they are seen jumping from one branch to another, and hanging precariously. Some play cricket. They appear to make the most of their humble arrangements for the game --- a crudely handmade bat and bricks used as stumps. The balls are the discarded ones found near the tennis complex not too far. Girls play hide-and-seek or other popular girlish games; some of them smoke like the boys. These children do not need toy trains, seesaws, swings or the different kinds of rides. Sniffing glue from blown out balloons, a kind of addiction, takes away a large chunk of their daytime. Besides, there is a lake inviting them to dive into, swim on and splash about noisily in its water.
In some way, it is also a 'Shishu Park' of sorts where freedom reigns supreme. Liberty is the vital key to fun and amusement. But there are sombre aspects to the happy-go-lucky mood of children and adolescents in the Udyan. They also feel hungry. With not enough money in their pockets or hidden 'salwar' folds, the boys and girls pick the leftovers of snacks discarded by the university students gossiping nearby. They fill the snacks-corners at the main entry to the Udyan throughout the day, especially in the late afternoon. Those who are homeless among the street children pass the night at the concrete walkways round the amphitheatre in the middle of the ground. Some pass the night in the vicinity of the underground museum. In fact, there is no sleep disturbance for the children passing there nights there, unless they are driven out by the Udyan's guards and police.
In general definition, these boys and girls purely belong to the class of street children. Their main area of movement covers the vast urban expanses of the capital. Those who find the Suhrawardy Udyan, Dhaka University and the Nilkhet areas inconvenient to visit regularly, they hang on to some other sites. Those include the outer rail-yards at the busy Kamalapur station, the now inoperative Tejgaon station, the Sadarghat launch terminal and the areas near the government hospitals. A bleak aspect of children roaming these places is their vulnerability to being picked by criminal gangs. Underground crime syndicates choose them for use in various criminal acts. Due to their tender age and gullibility, they can easily be initiated into the dark worlds of stealing, pick-pocketing, drug peddling or snatching. At times, they are sent on dangerous missions leading to their premature deaths. Adolescent girls are not spared. Many of them end up being sex workers. Compared to these luckless children, those passing their happy-go-lucky days at parks and abandoned public plots, especially at the Suhrawardy Udyan, carry the potential for being guided into leading a tolerably normal life. It's because they have yet to become hardened juvenile delinquents.
Lots of these children are seen being herded into street-side open-air learning sessions. Run by local charity organisations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), these elementary-level classes could be found these days in many neighbourhoods of Dhaka. Although the dropout rate is quite high at these open-air classes, a few of their students eventually prove to be quite brilliant and become capable of changing their lifestyle radically.
It should not be rational to call these street children incurably wayward. Many of them are found engaged in hazardous manual works to supplement their parental family's income. The jobs revolve round those of public transport assistants, helpers or factory workers. A lot of these occupations take a heavy toll on their physical wellbeing. Contracting various types of diseases is found to be common among them. Regular days of rest, i.e. holidays, can make a great difference to their lives filled with grinding labour and monotony. Many children who are devoured by the monstrous crime world also want to breathe in fresh air outside. The government-run Shishu Parks can considerably cater to their needs for entertainment and fun-filled leisure. But many fear that after the opening of the renovated park, entry to it will become formidably expensive -- and there may be no opportunity for free hours; whereas, free entry to the remodelled Shishu Park will go a long way towards giving the street children and teenage workers a new lease of life in many respects. In the case of the renovated Shishu Park becoming off-limits to the underprivileged boys and girls, the authorities can mull building free-entry smaller amusement parks for them across the capital.
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