Jagannath University to lose playground as a shopping mall looms

After its failure to reclaim residential halls occupied by local residents, Jagannath University will lose its playing ground to city authorities who plan to construct a market on the site.

The Dhaka South City Corporation or DSCC has begun the project on 7.5 acres of land, which was used by the university for long. The authorities held programmes at the field in Gendaria’s Dhupkhola, including their first convocation attended by President Md Abdul Hamid in 2020. Students play in the field regularly.

The campus is still shut due to the pandemic, but the students have decided to take to the streets this week in protest against the city corporation’s move. The university authorities have informed the government about the development and are thinking about taking legal steps to retain the field.

Although the city corporation claims that the ground is its property, the university authorities said that it was allocated to the erstwhile Jagannath College, a university college, in the 1980s.

Besides serving as a playing field, the ground has been crucial for the recreation of students and the people of Old Dhaka for several decades.

East End Club uses the east side of the ground for practice. The northwest side is close to Jagannath University, with a gate to enter from the institution. The southeast portion was open.

The city corporation chalked up fresh plans for all three sections of the ground in 2016 and later resorted to some changes to the project in the face of protests from locals.

It now plans to build a five-storey shopping mall on the west side of the ground and a children’s park in the north, while the east will remain as a sporting ground.

The city corporation set off the development project of the field five years after taking up the plan and was keen to wrap it up by the end of 2021.

Now the university gate to the field is blocked with piles of soil and sand. The ground has been dug up in a couple of places while boundaries of rods have been removed.

The work began a month ago. Construction workers said officials shut the two other gates last week.

Security guard Rubel, who works on the field’s Jagannath University side, said he called up Goutam Kumar Saha, assistant director of the institution’s Physical Education Centre, after seeing workers digging the ground at midnight last Monday.

He recorded a video of the incident on his mobile phone, but some local leaders deleted the clip and confined him until 3:30 am last Tuesday, Rubel said. Later, they asked him to go home leaving the phone behind. They returned it on Tuesday. The boundary was removed the night before.

Gautam said Gendaria police turned down the university’s complaint about the matter twice on Tuesday. “The police asked us to take the matter up to the mayor to settle it. We emailed the complaint again on Wednesday.”

Gendaria Police Station chief Saju Mia said: “We’ve asked the university authorities to file a complaint with documents, if they have any.”

THE UNIVERSITY’S CLAIMS

Most of the university’s properties were in the wrong hands when the institution was elevated from a college in 2005. Beyond its campus, the only property the university claimed to have got was the Dhupkhola ground.

Jagannath University has regularly held sports events on the ground. The university’s inaugural convocation, presided over by the ex-officio chancellor, President Hamid, was also held there in 2020.

Alamgir Sikdar Loton, a former vice-president of Jagannath College Students’ Union,  said the students have been using the field as part of the institution since 1983 when the late president HM Ershad allocated a portion of the field for the institution. A signboard was then put up there.

A platform of leftist student organisations has now called for a demonstration on Sunday to protest against the city corporation's move to construct a building on the ground. The student leaders demanded administrative steps by Oct 3 to retain control of the field.

The students had previously organised protests to take back control of the residential halls, but to no avail.

Goutam, assistant director of the Physical Education Centre, believes the students’ keen interest in sports will dissipate if the field is gone.

“They (city corporation) must close the holes and return the field to us,” said Saiful Islam, a student of statistics who played regularly on the field.

Another student, Rustam Rabbi, fears that the sports ground will be turned into a “business centre”. “They can in no way work in a space designated to us. They must stop at once and hand the field back over to us.”

Kamaluddin Ahmed, the acting vice-chancellor of the university, said they sent letters to the Prime Minister’s Office, the local government ministry, the education ministry and the city corporation last Wednesday in a bid to retain control of the field.

The university will take legal steps if the city corporation does not return the field, he said. “We’re sorting out the documents.”

WHAT DSCC SAYS

Farid Ahmad, the chief executive officer of Dhaka South City Corporation, claimed that the field belongs to them.

“We are not working on Jagannath University’s field. Rather we are carrying out the work at a ground owned by the city corporation,” he said.

“Jagannath University will be able to use it after the development work is done. There will be a sporting facility, which they can use along with the rest of the locals.”

Former student leader Loton, however, dismissed Farid’s claims as baseless. “All the proofs are there. A president presented it [to the university], how can the city corporation claim its ownership?”

“If the field does not belong to Jagannath University, how was the convocation held there? How has the university been using it for so long by putting up a signboard?”

He blames the indifference of the university administration for losing authority over the ground.

The residents of Old Dhaka fear that the DSCC project will further shrink the open space of the locality.

“Many older people used to come here for a walk. Do they have any other places to breathe freely? These trees won’t be here for long either. They’ll be cut down. The field will no longer be the same,” said an elderly Dhupkhola resident.

A young man, who identified himself with a single name Niloy, said, “I’ve been playing here since I was a kid. It seems the locals will not be able to play anymore. It's sad. People from outside will play, we’ll simply watch. Because the field is being split up and everyone is barred from it in the name of modernisation.”

Another local resident, Abdul Alim, said, “Let the field remain open. This is why people come here. It is the heart of the area. The whole Dhaka city has become a market with virtually no open space. We don’t need any more markets.”