Siri Forts perfect play

Updated: Aug 28 2013, 06:48am hrs
Isher Ahluwalia

As a grandmother of two, I take a lot of interest in public parks where toddlers can play in pleasant and clean surroundings, and even be coached for sports as they grow up. Three decades ago when we were bringing up our boys in Delhi, such opportunities were open only to those who could access private clubs such as the Gymkhana Club, or a place like the National Stadium. I recall when I picked up the courage to pay a reasonably handsome amount for annual membership, I would take them to DLTA lawns opposite the Deer Park. There was no public sports complex where at one location they could swim, jog, play badminton, tennis, squash, football, basketball, hockey or cricket.

Things have definitely changed for the better in Delhi. When I take my grandsons to the Siri Fort Sports Complex, I find Delhiites of all ages and classes coming together to share the common facilities for outdoor activity in an ambience embellished by its historic surroundings. The Complex, spread over 32 acres in the heart of posh South Delhi, sits atop Siri, the second city of Delhi, built by Alauddin Khilji in 1303 as a fortified walled city to protect its people from repeated attacks by the Mongols, hence the name Siri Fort. A fragment of the forts wall, protected by the Archaeological Survey of India, can be seen from the grounds of the Sports Complex. The area was reserved in the Master Plan as green in-city forest. The Sports Complex is therefore at the meeting point of antiquity and modernity in Delhi, serving the dual purpose of conservation and recreation.

The Siri Fort Sports Complex was formally inaugurated by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) in 1989. Often referred to as a gift of the Asian Games of 1982 to Delhi, the Sports Complex is a multi-facility institution Delhi can be proud of. It started with a golf driving range for learners, which was followed by the development of a 10-metre air rifle/pistol shooting range, a cricket ground and a jogging track in 1991. Slowly, over the years, it added indoor facilities of squash courts, tennis courts, and a gym, and outdoor facilities of a skating rink, a childrens park and a number of tennis courts.

A swimming pool came into the Sports Complex in 1994, a football field in 1998 and a 9-hole mini golf course soon thereafter. And that is not all. There is now place for yoga, aerobics, karate, taekwondo, and a fitness centre. Spectacular additions in 2002 were the air-conditioned indoor badminton courts and the synthetic tennis courts. Since it was a training venue for the Commonwealth Games in 2010, many of the sports facilities including the badminton courts were upgraded. The Olympic-size swimming pool for all seasons was a gift of the Commonwealth Games. At the pool, every hour a bell rings for those swimming to vacate and make room for the next lot. This encourages serious swimming as opposed to having pure fun and games in there.

The best part for me is the childrens play park which has been renovated in 2012-13 with colourful slides, jungle gyms, swings and other fun playthings of outdoor fun for the little ones. It is right next to the skating rink and not too far from the toddlers pool. To see a bunch of little ones bouncing up and down, jostling against each other at a string of tyre rings, or simply zooming down a slide, is so much more fun than seeing children either glued to their i-Pads, or to their mothers or fathers when they accompany them to a shopping mall!

The Sports Complex is clearly very well maintained, and this is in no small measure due to the fact that it has an innovative revenue model for financing its operating costs. Superimposed on the usual pattern of membership fee for clubs with an entry fee and a monthly subscription, is a successful attempt at outreach by a pay and play service for non-members and offer of daily, monthly or quarterly membership with suitable fees. There are special concessions for senior citizens and students. A few outlets for basic snacks and cold drinks are rented out, adding to the revenue stream.

The financial accounts of the Complex show that it has generated an average surplus of R2.65 crore over the past 4 years. Because of extensive renovations over a period of 4 to 6 months in 2010-11 in preparation for the Commonwealth Games, the operations of the Sports Complex were constrained. With a decline in footfall and access to members closed for 2 months, the surplus came down to a little less than R1 crore in that year, but has bounced back since then. Of the many sports complexes set up by DDA across Delhi, Yamuna Sports Complex and Dwarka Sports Complex are the other two which cover operating costs, but the Siri Fort Complex has shown by far the best results.

The Siri Fort Complex has close to 9,500 members of different categories, and it is being used by more than 3,000 persons daily, on average. What has added tremendously to its attraction is the 20 or so coaching schemes run by some of Indias best sportspersons. There are sport-specific academies with a revenue sharing formula of passing on 60% to the coach and retaining 40% for the sports facility; there is free coaching for 10% of the trainees from the economically weaker sections of the society.

At the indoor badminton courts where coaching is carried out in the afternoons at the DK Academy, I ran into Dinesh Khanna, Indias only badminton player who won the mens crown in Asian Championships in 1965 and went on to win a Bronze in the Commonwealth Games in Jamaica in the following year. An Arjuna awardee of 1965, Mr Khanna was proudly showing off the talent of his trainees and, I must say, his enthusiasm was contagious. There must have been close to 60 players on the courts. There was also a very neat and well-maintained viewing area where mothers or grandmothers and even some fathers were sitting and admiring their wards display their skills.

Madan Lal, also an Arjuna awardee and a distinguished member of the cricket team which won the World Cup in 1983 and the Benson & Hedges Cup in 1985, is a special draw at the Madan Lal Cricket Academy at the Complex. He has been coaching there for the last 10 years. The football training is given to a group of 75 persons who are selected after field trials, and are trained by the ex-FIFA referee, Melvyn DSouza, under the DDA Football Promotion Scheme. The trainees are given a monthly allowance, a kit, a travel allowance and medical insurance. Some of them go for further training like Mandeep to Spain and Sarthak Kumar to the UK, this year.

I ran into a group of college kids at the gate of the outdoor complex where an attendant sits with a computer and hands out daily passes on payment. The young men were from different colleges of Delhi but had one thing in commonthey were all from Nagaland. On chatting with them, I learnt that they meet here 3 times a week, pay R56 each, and play football. They typically meet other football enthusiasts, make teams, and play together. A beaming Wing Commander Rakesh Kapur, Secretary of the Siri Fort Sports Complex who was overhearing the conversation, observed, you can see how sports builds camaraderie and team spirit.

It was so heartening to note that besides acting as lungs to a city which is desperately in need of breath, and offering first-rate sports facilities to anyone who wants to pay and play, the Siri Fort Sports Complex is also contributing to social cohesion by bringing together people from different sections of society on a common platform of sport. It does all this and covers its operating costs. Just imagine what the impact would be if we were to put all the different stadia that were built for the Commonwealth Games of 2012 to similar use!

Dr Isher Judge Ahluwalia is chairperson, ICRIER, and

also former chairperson of the High Powered Expert Committee on Urban Infrastructure Services