Author : Snehashish Mitra

Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Nov 07, 2023

The adoption of astroturf in sporting facilities poses a health hazard to humans and aggravates climate issues, thus, urban planning must focus on green open spaces for community

Sports in Indian cities: Rethinking the use of astroturfs

Since the early 2000s, astroturf sporting grounds have proliferated across Indian cities. Recent studies have, however, suggested that astroturf has multiple health implications. This has led to the replacement of astroturf in multiple European countries, including the Netherlands, where astroturf was first utilised for sporting activities (mainly football). As many Indian cities have developed astroturf-based sporting facilities in commercial capacities, urban planners need to evaluate the usage of astroturf while framing interventions to increase green spaces that are well maintained and accessible to people for sporting activities. The urban sports scenario has significant implications for India’s sporting objectives.  

India’s recent rise in sports with a policy focus

The practice of outdoor games and sports is closely tied to the overall development of the human mind, body, and soul. India’s prominent spiritual leader Swami Vivekananda had once remarked that playing football is as important as reading the Bhagavad Gita for the youths of India, emphasising the importance of good physical health for attaining spiritual well-being. In recent years, India has been improving its performances in the international sports arena, while maintaining a formidable status in cricket. In the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, India achieved its best-ever result in over four decades by winning seven medals. On a similar note, India registered its best-ever medal tally of 107 medals at the Hangzhou 2023 Asian Games. India also achieved its highest medal haul in the Tokyo Paralympics Game 2020.

As many Indian cities have developed astroturf-based sporting facilities in commercial capacities, urban planners need to evaluate the usage of astroturf while framing interventions to increase green spaces that are well maintained and accessible to people for sporting activities.

The Government of India has taken a proactive stance towards reshaping India’s sports policy: The scheme ‘Khelo India’ was formulated by combining the earlier schemes of Rajiv Gandhi Khel Abhiyan (RGKA), Urban Sports Infrastructure Scheme (USIS), and National Sports Talent Scheme (NSTS). Khelo India Scheme is the flagship Central Sector Scheme of the Ministry of Youth Affairs & Sports,which envisages leveraging sport as a means to achieve a strong soft power status through a combination of 12 verticals, some of which are talent search and development, state-level Khelo India centres, playfield development, sports for women, and sport for peace and development. In the recent past, India has hosted major international sporting events, like the FIFA U-17 Football World Cup in 2017, and is making a bid to host the Olympics in 2036. Such achievements and ambitions of hosting major sporting events on a regular basis must be complemented with a holistic sporting environment across cities and villages of India, which would involve youths in sporting and physical activities.

Declining urban playing grounds and astroturf emerging as an alternative

While most of the major sporting events in India take place in major cities, Indian cities have witnessed shrinking playgrounds over time, which has curtailed the development of a robust urban sports culture in India in recent years. In many cities, playgrounds have been redeveloped for beautification projects, real estate and parking purposes. As a result, the organic coming together of children and sporting events in cities has witnessed a sharp decline. Experts have opined that the urban middle class has largely moved away from sports, except cricket.

In many cities, playgrounds have been redeveloped for beautification projects, real estate and parking purposes.

The decline of playgrounds in Indian cities has been accompanied by a rise in commercial astroturfs. Several prolific sporting venues have also adopted the use of astroturf. In 2007, India’s premier football ground Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan (VYBK), Kolkata (commonly known as Saltlake Stadium) laid down astroturf by replacing the grass pitch. In 2010, Father Agnes School in Vashi, Mumbai became the first school in India to invest in astroturf to bolster sporting activities among their students. Over the years, astroturf-based commercial sporting grounds came up in many cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, and Hyderabad. These grounds are rented out to groups of people interested in playing cricket and football, and such initiatives have been popular among urban dwellers. In the metro cities, where a significant number of youth immigrate to from other places, sporting groups have emerged that bring together people interested in playing on astroturfs through their outreach and advertisements, which then provide a space for people to socialise. Factors like astroturf being weather resistant, having an even pitch, its time-bound slots, and other related sporting facilities have led to the surge in usage and popularity of astroturf. More importantly, the shrinking green space in Indian cities, due to different development activities (such as infrastructure, and real estate), made astroturf a relevant choice for many urban sports enthusiasts.

Health hazards from astroturf need to be considered

Recent studies have shown that astroturf and artificial turf have potential health hazards for humans and are detrimental to the surrounding environment. One of the key components of astroturf is the granulates that are used as infill; such granulates are produced by processing end-of-life tyres, ground-up soles of athletic shoes, silica sand, and/or new thermoplastic or rubber material. As a result, multiple toxic metals like zinc, lead, arsenic and cadmium are present in an astroturf, which are a health hazard for humans. Unlike natural grounds, astroturfs do not support any natural habitat for flora and fauna, therefore leading to loss of habitat. In addition, astroturfs are prone to getting more hot than natural grounds, which then leads to the creation of heat islands—urbanised areas that experience higher temperatures than outlying areas. Given that most Indian cities are already suffering from high heat and humidity, an immediate stay on further astroturf sporting initiatives must be considered. The high heat of astroturfs also causes burns, exhaustion, and dehydration for athletes. On multiple occasions, sporting personalities have registered their discontent with astroturfs. Many city councils across the world have banned astroturf and have taken initiatives to restore grass playing fields. In the Netherlands, where astroturf gained popularity, football clubs have pledged to ban plastic pitches from the 2025/2026 season.

Astroturfs are prone to getting more hot than natural grounds, which then leads to the creation of heat islands—urbanised areas that experience higher temperatures than outlying areas.

Given such developments, India must reconsider the prevailing use of astroturf in sporting arenas. While taking cues from the research on astroturf from abroad and taking lessons of governance from elsewhere, India must have its own independent study about the impacts of astroturf, which will then justify further policy thrust in sports. The key takeaway from the astroturf debate is that urban planning must focus on green open spaces for the community which, in addition to encouraging sporting activities for urban youth, also provides a space for community engagement. A strict land demarcation for commercial and infrastructural development must be enforced to retain the existing playgrounds in the cities while making efforts to increase the open spaces. Planners must take a cue from some of the successful urban plannings incorporating open spaces, like those in Chandigarh (Punjab and Haryana) and Saltlake (West Bengal). Enabling relevant sporting agencies of the government and policy framework (like Khelo India) to have a say in urban planning, development and transformation could be considered to enhance the stake of green playgrounds in Indian cities. This would ensure that urban youths find a pathway to express their talent in sports, and develop their mental and physical health, which would then potentially lead to consistent credible performances of India in major international sporting events.


Snehashish Mitra is a Fellow with the Urban Studies at the Observer Research Foundation.

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Author

Snehashish Mitra

Snehashish Mitra

Snehashish was an Urban Studies Fellow at ORF Mumbai. His research focus is on issues of urban housing, environmental justice, borderlands and citizenship politics. He has ...

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