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Life around the tombs

Although Nizamuddin Basti lacks a formal identity, its urban renewal has been done with sensitivity, thanks to community engagement.

Updated: January 29, 2014 6:19:21 am


Although Nizamuddin Basti lacks a formal identity, its urban renewal has been done with sensitivity, thanks to community engagement.

The Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative is an experiment in heritage and urban rejuvenation in the heart of New Delhi, which should make every Delhiite proud. The restoration of Humayun’s Tomb and its gardens, as well as the development of Sunder Nursery are well known, but few are aware of the urban rejuvenation in the Nizamuddin Basti that is being carried out without much fanfare by a team of dedicated young professionals led by Ratish Nanda. The basti is one of Delhi’s oldest settlements. It not only has an impressive collection of Indo-Islamic monuments dating back 700 years, but has also been a fountain of performing arts and host to a living culture of festivals and processions.

The master plan of Delhi lists Nizamuddin Basti as Mirza Ghalib Barakhamba Colony. The colony, I am solemnly told, is not a slum and it is not an urban village, that is, it is not “lal dora”. It is not clear whether it is authorised or unauthorised, but for sure, it is a non-regularised colony. I don’t know what to make of all this. Like the master plan, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) website also lists this as Mirza Ghalib Barakhamba Colony. Even though the basti lacks a “formal” identity, the urban renewal of this inner city area has been done with a great deal of sensitivity, thanks to the public-private partnership and engagement and empowerment of the community.

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In 2004, Humayun’s Tomb was the venue for hosting a function to give away the Aga Khan Awards for Architecture. Speaking on that occasion, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had emphasised the importance of local area development as an approach for conservation. It was this call by the prime minister in the presence of the Aga Khan that prompted the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) to take the restoration forward. It led to the first of its kind public-private partnership project for the renewal of Nizamuddin Basti involving the Archeological Survey of India (ASI), the MCD, the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) and the AKTC, in 2007. This partnership has provided a fine example of urban renewal. The setting was perfect for reviving the living culture and historic past of the community, which had been struggling for space, sanitation and opportunity.

The Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya is known as the patron saint of Delhi. He paid little heed to worldly riches and power. On learning that the saint had been disrespectful of him, Sultan Ghiyas ud-Din Tughlaq, while in battle in Bengal, threatened to execute the saint on his return to Delhi. Followers of the saint were worried, but Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya pronounced, “Hanoz Dilli dur ast”. The sultan died on the east bank of River Yamuna before he could cross over, owing to a sudden flood that swamped his tent.

Hazrat Nizamuddin’s dargah occupies the pride of place in the basti. It also has the tomb of Amir Khusrau, his favourite disciple and the originator of Khari Boli or Hindustani language. Even today, qawwali sessions are held at the dargah in Khusrau’s memory every Friday. The mazaar of Mirza Ghalib in the basti sits next to the tomb of Mirza Aziz Kokaltash, known as Chausath Khamba (now under renovation), and their open courts are being used for holding mushairas and dastangoi sessions.

In the scheme of urban rejuvenation of the basti, initiatives on health and education came first. I visited the MCD school, which was clean and cheerfully decorated with artwork. The 15 municipal teachers are being supported by 25 trained members of the community. Enrolment has increased from 120 to 600 in the last five years, and attendance has also improved significantly. A renovated park adjacent to the school acts as the playfield for children. I saw two children playing and learning with a computer in a “Hole in the Wall”, a famous initiative of the NIIT. Bridging classes or tuitions are offered to students from class 5 to 8 after school hours.

A career development centre has been set up to provide vocational training programmes for the youth, especially in computers and IT. Some young people have been trained as heritage guides for the area. Women are being trained in aari and zardozi embroidery, crochet, tailoring and other crafts, while marketing support for their products is provided by the Aga Khan Trust to Noor and Insha, the women self-help groups.

The municipal polyclinic in the basti has got a new pathology lab, while gynaecologists, paediatricians, ENTs and eye specialists are available there at regular hours. About 50 women have been trained as health workers and their job is to identify, monitor and extend support to those in need. Sanitation has been a major focus of the programme. An eco-club with youth from the community works to build awareness on sanitation. Street theatre is also aimed at promoting a clean environment. Dustbins are placed at critical locations to encourage the habit of no littering, and a garbage collection system has been put in place. However, much more needs to be done in the area of solid waste management.

Poor state of sewerage and stormwater drains earlier meant that the waters of the sacred baoli were polluted and the streets would flood at the slightest hint of rain. The MCD school would be worst hit since it is at the lowest location in the basti. On average, resident families were spending around Rs 400 per month to clear choked drains. Besides laying some sewerage lines and paving the streets, financial and technical support is being provided to individual households for structural improvements, connecting to sewerage lines and even tiling of bathrooms for cleaner environment. Women are getting sensitised to the importance of building right and maintaining the facilities properly.

Community toilets were needed for the large influx of pilgrims and for the 20 per cent of basti households without private toilets. The two community toilets were in a state of disrepair, and open defecation was common. In 2009, the community toilet at the baoli gate of the dargah was rebuilt with ground floor facilities for women and first floor facilities for men. A second, much larger toilet complex with additional facilities for bathing and washing clothes was opened in October 2013. Both toilet blocks are being operated and maintained by Rehmat Nigrani Samooh (a community-based organisation created as an initiative of the project) and the user charges are also set by this organisation — Rs 2 for toilet, Rs 5 for bathing and Rs 10 for washing; a monthly pass for Rs 120 can be made for a family of five for residents. Even so, the Aga Khan Trust provides a modest subsidy for meeting operating costs.

The first thing that struck me when I entered the basti to visit the famous baoli, Delhi’s only surviving stepwell that still holds water, was the clean look of the access road, the Musafirkhana Street with shops on both sides. It has been paved after laying 100 metres of new sewerage line at a depth of 8 feet to replace the rotting pipes that conveyed the sewage into the sacred baoli.

Things had come to a head in 2008, when the western wall of the baoli collapsed. The safety of the 18 families that were occupying the southern terrace and the pilgrims who used the corridor overlooking the baoli to visit the dargah was endangered. After the ASI issued eviction notices to these families to safeguard the monument, Shveta Mathur and her team from the Aga Khan Development Network played an exemplary role first in persuading the families to relocate and then securing plots from the MCD and building residential units for them. It took more than two years; considerable handholding was provided for their relocation to Savda Ghewra.

In restoring the baoli, 700 years of accumulated silt (over 20 feet above the wooden foundations) had to be removed. The collapsed portion was restored with traditional materials by master craftsmen working under close supervision of structural engineers and architects with significant community support. The involvement of the community can be seen from the fact that a private homeowner next to the baoli agreed to move back the façade of his house by 3 feet, with financial and technical support in reconstruction from the AKTC, and another is following the good example. During my visit, I saw a group of four young girls coming to the baoli to pray, just as I have seen so many pilgrims praying at the sarovar of the Golden Temple in Amritsar. We are so similar, after all! The other dilapidated buildings next to the baoli, the waste generated by pilgrims as they cross over to the dargah from the passage overlooking the baoli and new encroachments, however, continue to pose a challenge to keep the sacred waters of the baoli clean.

Finally, no urban rejuvenation is complete without open public spaces and parks for the community. Prior to the restoration, such dedicated spaces in the basti were neither safe nor clean, and were typically used by drug peddlers and ragpickers. The transformation in this respect is truly salutary. I was particularly impressed by a screened garden exclusively for women, and an adjacent park for children. I saw a large park which, I was told, had been used for dumping construction material. It has now been reclaimed by the community and put to multiple uses, including the annual “Apni basti Mela”.

The writer is chairperson of Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) and former chairperson of the high-powered expert committee on urban infrastructure services.

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