Reviving History and the Environment in the City of Djinns and Saints

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    Reviving History and the Environment in the City of Djinns and Saints

    Nizamuddin Basti, a treasure trove of a 700-year-old living cultural heritage, is being through a renewal project being implemented by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. The project has won two UNESCO Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2021.

    By Archana Singh 

    Nizamuddin Basti, known for its Sufi saints and shrines, is one of the oldest inhabited areas of Delhi and is a different world altogether compared to its neighbourhood colonies such as Lodhi Colony and Khan Market. The Basti greets one with colour, culture and chaos where over seven hundred-year-old walls, crammed streets and winding lanes give history lessons. Beyond the built heritage, the Basti embodies living cultural heritage represented by traditions, cuisine, music, and handicrafts.

    Around three decades ago, Nizamuddin Basti’s image started degrading – from a cultural hub to a Muslim ghetto, discouraging visitors and encouraging criminals. And then came a project that turned things around. The Nizamuddin Basti Renewal project by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) revived the history and rebuilt lives, achieving 15 out of 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. Conservation of over 20 historic monuments took place alongside the sustainable development of the area and communities.

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    Through an innovative People-Public-Private Partnership model, the Nizamuddin Basti Renewal project, started in 2008 overcame significant socioeconomic challenges by working on three core areas: health, education, and environmental sanitation. In 2021, Delhi’s Nizamuddin Basti received two awards at the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation – Award of Excellence and Special Recognition for Sustainable Development Award.

    Explaining how the project incorporated community development into heritage conservation, Ratish Nanda, the CEO of Aga-Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) and Project Director of the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative told Mongabay-India, “We are trying to develop a historic city centre model where conservation and development that includes education, sanitation, employment, and urban development goes hand in hand. We are looking at heritage as an asset, not as a burden. And, we are demonstrating that through our projects.” According to Nanda, the Nizamuddin Basti Renewal initiative went beyond monuments restoration to the holistic, sustainable development of the community by working on five key pillars – livelihood generation, environment sanitisation, education, healthcare, and heritage appreciation.

    Reviving the environment

    Before AKTC stepped in, environment had taken a backseat in Nizamuddin Basti where people were concerned first about meeting their basic needs. The major environmental issues that the Basti faced were pollution in water bodies in and around the Basti, diminishing green cover and lack of environmental awareness among the locals. AKTC work to solve some of the issues and make the locals participate and take responsibility as stakeholders.

    The first big win came with the restoration of the 800-year-old Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliyas Baoli (stepwell). Delhi’s only Baoli, which is still fed with underground springs. In 2008, parts of the Baoli walls had collapsed due to sewage water seepage into the structure, and to make it worse, the residents were using it as a rubbish dump yard. The project team drained the pool and removed the garbage accumulated over the past 700 years. Although the water in the baoli is still not potable, locals can use it for cleaning and agriculture.

    Another big environmental win was the desilting of the Barapullah Nallah (stream) that flows along with the Nizamuddin Basti and improving the landscape around it to make it a green belt of the Basti. Once a rainwater tributary of the Yamuna, it had become a dirty drain with wastewater, solid waste and sewage. Over 1000 trucks of garbage were removed. And at AKTC’s request, Delhi Jal Board laid out a 300-meter long sewage line to collect toilet waste from the nallah facing houses and connected to the main sewage line.

    The Nizamuddin Renewal project also covers Sunder Nursery, where 18000 trees have been planted and the existing road network of 22000 sqm reduced to 8000 sqm. Today, the garden has become one of the most sought after green spaces of Delhi.

    Clean toilets

    Stressing on how important it is to involve the locals in the environmental issues, Ratish Nanda said, “We wanted to make the locals own the project and participate wholeheartedly. So instead of waiting for them to come to us, we went to their homes. It took us years of convincing before they joined. To win their trust, the team devised ingenious means to integrate a healthy environment into the built fabric of the basti. Environment education was introduced in the SDMC School, and the basti children who are a part of the Eco Club created environmental awareness through activities like terrace plays, roof-gardens, no-plastic zones etc.”

    When asked why environmental conservation is vital for healthy communities, Nanda replied, “many health issues spring from pollution and waste that is just thrown “away”. Improper waste management, water contaminated by waste, and untreated sewage lead to several diseases. So, while working on the project, it was important for us to make the Basti residents understand the importance of environmental conservation.”

    One of the biggest issues the basti faced until 2008 was the lack of clean and safe toilets. More than 25 per cent of households in the entire Basti had no toilets and therefore had to depend on the two public toilets, which were neither hygienic nor safe for women.

    Thirty-five-year-old Anisa recounts the unpleasant old days, “The walls of the toilets were very low. Boys would climb them and harass us. The toilets were not at all safe and were also very smelly.” AKTC formed Rehmat Nigrani Samooh (RNS) to improve and maintain the condition of the community toilet. It has become South Delhi’s model toilet with thirty toilet seats and a bathing and washing area – a stark difference from the dirty toilet it was. The locals are trained to take care of the public toilet and educate the visitors to maintain cleanliness.

    Besides the toilets, the Nizamuddin Basti Renewal initiative also undertook the landscaping and beautification of Barapullah Nalaah, Nizamuddin Baoli, local parks, streets and schools.

    Livelihood, education, heritage

    In 2008, Insha-e-Noor, a women’s self-help group, was formed by AKTC to train and create employment opportunities for the women of the Basti. Forty-eight-year old Zaida started learning tailoring here in 2008 and has become an essential part of the organisation since then. She told Mongabay-India joining Insha-e-Noor was one of the best decisions of her life. She has not only attained financial independence but has gained a lot of self-confidence and respect from others. With a twinkle in her eyes, she expressed how proud her children are of their mom, “Bacchae bhi dusro ko kahte hai ki Hamari Ammi yeh sab karti hai. (The children also tell others that our mother does all of this).”

    Other than livelihood generation, the project has revamped education and education infrastructure and brought in many developments in the healthcare sector. Heritage appreciation has also been a cornerstone of the project, providing employment to young men from Nizamuddin who regularly conducted heritage walks through the Hazrat Nizamuddin Area, including the World Heritage Site of Humayun’s Tomb and Rahim’s Tomb.


    This article was first published on Mongabay-India

    Image: Courtesy AKTC

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