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Thursday, 23 June 2011

Aga Khan Trust and Basti Nizamuddin

The area around Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi holds an embarrassment of riches. While the Humayun’s Tomb itself has been declared a World Heritage Site, little is known about the seven centuries of heritage and the many gems hidden in the area surrounding this well-known tourist destination. The earliest Islamic palace building in India, the Lal Mahal, built by Ghiyas-ud-din Balban in the 13th century caused this area to be known as Ghiyaspur. And it was to this Ghiyaspur that the venerable Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya came to stay and built his hospice, known to posterity as Basti Nizamuddin. It was here that he lived and preached a message of love and compassion and came, in turn, to be loved by the people of Delhi as Mehboob-e-Ilahi, the Beloved of God. It was here, too, that he found the rarest of rare disciples, Amir Khusro and together they witnessed the passing of a turbulent era in the history of this city. The first qawwwalis were composed here and it was here that Khusro handpicked a group of singers – the qawwal bachchas -- and trained them to sing in a new sort of way.  As a mark of syncretism and a celebration of pluralism, basant came to be celebrated with joy and the whole area decorated with yellow flowers – a practice that continues to this day.

Sultans came and went, dynasties rose and fell but the hospice, the Basti Nizamuddin, flourished. Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya died in 1325 at the venerable age of 87 and Khusro, mad with grief, wrote Gori sowe sej par much pe dare kes/ Chal Khusro ghar aapne, rain bhayi pardes. For seven centuries, his dargah continued to be venerated, people continued to flock to his grave, and to that of Amir Khusro who lies buried nearby. Soon, a cluster of buildings crowded the space around the Dargah and its vicinity – the baoli and Jamaat Khana mosque, Chaunsath Khamba, the grave of Princess Jahanara, Kali Masjid, the tomb of Atgah Khan, the mausoleum of Mirza Ghalib, and a little further away, the Chilla Nizamuddin, the Nila Gumbad, Batashewala Complex, Bu Halima’s garden enclosure, Azim Bagh (now known as the Sundar Nursery), Arab ki Sarai and of course the spectacular buildings inside the Humayun’s Tomb complex. With princes and sultans vying to be buried close beside the sufi saint, soon the area acquired a dense mosaic of Islamic architecture dating from the medieval period to the present times. And with this profusion of building activities, a warren of congested human habitation built around a network of narrow lanes and higgledy-piggledy-houses that flouted all building laws and regulations.
Despite being located in the heart of plush South Delhi, despite drawing pious pilgrims from distant corners of the world, the Basti Nizamuddin area is one of the most congested, most under-developed, most poorly-served ghettos in this otherwise prosperous part of the capital. Roadside eateries jostle for space with beggars and milling crowds. Infested by drug lords, its narrow lanes have bred petty criminals and wasted youth who have had little or no options for education, recreation or employment. In this dismal scenario, the Aga Khan Trust (AKT) stepped in to forge a public-private partnership propelled on the twin engines of cultural revival and urban renewal. The AKT and a slew of government agencies have taken the Basti Nizamuddin area under their wing and initiated a remarkable series of small changes, each of which will, hopefully, in the years to come snowball into something meaningful and lasting. What is more, it will hopefully also hold out a template for similar projects in cloistered communities, communities that wear their backwardness like an impenetrable cloak of defeat and nihilism.
In keeping with the objectives of the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme which has undertaken several urban renewal projects in the Muslim world, in cities such as Cairo, Kabul, Masyaf, Mostar, Samarkand, etc. the thrust here is on restoring and maintaining the socio-economic and cultural fabric of a designated area. The idea is to make changes sustainable, that is, historic structures are ‘re-animated’ in the context of on-going social and economic change, rather than as an isolated process. All enabling development factors -- community support, innovative institutional structures, and commercial potential – are harnessed to make change durable. Individual project briefs go beyond mere technical restoration to address the questions of the social and environmental context, adaptive re-use, institutional sustainability and training. More importantly, developmental initiatives are not foisted from outside; instead, as Ratish Nanda, the Project Director, says ‘everything happens according to the people’s wishes.’
Like most communities occupying historic spaces, the people of the Basti Nizamuddin area were initially wary of any deviation from a time-honoured way of life. Despite their disenchantment with elected representatives to provide even basic amenities such as schools, dispensaries, parks, libraries, night shelters and livelihood options, the local population was initially sceptical, to say the least. The scepticism faded somewhat when people realised the AKT was not in the business of throwing away money; it simply wanted to combine conservation, urban improvements and socio-economic development initiatives to achieve the UN Millennium development goals. Nanda – a highly-trained trained and experienced conservation architect – stresses that every component of the urban renewal project was conceived to give something back to the people of the community, that even in straightforward conservation, the attempt was to involve the local population, train volunteers from the community, provide market linkages so that the benefits would remain even after the project would be completed.
Broadly speaking, the projects undertaken focussed on the areas of literacy, livelihood, health, women’s empowerment and environmental sustainability. In simpler words, these took the form of customised projects keeping in mind the peculiar needs of this pocket of urban squalor and neglect in a sea of prosperity and upward monility. For instance, 400 youths and adults were involved in a programme that included adult education, career counselling, vocational training, and skill enhancement. With a focus on women, this included embroidery and dress design and, through the Insha Crafts Centre set up in August 2010, fostering group savings and group enterprise.
Another 500 families were targeted to reach roughly 1000 children in an Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) programme where an existing, poorly-run, ill-attended municipality school was ‘taken over’ and transformed into a model school with state-of-the-art classrooms, trained staff and a whole new approach to imparting education. An English access micro-scholarship programme funded by the US Embassy helps to improve English language skills among 14-16 year old. A Career Development Centre, operating from four rooms in the School, aims to equip young people with computer skills that will help them enter the formal sector through jobs in retail or the burgeoning BPO industry. A Life Skills module covers those areas usually neglected in formal, structured education such as self-awareness, communication skills, team building, creative thinking, critical thinking, problem solving, decision making and coping with stress and emotions.
A community health programme addresses the most pressing needs of a local population that has long lived in abysmal conditions. To make the programme truly broad based, while there is a well-equipped dispensary and diagnostic centre there is also a focus on improving the standards of hygiene by imparting education on unhealthy living conditions, poor sanitation, and waste disposal systems. As in the school, an existing, poorly-run municipality clinic was transformed into a polyclinic with a bustling gynae OPD and increased visits by specialist doctors. An outreach programme seeks to enhance the capacity of community health workers and train health volunteers who can go into the community and speak about pressing issues such as water-borne diseases, the spread of malaria and dengue (rampant in such areas) as well as AIDS/HIV awareness.
With infrastructure being the first casualty of an over-crowded and densely-populated area, the AKT identified a slew of urban improvement interventions. Beginning with a master plan for the entire area, repair and upgrading of sewage lines and hygienic access to sanitation facilities for residents and visitors to the dargah went hand in hand with beautification and landscaping plans. Signages, improved street lights, recharge pits and water harvesting systems, open spaces for cricket matches, even an Apni Basti Mela, heritage walks, community toilet complexes and gymnasium, and a string of cultural events have revitalised the stagnant pool that the basti had become. Groups of trained volunteers take visitors on heritage walks, further instilling a sense of pride and ownership. The first Jashn-e-Khusro programme last year showcased the basti’s rich cultural life – film screenings, exhibitions, qawwalis, academic discussions, poetry readings, even a dastangoi performance drew the city’s chatterati.
A zenana park is about to come up in a pace that had been forcefully occupied by squatters; so is a barat ghar. Trees, flowers, benches, swings shall shortly replace the notorious adda of rag-pickers and drug peddlers. I come away from the basti with the image of the deaf and dumb, one-armed artist busy making a roadside mosaic from bits of coloured glass. A former drug addict, he has been ‘hired’ by the AKT. In his rehabilitation, I see the first glimmer of hope and dignity.
(Rakhshanda Jalil writes on issues of culture, community and literature.)

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