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Nizamuddin Basti, the new model for caring

By Usha Das | Sep 08, 2022

Aga Khan Trust’s Work Over The Past Decade-And-Half Shows It Is Possible To Conserve Heritage And Care For The Community

Fatima Khatoon thought she was going for tuition classes when she followed her cousin to Zaika-e-Nizamuddin. She was in for a surprise.

She entered a room where women from Nizamuddin Basti, her neighbourhood and community, were preparing yummy food in large containers. The food the women made fed malnourished the children of the basti. Her cousin was already working there.

Fatima, 17, immediately wanted to be a part of it. Zaika-e-Nizamuddin, a women’s enterprise, is one of the several projects of the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative, led by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). It demonstrates that conservation and the development of the local community need to go hand in hand. The project is spread over 300 acres including the historical Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti.

Over 4 million pilgrims visit the 750-year-old basti annually, which is spread over only 0.17 sqkm and has a population of 25,000. With a population density of 147,000 people per sqkm, it is one of the most populated places in Delhi.

The innovative people-public-private partnership model, which was used to conserve the heritage area and improve the lives of the local community, won the prestigious Unesco Award and a special recognition for sustainable development of excellence in December 2021.

The inter-disciplinary teams at the trust have made significant interventions in creating health and education infrastructure and urban improvements in the basti, creating economic opportunities for the youth and women and reviving the heritage of Qawwali music, cuisine and crafts.\

The work started with the restoration of the 16th-century tomb of the Mughal emperor Humayun in the heart of Delhi.

In 2007, the trust, in collaboration with the Archaeological Survey of India and the South Delhi Municipal Corporation, undertook an urban conservation project for the urban renewal of the larger Nizamuddin area surrounding Humayun’s tomb. The revival has made the Humayun’s Tomb and Delhi’s heritage park Sunder Nursery, next to the tomb, the two most visited spots by tourists.

The development preceded the conservation effort, which encompassed the restoration of over 20 monuments clustered around the 14th-century mausoleum of the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.

Ratish Nanda, the CEO of the trust, said: “We are building a model for the whole country to showcase how conservation and development should go hand in hand. The aim is to employ the men, women and the youth of the basti to revive the local arts and traditions and in the process improve the quality of life of the people in the basti.”

The trust’s first intervention was in education, centred around the municipal primary school and 10 government pre-school centres.

The primary school had only 50 children. The parents took no interest in the school. Project interventions have improved the physical infrastructure and used the school itself as a learning aid.

It began with the laddoo

Zaika-e-Nizamuddin is another development project, built around the famed Mughlai cuisine.

In 2012, the trust, in collaboration with the Ambedkar University, did a survey in the basti. It found that over 50 per cent of the children under six years old were malnourished. One of the reasons was that the children did not have healthy snacks as their parents were out working as domestic helps or in car repair centres. The trust contacted local women for making laddoos as a healthy snack for the children. Slowly, it started making healthy meals for the kids too.

Today, the operation is a full-grown community kitchen-cum-catering service that has clocked an increase of 133 per cent in revenue in 2020. The aroma of freshly cooked biryani fills the air as one enters Zaika’s kitchen. Eleven women, most of whom had worked as domestic helps, now run their own business from here.

“I used to stitch salwar suits for women. Two women from my family were already associated with the initiative. One day, I just came with them for a meeting while they were preparing to set up their own stall at the Apni Basti Mela. From then on, I trained with them. Initially, we used to get Rs 300-Rs 400 a month by selling the laddoos. So, I faced opposition in my family. They wanted me to work as a domestic help instead so that I could earn more. But I stood my ground and now can proudly say that I work here and take care of my family’s expenses,” 30-year-old Noor Jahan, a supervisor at Zaika-e-Nizamuddin, said.

Noor Jahan not only looks after the finances of the project, she takes every big decision in her home too. She said she had changed from being a shy woman who hesitated to bargain in any shop to an independent, successful person to whom people now come and ask for jobs.

She has studied till Class VI and plans on finishing her schooling after her five-year-old son starts going to school. But the journey does not end here. It is just the beginning for the women, who are now planning to open a restaurant.

Crafts revival

The Insha-e-Noor initiative works on reviving traditional crafts, like ‘ari’ work, crochet and paper cutting work.

For 52-year-old Shabnam, the journey at Insha-e-Noor started accidentally in 2009. “We did not get out of our house without being accompanied by a man or an elder in the family. My daughter was already taking training here. One day, I landed up at the centre while looking for her. She introduced me to the women and I got interested in the paper cutting art. I took training in ‘sanchi’ (paper cutting) work for a year. Initially, my family used to taunt us as we did not tell them where we were going every day. But thankfully, my husband was supportive,” she said.

Shabnam, who had studied till Class IX and got married at 18, is now one of 10 directors of the business. Started in 2009, Insha-e-Noor Producer Company Limited is a registered business now and retailing traditional crafts in outlets such as FabIndia. Recently, they made 1,200 plates with the paper-cutting art for FabIndia. All the designs, be it the paper cutting art or stitching, are based on Mughal designs.

Another initiative that has helped the women at the basti to be self-sufficient is the polyclinic, a newly built municipal health clinic which has now 50 women working there. The clinic was strengthened by the trust which provided equipment, a pathology lab and human resources such as a gynaecologist and a paediatrician.

The efforts have led to the polyclinic receiving 200-300 patients a day, including many from outside Nizamuddin. The clinic has a functioning pathology laboratory and is staffed with specialised doctors. The immunisation rate has increased from 33 per cent to 76 per cent.

The clinic has a functioning pathology laboratory and is staffed with specialised doctors. The immunisation rate has increased from 33 per cent to 76 per cent.

Shah Jahan, who is one of the sehat apas (health sisters) at the polyclinic, did not imagine that one day she would complete her masters and become the director of the Association for Development of Nizamuddin. She used to come to a gym with her sisters-in-law near the clinic when she came to know that there was a possibility of earning at a community clinic. Without informing her family, she ventured out to take training at the clinic to do something for her community and earn some money.

After a year, she told her husband that she had started working. “There were fights and arguments with my family for days when they came to know about it. It was an ugly situation. After much persuasion they finally came to terms with it,” she said.

She knew little about women’s health when she started training. “Had I known about the problems faced by women and been more aware about female health, we wouldn’t be facing so many health problems. I am glad that my daughter as well as the daughters of our community are becoming aware of them,” she said.

She gives all credit for her success in life to the polyclinic. “I was not allowed to go out of our house or talk to other men in our community. My life was in my house and room. I did not even know which mohalla was where. I don’t even know our neighbours. This job has given me a new life where I roam around freely in my community and it gives me satisfaction at the end of the day that I am doing something worthwhile for my community.”

From engineering to social work

For 35-year-old Rashid Jung, life spins around the heritage walks that he conducts every day around the basti after becoming one of the heritage guides under the Sair-e-Nizamuddin project.

He took the TOI team on a walk which consisted of Mughal-era architecture. The walk started from the Dargah Hazrat and ended with the tombs of Amir Khusro and Mirza Ghalib. Besides being fluent in the history of the architecture, he keeps the tourists engaged by telling fun facts and little-known stories about the tombs and pillars.

Being badly hit by the recession in 2009, he completed his engineering course without being able to land a job. He started with social work at an NGO in Okhla. After a few years, he got a job at a computer institute where he taught students. His constant urge to go back to social work brought him to Sair-e-Nizamuddin.

“We used to play inside these structures and didn’t know the real names. We knew only about the local names. After completing my training with the trust, I was hesitant at first while interacting with tourists and addressing so many people at the same time. But now I have gotten over my fear and proudly talk about the rich heritage of our basti,” Jung said.

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