Aga Khan Trust for Culture efforts in Nizamuddin Basti
In the 14th century, the revered Sufi saint, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya lived, and was later buried, in an area on the banks of the river Yamuna; the area came to be known after him as the Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti. Since it was considered auspicious to be buried near the revered saint’s mausoleum or Dargah, over a hundred mausolea were built in close proximity to the Dargah over five centuries- including the UNESCO designated World Heritage Site of Humayun’s Tomb – making it one of the densest ensembles of medieval monuments in India. Over four million pilgrims visit here annually and the compact Basti, spread over only 0.17 sq km, has a resident population of 25,000 – also making it the most densely populated area in the national capital of Delhi and possibly in India.
In 2007, Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) signed an MoU with several government agencies including the South Delhi Municipal Corporation and the Archaeological Survey of India. This MoU, signed after two years of discussion and negotiation, enabled AKTC to couple conservation of monuments with urban improvements and major improvements to the health, education and sanitation infrastructure to improve quality of life. Simultaneously, efforts at creating economic opportunities, creating cultural venues, and establishing self-help groups have demonstrated that conservation and development in India can and should be part of the same process.
Within the Nizamuddin Basti area, AKTC aimed to conserve the several national monuments as well as the unprotected heritage buildings. With focus on enabling the conservation effort to improve quality of life, the project fulfilled 15 of the 17 SDG’s– benefitting 99% of local residents. In addressing needs of the heritage precinct, the effort at Nizamuddin aimed to demonstrate the Historic Urban Landscape approach. From the onset, the project aimed to empower, upgrading the skills of the local community as one way to ensure long term sustainability of project components – recognising that the built and living heritage of the Nizamuddin Basti are significant economic assets and their conservation and associated development measures should serve a larger objective, beyond conservation of the built heritage.
All the interventions address the need to better integrate and frame urban heritage conservation strategies with the larger goals of overall sustainable development in order to combine public and private intervention- resulting in improved quality of life and the urban environment.
To achieve the above-mentioned objectives required simultaneous actions on several fronts including:
● Establishing an Inter-disciplinary approach - To address the challenges of undertaking a conservation- development project in a complex heritage precinct required an-interdisciplinary team working closely with the community groups and municipal corporation.
● Engaging with the local community - To understand the diverse needs of the resident groups, AKTC commenced the project with hundreds of street meetings followed by a baseline survey. Training to empower local residents to ensure programme sustainability was also critical.
● Conservation Cultural Revival activities - The Nizamuddin Basti boasts of several significant monuments built from the 14th – 19th centuries. Conservation of all the Protected monuments as well as of many held in private ownership was a principal objective from the onset. Involving youth and other local groups to earn livelihoods with activities such as sale of craft products, heritage walks and in turn have a stake in preserving their heritage was similarly set in place from the onset with a local youth led cultural mapping exercise. The famed Quwwali music genre was established here in Nizamuddin in the 14th century and required revival in its birthplace.
● Socio-Economic development - From the onset, the project has included essential development initiatives including building health and education infrastructure as well as implementing both health and education programmes. The high unemployment rate especially amongst youth and women also needed to be addressed by establishing diverse training programmes towards economic opportunities as per individual aspirations. To win trust of the community, the health, education and vocational training initiatives preceded the conservation of the built heritage.
● Urban Improvements – It was clear from the onset that the effort at Nizamuddin Basti required housing improvements, building community toilets - with 25% of the community not possessing in-home toilets - removing encroachments and landscaping 5 acres of parks along the edge of the neighbourhood, laying sewerage network and building waste management infrastructure as well as creating cultural venues.
The projects thus aimed to demonstrate a model for conservation and development of historic city centres in the Indian context with a not-for-profit People - Public-Private Partnership model.
The 14th century Jamaat Khana mosque was conserved by Aga Khan Trust for Culture on the request of the keepers of the shrine.
In the Nizamuddin Basti reside 25,000 people, with a significant population of marginalized groups of Muslims and immigrants with deprived economic conditions surrounded by monuments. In addition, a minimum of 10,000 pilgrims visit daily and up to 100,000 per day during festivals, putting further pressure on available services and urban space.
It was a matter of great concern that the resident population of a settlement so rich with built heritage and associated cultural and intangible heritage is itself so deprived and suffers enormous hardship. Thus, here was the opportunity to demonstrate that the cultural heritage could be leveraged for socio-economic gain and improvement of quality of life amongst the resident population. In turn, with livelihoods and economic opportunities dependent on cultural heritage, the resident community can be expected to value and make an effort for its care and maintenance. The Aga Khan Development Network’s (AKDN) Quality of Life (QoL) framework that measures household economy, health, and education, natural and built environment, community and associational life and voice and representation was used.
Amongst the first interventions in the Basti following the July 2007 MoU was the upgrading of the dilapidated three storied primary school. Comprehensive building renovation works were coupled with several other measures such as placing community teachers, teacher training, establishing a parent – teachers association, introducing mandatory computer education and arts in education. This led to an increased enrolment from 60 students to 600 within two years of project activities.
As with the education infrastructure, the health Polyclinic was provided with a lab with the capacity to do 30 tests. Though the facility was built and operated – free of cost – for the local resident population – in ten years it has been accessed by over 600,000 individuals from across the city. A major community health programme – amongst the first in an urban environment in India - was also launched with the training of 50 health workers. This programme, focussed on women and children, has saved lives and is valued by the local community.
Similar efforts were undertaken to improve sanitation, waste disposal, housing and urban improvements, landscaping neighbourhood parks, providing vocational training for economic opportunities, amongst others.
Conservation of Monuments
Path breaking conservation works on significant monuments has been undertaken, such as the Chaunsath Khambha – requiring dismantling all 25 domes, repairing each block of stone and re-fixing with stainless steel dowels at its original place. The conservation of the structure was coupled with creation of a performance area for the famed Quwwali musicians associated with the shrine.
Similarly, the 14th century Baoli, Tilangani’s Tomb, the 16th century Atgah Khan’s tomb have been conserved with significant effort. Conservation works here have aimed to establish a model conservation process, preceded by a systematic and scientific documentation as well as archival research and detailed condition mapping. Traditional craftsmen have been an integral part of the conservation approach and long-term preservation is achieved using traditional materials and skilled craftsmanship.
The AKTC effort has leveraged economic opportunities by empowering needy resident community groups to earn through heritage walks, sale of crafts and cuisine. In the process, heritage buildings, local cuisine and crafts have all been revived and revitalised. Creation of several performance venues have also provided opportunities to local musicians and in revival of the music traditions.
The project website – www.nizamuddinrenewal.org – will gradually include all documentation required to replicate the urban conservation effort undertaken here.
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