Nizamuddin: Makeover for the mystic’s abode – A model of AKDN’s impact in heritage and people transformation

In one of the most comprehensive coverage of AKDN’s impact on its Delhi Projects (Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative), Avantika Bhuyan reporting for the Business Standard chronicles life before and after this initiative. The transformed attitude of the residents show confidence and pride, a disposition that is infectious.

This is a story that inspires and empowers!

AKF Impact - 16 countries 3.5 Million beneficiariesThis is AKDN’s unfolding story in Delhi, India but not just confined to Delhi … it is a story, that resonates the same sentiments from similar projects, the ones unfolding for many years in Cairo, Egypt; Kabul, Afghanistan; and in other regions of Africa and Asia … places as diverse as Zanzibar, Mali, Pakistan, Tajikistan and several other countries, where the projects make an incredible impact in the quality of life of several million beneficiaries.

We bring you some excerpts from the story, Nizamuddin: Makeover for the mystic’s abode

By Avantika Bhuyan for the Business Standard. Published January 2, 2015 Last Updated at 20:45 IST

A concerted effort is on to restore the 700-year-old Nizamuddin Basti in New Delhi and ensure that conservation goes hand in hand with development.

Nizamuddin Basti, after conservation

Walking down the lanes of Nizamuddin Basti is like stepping into another world — medieval relics coexist with urban structures; a lyrical blend of chaste Urdu and Hindi, often peppered with some English, plays sweetly on the ears; a gaggle of smartly-dressed schoolchildren can be seen helping a mosaic artist adorn the walls of a park; burqa-clad women seem to be deep in conversation as they make their way into the neighbourhood’s only women’s gymnasium; and in another street, a group of 10 women can be heard educating the residents on the importance of waste segregation. No one trip to the basti is the same; every visit affords a new experience, a new insight into the life of this 700-year-old settlement.

Nizamuddin, after conservation (Image via Business Standard)
Nizamuddin, after conservation (Image via Business Standard)

Nizamuddin Basti, before conservation

There was a time, nearly 10 years ago, when the scene in the basti was dramatically different. Unemployment and illiteracy were rampant [less than 40 per cent completed secondary schooling]. The clinic run by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, or MCD, was a shambles. Incidents of women dying during childbirth were commonplace. The streets were lined with filth. Women were afraid of stepping out of their homes. Drug peddlers and mosquitoes reigned over public parks. Visitors would gingerly make their way through the basti to pay their respects at the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and then quietly slink away. “Ghetto” was a word that one heard way too often to describe the place.

AKDN & Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative

That’s when the Aga Khan Development Network, or AKDN, stepped in and started the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative – a partnership with the Archaeological Survey of India, MCD and Central Public Works Department, covering the areas within the proximity of Humayun’s Tomb, Nizamuddin Basti and Sunder Nursery

Change is never easy, and this project too faced its share of challenges. Mindsets, handed down over centuries, were difficult to alter. But once people saw the improved infrastructure and the restoration of nearby monuments such as Humayun’s Tomb and the adjoining Sunder Nursery, they began to take interest in the project.

“Conservation should not be done for conservation’s sake.

It should generate livelihoods and make meaningful improvements in the way people live.

Amir Khusro (the Sufi poet, musician and scholar who was  the most loved disciple of Nizamuddin Auliya) was here.

So were Rahim and [Mirza] Ghalib.

This is not a ghetto or a place for drugs. We want to showcase the rich culture of the place,

– Ratish Nanda, AKTC Project Director


The biggest achievement of the project, claim Nanda and MCD councillor Farhad Suri [who is closely involved with the project], is that the locals have taken ownership of it. The children and women, especially, are the drivers of this change.

MCD school classroom (Image via Business Standard)
MCD school classroom (Image via Business Standard)

As I walk around the basti, the eye takes in people who seem ordinary at first, but each one of them has an extraordinary story of leadership and change to tell. For instance, Anwar Hussain of the Rehmet Nigrani Samooh manages the community toilets in the area. Having studied till Class V, he used to do odd jobs to keep his family going. However, after having worked with AKDN, he recognises the importance of education and is investing in the schooling of his two children.

“I didn’t know a word of English in 2007, but I joined an English speaking course that AKDN organises with the British Council and American Embassy. Now I can handle a group of 60 people alone with ease.”

– Aamir Ahmed, Sair-e-Nizamuddin heritage walks founder, who is educating youngsters in the basti about the history of the hundreds of monuments

Change is also visible in the health services available in the area. Though the MCD clinic was in existence for long, there were no doctors, no laboratories and hence, very little attendance. AKDN trained 50 women — 40 of them part-time — to act as sehat aapas. There is one sehat aapa for each of the eight clusters in the basti [there are roughly 200 households in each cluster]. Now, a gynaecologist comes for two days a week and we organise checkups and tests.

The biggest show of trust for AKDN has been the fact that the pirzadas (official gatekeepers of the Sufi mausoleums and shrines) at the dargah have entrusted them with the renovation of the mosque.

“Within the dargah there is a 750-year-old masjid where people would interact with Hazrat Nizamuddin.

We have requested AKDN to restore it”

– Nizami, Pirzada

What others are saying – a pespective from Sohail Hashmi

Sohail Hashmi (Image via Business Standard)
Sohail Hashmi (Image via Business Standard)

Writer, academic and historian Sohail Hashmi has a very close association with Nizamuddin Basti. Hailed as a “living encyclopedia on Delhi”, he has organised heritage walks and guided tours of the monuments in and around the basti. Hashmi has observed three very marked changes in the way the space has grown and developed.

“Firstly, the park used to be piled up with rubbish and had become the hangout of druggies. Today, it is filled with children. People of the basti can be seen enjoying the open space,” he says. This retrieval of the public space has been one of the biggest achievements of the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative.

The other equally significant success story of the project has been the upgradation of the local school. “It was one of those sarkari buildings that you look the same, be it an office of a tehsildar or a school building. But the Aga Khan Foundation people have creatively utilised the space to liven it up. For instance, a child climbing up the stairs can learn how to count,” elaborates Hashmi. This change is apparent in the faces of the children, who no longer seem bored but excited about coming to school.

No transformation is complete without taking the youth along. According to Hashmi, the project has managed to achieve just that. “Boys, who had dropped out of school, used to wander around from shop to shop. Many of them are now heritage walk leaders,” he says. “Development is holistic only when the community has a stake in the heritage.

Each of these achievements has engaged the community and taken it forward. The kind of work they have done at Chausath Khamba and the baoli are works of restoration but these changes go beyond that.”

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