At a recent Unesco Conference on Culture and Development in Hangzhou, China, His Highness the Aga Khan said that cultural heritage can be a “trampoline” for the social and economic development of an area. In many projects undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) across the world, the trust has successfully demonstrated this culture-led development model.
In 2007, AKTC joined hands with Delhi’s civic agencies and the Archaeological Survey of India to begin a similar programme in the capital: the Nizamuddin Basti Urban Renewal Initiative. The project area, which comprises a World Heritage Site (Humayun’s Tomb) and also 100 monuments of the Mughal era, is famous for the dargah of 14th century Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya. Since it is considered auspicious to be buried near a saint’s tomb, seven centuries of tomb building here has made this one of the densest clusters of medieval Islamic buildings.
The dargah is also at the centre of a densely populated area and many of those who live there had no access to basic facilities like education, health, water and sanitation and vocational training.
The project started with three objectives: conservation of the built heritage, environmental development of assets and improvement of the quality of life of local communities. We started the project with renovating a school building and appointing trained teachers from within the community. Parents were encouraged to get involved in the decision-making process. This increased student enrolment.
Next, a pathology laboratory was established and 50 local women were trained as healthcare workers. The project also addressed other issues: improving water points, landscaping neighbourhood parks, waste collection from residents and commercial establishments, housing improvement and finally providing technical assistance to the municipality to undertake a major street improvement programme.
A career development centre has been established to prepare youth for the retail sector and computer-related professions. For those with no prior education, courses in the building crafts, hospitality and service industry are organised. Over 600 youth have been trained; 50% have accepted work placements outside the basti. Over 400 women have been trained in crafts such as saree embroidery, crochet, tailoring and paper cutting. Many of them are now collectively preparing a variety of products and generating valuable income for their families.
In addition, AKTC helped in conserving several significant monuments and organised a major programme focussing on reviving the seven-century old cultural legacy of the area.
The programme was attended by citizens and their visits installed a sense of pride among the residents of this area and also provided employment for youth, many of whom have been trained as heritage guides. To ensure future sustainability of the projects, resident groups have been empowered to mange community toilets, the landscaped neighbourhood parks, health, education programmes and the women’s gymnasium. The conservation work in 30 historical structures has created over 2,00,000 work days for master craftsmen.
To make the conservation of our built heritage meaningful in India, incentives rather than penalties for local communities, sustainable development rather than prohibitory regulations, a craft-based approach rather than an archaeological obsession, multi-input programmes rather than isolated attempts need to become the norm rather than the exception.
Ratish Nanda, a conservation architect, heads the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in India. The views expressed by the author are personal.