Women Of Nizamuddin Basti – How AKTC Is Changing Their Lives

First published on Firstpost.


“So much changed. When there was a wedding in the family, for the first time I did my own shopping. I felt so good that I didn’t have to ask my father or bother,” said Rukhsar happily.

“She isn’t married” chipped in Farah from another corner intending to explain why Rukhsar mentioned father and brother instead of husband. After all, traditionally it is the husband who takes care of woman’s needs. Not that Farah’s husband has been a great help in that department.

“Hardly anything is left to spend on me Madam, after paying for the children’s school fees and ration for kitchen. Husband has small income,” Farah revealed with extreme reluctance. She doesn’t like to share her story as it brings out bad memories. But today she is financially independent, and is proudly running her household.

Rasheeda has three sons, one of whom has cerebral palsy and is paralyzed waist down. She was born in Nizamuddin Basti and grew up making and selling needles at the Nizamuddin market. Today she is a fine crochet artist with the Insha-e-Noor family, earning a salary of Rs. 12,000 per month and supporting her son’s health care.

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Happy, confident and creative faces of Nizamuddin

These are just some of the change stories from the women of Nizamuddin Basti. Stories that started with the Humayun’s Tomb-Sunder Nursery-Nizamuddin Basti Urban Renewal Initiative, a public private partnership (PPP) between the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) and Aga Khan Foundation at one hand and the Archeological Survey of India, Central Public Works Department and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (now South Delhi Municipal Corporation) on the other. The PPP was initiated by AKTC as part of Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme which revitalizes urban heritage centers across the world in ways to not only protect the sites and monuments but to also spur social economic and cultural development.

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A fully restored Chausath Khamba near Nizamuddin Dargah, as part of the renewal initiative

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The conservation work of Humayun Tomb was completed by AKTC in 2013. This immensely helped the community with increased tourism activity

The Basti Hazrat Nizamuddin is a living heritage with over 700 hundred years of history. This is the birth place of Sufism. The most revered Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya was buried here in 1325 AD and since then the place is considered a holy site with millions of devotees visiting the Sufi Shrine. The area is rich with culture, music, art, architecture and poetry. Yet to an ordinary Delhi goer this is just another minority community ghetto seeped in utter poverty, dirt, filth, crime, drug peddling and so on. “It was clear that the heritage site cannot be conserved without rebuilding the lives of the community settled here. So we have a multi-disciplinary team working towards the improvement of quality of life, including the gender component,” said Mr Ratish Nanda, CEO, AKTC.

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An ordinary day at the Basti and areas adjoining the Nizamuddin Dargah

Was gender development a specific component in the renewal initiative?

“Well, yes and no. AKTC is not a women’s right organization. That said, the community women have been key beneficiaries of various AKTC initiatives which addressed poor streets, dysfunctional MCD school, lack of proper health clinic, employment opportunity and so on,” explained Jyotsna Lall, Director Programmes – AKTC.

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Meet Sadrulnisha, she manages the ladies section of the community toilet which has provided safety and dignity to thousands of community women. With a monthly or daily fees, the community toilets, which remain open 24×7, can also be used for bathing and washing clothes. The job helps her earn Rs.8000/- per month and support her children’s education.

As the SDMC polyclinic got a facelift, women like Naeem and Shama for the first time learned to address their own maternal and reproductive health concerns. Today they are part of a 50 members team of sehat sahelis (community health team) visiting 180-200 households every month, be it summer, winter rains, addressing women’s health.

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Sehat Saheli Meherunissa, doing a door to door visit. “Women around this area didn’t know anything about their health. They could not even talk about their menstruation cycle. Initially they didn’t even want to talk to us, men used to say these AKTC people are bad, don’t let them talk to our women. But today they depend upon us, trust us. It feels great to be part of this change,” Said Meherunissa. (Photo AKTC)

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Culture sensitive health manual have been designed by AKTC to break the ice on sensitive topics like reproductive health, sexual health, an effort which goes an extra mile in gaining the community’s trust and cooperation in the various projects. As Mr. Nanda believes that without community support no conservation project can survive.

The Women self-help group organized under the brand Insha-e-Noor (creation of light) is inarguably one of the most successful initiatives by AKTC. Shaheen still fondly remembers the day, seven years back, when all the Basti women went to Humayun Tomb to attend the Saanjhi Jaali Paper Cutting training workshop.

Did you have any restriction on going out of home? “No, my husband and Father-In-law didn’t impose any restriction, they only said, go but carry your modesty,” said Shaheen

Clearly women are still required to take men’s permission for their basic rights and must carry their ‘modesty’ which is an ambiguous concept. At the same time the community men has accepted women going out and attending various activities for the simple reasons that it brings home an extra income. “There was lot of suspicion in the community, that these AKTC people would not give us any money. But the day I first received my salary, it was such a great feeling. My own money,” exclaims Shaheen.

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Saanjhi Jaali Greetings card made by Insha-e-Noor. (Photo AKTC)

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Saanjhi embroidery work at the Insha-e-Noor crafts center, Nizamuddin Basti (photo: AKTC)

Shaheen now earns Rs. 15,000 per month doing the Saanjhi jaali work, managing Insha e Noor stalls at Dastkar Nature Bazaar and other activities. As of previous financial year, Insha e Noor has a turnover of Rs 20 lac with a stunning collection of artistic products using crafts of Saanjhi Jaali paper cutting, crochet and embroidery.

Also growing is the business of Zaika-e-Nizamuddin, another women’s self-help group which was launched as a strategy to address malnutrition among children below 6. The brand is aimed at being the first supplier of healthy, low cost, hygienic and tasty snack options for the children of the Basti while economically empowering the women members.

Noor, member of Zaika-e-Nizamuddin, cooking delicious kebabs for home delivery

Lest we think that empowering women only meant perceived safe indoor activities like cooking, sewing et all, it is worth a mention that AKTC has also addressed the lack of open and safe public spaces for women. In partnership with the Delhi Development Authority, they now have a lively public park with open air gym exclusively for women.

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Women enjoying a relaxed time at the open air gym in the Janana park. (Photo AKTC)

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In the evening, young girls take a stroll here, they throw their arms and legs in ‘un-lady’ like manner without inhibition, working class women meet each other after a day’s work for a bit of chit chat which may also lead to unionize and revolution – the possibilities are endless

As on date, the historic Nizamuddin Basti has 1900 households with a population of 10,000 plus many floating population. AKTC’s efforts to improve the Quallity of Life in the Basti has positively impacted 9000 lives within the Basti alone, and in addition there are the millions of visitors to the Sufi Shrine who are also benefited. Perhaps in the larger scheme of things in a country of 1.2 billion people, these are not path breaking numbers, and even within the Nizamuddin Basti there are still several women who are battling deep cultural and religious barriers to women’s autonomy and self-determination, yet every single life changed has a dominoes effect. Every change goes a long way.

A way where there is hope.

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