New Delhi : Ten-year-old Chandni, living in the predominantly Muslim settlement of Hazrat Nizamuddin that grew around a venerated Sufi shrine, excitedly talks about the makeover of her once filthy neighbourhood that used to be disparagingly called “Kachrapur” (Garbageville) by outsiders.
Along the southern edge of the slum quarters, with their tumbledown, uncemented brick houses, there was an open drain called Barapullah Nallah, originally a tributary of the Yamuna, that ran parallel to a long, winding, around 8 km overpass that connected central Delhi with east Delhi across the river. The place was a stinking mess, with open defecation, dumped garbage and stray pigs.
The very same place has now been transformed into a park through the hard work of the local children, and residents of this densely-populated neighbourhood with narrow by-lanes seem to have now found a green space to soak in the winter sun or stroll in the mornings and evenings.
Through an initiative by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) and the hard work of the slum children, there has been a visible but silent transformation of the area not only in physical terms, but also in its economic and cultural aspects.
“Nobody likes to be in kachrapur or malbapur (towns of garbage and debris). Safaipur (clean-town) is the destination of our train,” 11-year-old Abbas told IANS, referring to “safai express”, one of the popular games that kids here play every week.
The sanitation drive in the form of a game was introduced to them by volunteers of AKTC’s Nizamuddin Basti Urban Renewal Initiative. While the initiative started in 2007, it had to be put on hold due to construction of the Barapullah Flyover, and resumed in 2012.
“All this was so dirty earlier — full of garbage and mosquitoes. The waste from houses used to be directly dumped here,” said Abbas. “Now it is clean. We come here to play hide-and-seek, ice-water, gilli-danda, cricket and other games,” he said, looking proudly at the green patch of land.
The little boy feels that the place should be even more clean and the residents should make more efforts.
The facade of the houses along the drain were earlier like an amorphous accumulation of unfinished blocks with most of the exterior left unfinished. These were renovated and given a bright multi-colour makeover in blue, yellow and green under the project.
“The paint is the most visible part of the project. Behind the facade of the paint, there are many untold stories,” Jyotsna Lall, Director Programmes at AKTC, told IANS.
“All the 144 households of the slum were linked to the main trunk sewer which was damaged and had to be replaced with the help of the Delhi Jal Board. There were no garbage bins in the houses and all the waste used to be dumped near the drain,” said Lall.
Now the neighbourhood boasts of door-to-door waste collection and the drain has been cleaned from inside by digging it four feet deep, she said.
Children took up the charge of convincing all households to contribute towards this process by promising not to dump garbage in the drain and to give the household waste to the waste collector.
“We took a pledge to not litter and also requested our parents and others to not dump any waste,” said Chandni. “Many people agreed, many did not. But we keep trying to make them understand the value of cleanliness.”
A baseline survey was conducted in 2008 in the area which revealed the poor condition of people living in this densely-populated heritage zone. “The results of the survey were startling. It revealed that these people were seriously unserved, with 25 per cent of the residents living without in-house toilets,” said Lall.
This led the AKTC to renovate the available facilities. The renovated toilets are also used by the pilgrims to the Sufi shrine. The toilet is now managed by a community group — Rehmat Nigrani Samooh — with the supervision of the project team.
Although the renewed and vibrant appearance and the shift to hygiene is the most visible aspect of its evolution, the transformation of this historic district has cultural and economic dimensions as well.
Under its “Livelihoods” programme, AKTC is skilling the residents of Nizamuddin, empowering its women, and has also opened a resource centre which links the community to various government entitlements.
While Insha-e-Noor is the face of beautiful embroidery, sanjhi and crochet products hand-crafted by the women, Zaika-e-Nizamuddin is a women self-help group which cooks and promotes healthy, nutritious snacks and sumptuous dishes of the Mughlai cuisine. They deliver on order.
Rehnumai is the resource centre which links people to various government entitlements and facilitates the creation of important documents and, in turn, empowers the community. Rehnumai also functions as a node for information on jobs and higher education.
There is also a volunteer organisation called Sair-e-Nizamuddin (SeN) self-help group which promotes the cultural heritage of Nizamuddin. The members of this group introduce the more than 700-year-old heritage neighbourhood to tourists and school students.
(The weekly feature series is part of a positive-journalism project of IANS and the Frank Islam Foundation. Mudita can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)