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Conservation can reverse the decay in India’s cities

Mark Tully

Having lived for more than 40 years in the South Delhi colony of Nizamuddin I feel great pride in the conservation of Humayun’s Tomb and its surroundings by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) in collaboration with the Archaeological Survey of India, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the Central Public Works Department. I take great pleasure in walking in the newly laid out Sundar Nursery garden. I am delighted by the improvements in the quality of life that my neighbours living in the basti clustered round the tomb of the 13th century Sufi saint Nizamuddin Aulia now enjoy. But last week as I listened to Shriraj Alibhai, director of AKTC, lecturing on strategies for urban regeneration and describing how a rubble dump had been turned into a park in Cairo, I wondered about India. How, with all the emphasis on reducing the percentage of people living below the poverty line, constructing infrastructure, improving education and health, creating jobs, could spending money on conservation be justified here?

Wanting to find reasons for giving conservation a place in India’s development priorities, I met another citizen of Nizamuddin, the eminent urban designer KT Ravindran. He told me conservation shouldn’t need justification because it was an ancient Indian tradition enshrined in the Sanskrit word ‘jeernodharanam’ which he translated as degeneration/regeneration – the cycle of decay and regeneration. But then he did list some economic reasons for justifying conservation. Between 75 per cent and 80 per cent of the money spent on the conservation of Humayun’s Tomb was paid to craftsmen. Among the many crafts, which have been revived, Ravindran mentioned in particular stone carvers who carved jaalis so that they can now be made for conservation wherever needed. The footfall in Humayun’s Tomb has increased from 150,000 to approximately two million per year since the conservation began.

Because it was considered auspicious to be buried near a saint’s tomb, the area in which the Tomb stands contains a large number of Islamic buildings. That is the why the conservation is spread over such a wide area. At the same time the Nizamuddin Basti community lives in this area. The AKTC believes culture is a tool for urban renewal so a whole slew of improvements have been made in the Basti, new employment opportunities created, old skills revived and the 800-year-old Sufi culture documented and reinvigorated. Ravindran believes the conservation schemes centred on Humayun’s Tomb should lead to an improvement in the way architects work. Conservation has brought them together with a variety of other professionals, ranging from engineers to environmentalists, from horticulturalists to historians. All these professionals have benefited from this intermingling too.

There are benefits of the conservation of Humayun’s Tomb and its space, which cannot be so easily quantified. Ravindran said: “The tomb’s conservation shows that urban decay is not inevitable, that we are not so helpless. We don’t have to accept that thing go to wrack and ruin.” He pointed out that every Indian city except Chandigarh and Gandhinagar has a historic core. Almost all of them have gone to wrack and ruin. But now it’s been shown that the process can be reversed and it is possible to revive cities’ cores. With that would come a reinvigorated pride of citizens in their cities, and hopefully greater effort to conserve them. But Ravindran warned that conserving cores shouldn’t lead to gentrification, which means cores being taken over by more affluent citizens and the shops, restaurants and bars which cater to them. A wholly unquantifiable benefit of conservation is the beauty recreated. To behold beauty must always be enriching.

(HT Media)


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