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Squatters threaten Delhi's architectural heritage

Many of the capital's historic buildings, including tombs, have been taken over and modified, prompting the authorities to launch a campaign to evict illegal residents.

NEW DELHI // When Mehmood Nizami moved to Delhi from Hyderabad 70 years ago, like most migrants, his first priority was to find a place to live. Young and penniless, he struggled to find affordable accommodation near the shrine of the Sufi saint Nizamuddin in South Delhi where he had landed a job as a devotional singer. So the budding Qawwali musician decided to set up home in the only spare place that he could find - inside the sturdy walls of an abandoned 400-year old Mughal tomb. Nizami and most of his 13 children have since died, but his descendents still live in the vaults of the ornate 16th century monument which houses the remains of Atgah Khan - a chancellor at the court of Akbar the Great.

Today, their home bears little resemblance to the dark crypt their grandfather first occupied. Over the years they have adapted the space to suit their needs, obtaining electricity and water connections, knocking holes in the wall for air-conditioning units, and painting it white to brighten the windowless space. They have even installed a small modern kitchen in the arched recesses that line the vaults' wall and fitted other alcoves with doors to make cupboards.

Across a narrow staircase that leads down from the tomb's decorative upper chamber they have built a modern bathroom, complete with a shower. "When you live in a place you have to make it look good," said Sohrab Faridi Nizami, the grandson of Mehmood. "We haven't damaged the monument." But experts at the Archeological Survey of India (ASI), which listed the building as grade-I protected in the 1950s, beg to differ.

They say such encroachments, as they term them, threaten to destroy Delhi's rich - yet largely unprotected - architectural heritage. "When you live in a monument you have very different priorities to ours," said Ashok Kumar Sinha, ASI's superintending archaeologist. "You need to cook there, wash there, and we all know that water and fire are the worst enemies of these ancient structures." "If we don't have control of these sites we will loose them forever," he said.

The ASI says it is unable to carry out basic repairs at Atgah Khan's tomb because people live there and even if it were emptied, it is now so encroached upon by other illegal buildings that it is impossible to get machinery and materials to the site. Such tales are far from rare in New Delhi, an ancient city hoping to transform itself into a modern capital, but struggling to absorb half a million, mainly poor, new arrivals every year.

According to the ASI there are over 1,000 historical structures scattered around New Delhi - the remnants of eight capital cities, some seats of great empires, built on the site over the past 2,500 years. But as the city's population has swollen in recent decades, so have the chances that these sites will be occupied or bulldozed to make way for a flyover or a modern housing development. According to Delhi's planning department, the city's population has doubled since 1991, reaching 18 million this year.

As well as natural population growth, the authorities have to contend with the millions of rural migrants who arrive in Delhi every year in search of work. By some estimates, 60 per cent of people in Delhi live in unofficial or slum-like settlements, many built wherever there is unoccupied space. On a scrubby strip of land only a few hundred metres from Delhi's famous Humayun's Tomb - the 16th century precursor to the Taj Mahal - families from India's poorest states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, live in shacks constructed against the sides of a small 15th century burial chamber.

Their makeshift homes have already been bulldozed several times to discourage them from using the plot, but they rebuild within days. "There are no jobs in my village back home," said Birender Singh, 28, one of the occupants. "This place is close to my work." Mr Singh pays 1,500 rupees (Dh115) - about a third of the salary he earns as a tea-boy in an office in central New Delhi - for a one-room hut which provides shelter for him, his pregnant wife and their four children.

The landlord, who lives inside the tomb and who has no legal rights to the property, has diverted electricity to the monument from a nearby power line and bolted two satellite dishes to its roof. All around lie piles of rubbish which some of the tomb-dwellers are employed to sift through. Preventing encroachments at such sites is made all the more difficult by the fact that they are, as yet, unlisted and legally unprotected. The ASI is responsible for 3,684 monuments throughout India, including 174 sites in Delhi. State and city governments care for a few more, but many have no legal protection at all.

The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), a non-governmental, non-profit organisation, puts the number of monuments and buildings that should be classified as heritage structures in India at 70,000, of which 1,208 are in Delhi. "Sadly, there are more unprotected buildings than protected ones," said AGK Menon, the head of the Delhi chapter of Intach. And even when buildings are protected, the ASI has failed to stop encroachments and even demolitions from taking place.

Last year, India's first Islamic palace, the Lal Mahal, a red sandstone structure just down the lane from Atgah Khan's tomb, was bulldozed in a matter of hours to make way for a new development. To the horror of conservationists, it was discovered that the process of declaring it a listed building had stalled in the 1970s, probably due to an oversight, though its proximity to other heritage structures meant it was protected by default.

Today, all that remains of the 13th century building, which once gave shelter to the Moroccan scholar and traveler Ibn Batuta, is the central structure carrying a crumbling dome. Its colonnade veranda and outlying pavilions have been reduced to rubble. Demolition work was meant to have stopped to preserve what is left but locals report it continues at night, and ASI and Intach officials are prevented from visiting the site.

"They are very aggressive there, it's impossible to gain access," said Ajay Kumar of Delhi's Intach chapter. For many conservationists the destruction of Lal Mahal did not come a shock. In 2007, the ASI's parent ministry, the ministry of culture, was forced to admit that 35 buildings on the national heritage list had been destroyed. Embarrassingly, 12 of them had disappeared from within a few kilometres of the ministry, among them a magnificent city gate built by the 16th century ruler Sher Shah and a statue of Brig Gen John Nicholson, who led British forces in suppressing the mutiny of 1857.

The then minister of culture and tourism, Ambika Soni, belatedly ordered India's first comprehensive census of its heritage sites. But while an up-to-date list may help, what the ASI says it really needs is more funding. With an annual budget of three billion rupees, or about US$62 million (Dh227m), it has just $17,000 to spend on each of its monuments. Major sites such as the Taj Mahal or the erotic temples at Kajuraho in Madhya Pradesh suck up much of that and less well-known sites are left with very little.

Mr Sinha said it can sometimes feel as though his department is fighting a hydra: no sooner does the ASI clear a site than the squatters move back in. The department's budget does not allow for a guard at each site and eviction cases can be locked in limbo for years if the tenant decides to pursue his case though India's slothful courts. The answer, Mr Sinha said, may be to get India's flagship companies to sponsor sites. "Right now we can only attend to priority cases," he said.

Many conservationists, however, says the real problem is not funding or staff, but corruption, and that many officials are complicit in these land grabs. "Land is a very valuable entity in Delhi and people are willing to pay a bribe to get it; it's worth it," Mr Menon said. Attempts to dislodge a family from the 600-year-old Bara Lao Tomb in the posh residential colony of Vasant Vihar in south-west Delhi foundered for years because two of the sons were policemen.

"We couldn't do very much, they knew when the raids were coming," said Ajay Kumar, also of Delhi's Intach chapter. In recent years, however, there seems to have been a slow realisation that something needs to be done to stop the pace of destruction before it is too late. "Heritage was often considered as something that was keeping our developing country back," Mr Menon said. Now, he says, there has been an acceptance that heritage can be an asset and India's government is even pushing Unesco, the United Nations cultural body, to grant Delhi "world heritage city" status, the same status enjoyed by Rome and Jerusalem.

In 2004, the Delhi government passed a law to protect historical sites and remains. And last year, in a first of its kind in India, the city's government signed a contract with Intach to outsource the care of 250 monuments in a bid to beautify the city before the Commonwealth Games in October. The government is also creating a heritage route connecting more than 30 of the monuments in an effort to have New Delhi named a Unesco World Heritage City.

As a result, Intach was finally able to clear the Bara Lao Tomb, turning up one morning in early February with 50 armed policemen and a bulldozer. In the end the eviction was peaceful, but Mr Kumar knows others will not be. The Bara Lao tomb was out in parkland on the city's outskirts: two other 15th century tombs which are being used as communal cowsheds in Zamroodpur, an urban village in Delhi, will be less easy to clear because they are down narrow lanes and the community may resist the eviction.

Mr Kumar says his work is often dangerous and he is regularly threatened and chased when visiting sites. "These are places where officialdom cannot go," said one person who works with the ASI. Indeed, the ASI or Delhi's Department of Archaeology are deeply unpopular in areas like Zamroodpur and Nizamuddin Basti - a Hindi word which means poor neighbourhood. For years they have been threatening to clear the occupied sites and as a result the inhabitants are wary about drawing attention to their situation - and certainly do not want to allow a photographer into their home.

The ASI has offered to relocate the families living in the Atgah Khan and other nearby tombs but they say the proposed sites are kilometres away, while their community, schools and businesses are all in Nizamuddin. However, removing encroachers is not only about preserving India's archaeological heritage. Many of the sites are unstable after years of neglect, making them hazardous places to live.

Just behind Atgah Khan's tomb is a 14th century stepwell, or boali, which is collapsing under the weight of houses built along its walls. If it were to go suddenly, it would take hundreds of people with it, says Ritish Nanda of the Aga Khan Trust, which is working to map and preserve the heritage sites in Nizamuddin. "These people's lives are in danger but they don't always see it that way," he said.

The aim of the Trust, which is working in tandem with the ASI, is to get the local community to see its heritage as a valuable resource which can be harnessed to improve the economic conditions in the basti. According to the trust, the nearly five-hectare basti is the densest un-sampled collection of Islamic medieval buildings anywhere in the world, but the flow of tourists is minimal compared with Humayun's tomb over the road.

Part of the problem is that most of those sites are inaccessible at the moment, lost in the tangle of alleyways or obscured by buildings built cheek-by-jowl with the monuments. Atgah Kahn's tomb is not visible from more than three metres away and Tilangani's Tomb - the first octagonal tomb in India - can only be made out by begging access to an overlooking balcony. The ASI's ultimate aim is to clear enough buildings away so the public can see the tombs as their architect intended, as imposing structures in an open space.

If the Nizami family have anything to do with it, however, that will not be happening anytime soon. "We have been living here for so long it is ours now," said Chand Nizami, one of the only surviving sons of Mehmood. Squatters' rights aside, Mr Nizami is also willing to invoke a higher power when it comes to defending his family's right to remain. He says that the saint buried in the mausoleum next to Atgah Khan's tomb came to his father in a dream and told him he could live there.

"And when god himself gives you his permission then that's more than enough."

Published: June 24, 2009 04:00 AM


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