College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota
College of Science and Engineering

Basti Slum Heritage Walk

January 10, 2013: After a very interesting, indescribable morning, our afternoon and evening was spent navigating the labyrinths of another Delhi slum: Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti. I had come to Delhi with the preconceived notion that India's slums might entail similar layouts to each other and be structurally comparable, but again I find myself surprised by the unique character of this particular informal settlement.

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One of the first sights upon entering the Basti settlement, which I felt was metaphorical of the lives lived by locals here: creatively making-do with the shells and remnants that can scavenged.

We began our Heritage Walk as dusk was falling, and walked past one of the new public toilet facilities that the Aga Khan Trust helped to construct through a PPP (public private partnership) to deal with the issue of open street defecation and lack of sanitary facilities. Trough their Urban Renewal Initiative, Aga Khan Trust has also developed women's empowerment groups, income-generating activities and skill-set building, as well as preserved historic monument sites, built a community playground where women and children can go to congregate and feel safe, and revamped the primary school such that its enrollment improved from 40 to 460 students.

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A closed-down public toilet [left], out of necessity for its under-management and resulting overflow to the streets and houses surrounding it.

Throughout the walk, many observations led me to think critically about life in the slums. For example, as I snapped a photo of a cluster of men smoking outside the male-only Sufi temple (Sufism is a subsect of Islam, particular to slum life and ideals), I happened to capture two women looking out from their windows at passersby on the street. I felt this was representative of the gendered social implications of life in India, and particularly prevalent in the slums we have visited: men are more often allowed (and safer) to inhabit the streets and public places while women are less visible, confined to their domestic responsibilities behind the zig-zagging walls of the informal settlements in which they live.

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Men congregating outside the temple while women watch from their windows.

Later in the night, as we entered the sacred Humayun's tomb and worship center of this community, the females in our group were asked to shroud our hair from view. This meant putting on hats, erecting hoods, or for me, wrapping my scarf around my head. In all my observations of the sari-wearing women we have either met personally or encountered from afar, I had not considered their lack of comfort in surroundings, behaviors of those in close proximity, or the ability to anticipate defend against a threat. I had seen the saris as a conservative, though beautiful, tradition of decorative garb, but I began to conceptualize the impacts of their inherent vision impairment and why some women prefer to look from their windows instead of maneuver the crowded streets.

Our detour from the more busy streets took us through a narrow set of marble entrance hallways to the tomb, which was riddled with homeless beggars huddled together for warmth. Even the sidewalks just outside Basti housed many nomadic locals veiled with thin blankets from the shadows of the night, reminding me that even though we have been witness to many successful poverty interventions, there are many who remain marginalized along the borders of assistance.

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Homeless riddled through the hallways leading to Humayun's tomb.

What took this image one step further was the purchase of a blanket to be given to the footman of our tour bus. When asked why we had decided to give him this gift, we learned that he is a migrant worker (a topic we have had many bleak discussions about) who sleeps on the tour bus at night, just outside our B&B. This made me feel especially guilty for shivering under the luxury of three quilts, in a comfortable bedroom (with a connected washroom), and a space heater on full-blast.

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Some of our group in Basti.

A personal theme that emerged by the end of the day was the idea of perspective: to not just observe, but transpose myself into the snapshots and glimpses we are experiencing while analyzing these development issues and solutions. Making my observations relatable gives them a pulse, instilling an emotion to the theories and applications imbedded in the various development alternatives we discuss. For me, this has been a more basic approach to treating sustainable development practice as a living, dynamic human experience - one that does not just label a situation as non-idyllic, but respects it as a reality.

- Alexandra Diemer
Masters of Development Practice Candidate


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