The park in Nizamuddin Basti is the result of a new initiative by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture

“This space was appropriated by garbage, animals and addicts. There was no way we could even step in here…” Najma says as she encourages you to look around the recently renovated park in the middle of the Nizamuddin Basti in Delhi, christened the Zenana Bagh (Women's Park). Marked by high walls with sandstone jalis (latticework), manicured lawns and the absence of men, this women's only space in a conservative locality is the new hangout for shy adolescents, home makers in need of a breather and the older women who want to exchange notes on recipes and domestic squabbles.

In between mild workout and some not-so-strenuous exercises, the women sit down to chat. Some keep an eye on their children playing on the nearby swings and for some it is the venue for some quiet “me-time”.

Owned by the Delhi Development Authority the park was an example of dilapidation brought on by neglect, quite like a few other parks in the vicinity. The women's park as it stands today, says Najma, is the result of community initiative started by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

The women's only park that remains open for specific hours during the day has given women in this densely populated area where houses stand cheek by jowl, an opportunity to step out. “After all these years of living in such a cloistered environment, we finally have a space of our own. We come here to talk, unwind, exercise, all of which was unthinkable earlier. We also have a guard here for safety,” says Shaheen, also a regular at the park.

Right next to the women's park is the children's park with colourful swings and exhilarated voices of children. “The park is a boon for the children as well. During the daytime it is used by the students of the school run by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and in the evenings it is opened for the Basti children. The school itself looked more rundown than a slum cluster before the AKTC renovated it,” Najma points out.

Further down the road from the women's park are the Central Park and the Outer Park, both of which have been refurbished and rid of encroachments, garbage spill-overs and anti-social activities. “In view of the huge number of pilgrims, mostly male and lack of space for women, the Zenana Bagh (Women's park) was built within high enclosure walls,” says Sakshi Saini, programme coordinator, AKTC.

Women, she says, are involved in the Zenana Bagh in more ways. “We have volunteers who come to the park twice everyday, to monitor how it is being maintained. They report lapses, point out if the gardeners or the guards are failing in their work; keep an eye on the security. We have monthly meetings where all issues related to the park, for instance the timings, are discussed.”

The parks being in possession of the DDA, the AKTC entered into a public-private partnership agreement with the agencies to carry out the work. “The renovation work is part of the AKTC's urban renewal initiative, a not-for profit PPP with Aga Khan Foundation, the MCD, the Archaeological Survey of India and the Central Public Works Department. During the study of the area we found it was a high population density locality with parks that were available but could not be used for various reasons,” says Ratish Nanda, Project Director.

Although there is no empirical evidence of how many people visit the renovated parks, the residents claim it is far greater than then “under 2 per cent” that earlier visited the parks. Women are also being encouraged to use a gymnasium, recently opened for them.

“From 9.30 to 12.30 in the morning, the gymnasium is open for women alone. We have an instructor who explains workouts and we can use it for free,” explains Najma.

Local councillor Farhad Suri says the renovation work and the Zenana Bagh in particular are an illustration of a community dialogue. Creating niche spaces for women who are bound by customs, traditions and perceptions has given the women room for being.

“We approached the Lieutenant-Governor to allow landscaping of these parks which were in a terrible state. AKTC has since done a splendid job in close interaction with community members to significantly improve the urban character of the Basti – leading to improvement in law and order too,” he points out.

Within the park as dusk slowly gives way to night the women slowly begin to rise. A few have male family members waiting to escort them back home, others find strength in numbers. “We will all assemble here again in the morning and then again in the evening. This is our space,” say Shaheen and Najma as we part.

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