Mashaq Manzil has not just become a safe space for women of the Nizamuddin Basti, but also one where they can earn a living
By being part of two micro enterprises, Insha-e-Noor and Zaika-e-Nizamuddin, they have transformed from being the most vulnerable group in the basti to becoming the most empowered one
It isn’t even a 10-minute walk from Shiv Mandir to Mashaq Manzil in Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti, but, with the hot summer sun beating down, it feels a lot longer. The alleys are empty, barring a couple of teenagers discussing the ongoing cricket World Cup. In stark contrast to the stupor that seems to have engulfed the basti, however, Mashaq Manzil is abuzz with activity.
A motley group of 20-30 women can be seen binding books on the ground floor, next to the courtyard. Others are stitching book covers and bags. Apart from the regular orders from companies like Fabindia, women from Insha-e-Noor—a micro-enterprise that deals in handicrafts—recently also customized embroidered canvas bags and paper folders for the Election Commission during the 2019 general election.
The pace of work is similar on the top floor, where a shed-like space, covered with tin sheets, is lined neatly with cooking utensils, stoves, a gigantic pressure cooker, and assorted ingredients. The walls feature posters on food hygiene and safety. There is even one on women’s education, “Main hisaab seekh rahi hoon taaki apne adhikaron ka bhi hisaab le sakun (I am learning how to calculate so that I can keep an account of my rights)."
This is where the women from Zaika-e-Nizamuddin, a catering outfit, gather together every day to whip up delicacies such as lauki gosht and shami kebabs, which then travel to as far as Noida and Ghaziabad, adjoining the Capital. Right next to their space is Insha-e-Noor’s tailoring unit, where a dozen women are stitching garments for community-driven design studios like Rangsutra in Delhi.
Mashaq Manzil has become a space run by the women, and for the women, of Nizamuddin Basti. This is their realm, where they can share everyday experiences. It’s a place where they can just be.
The walk to Mashaq Manzil is revelatory in many ways about how the 700-year-old basti has changed. Parks, once dens of drug peddlers, are now community spaces for women and children. Mosaic art adorns the benches. Community toilets for women can be seen next to the park. There is even a women’s gymnasium.
It is no longer a “ghetto", thanks in large part to the change brought about by the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). As project director Ratish Nanda had told me in 2015, when the restoration work on Humayun’s Tomb and Sunder Nursery nearby was on: “Conservation should not be done for conservation’s sake. It should generate livelihoods and make meaningful improvements in the way people live."
The women of the basti have become important stakeholders in this change. So in a neighbourhood which had no government clinics, doctors or laboratories, 50 women have been trained as sehat aapas and sahelis. They survey the neighbourhood regularly, creating awareness about hygiene, the importance of antenatal checkups and immunization. Young women conduct heritage walks through Sunder Nursery and Humayun’s Tomb as part of the Sair-e-Nizamuddin programme. Some women are part of the neighbourhood watch group, educating people not to throw garbage on the street.
Mashaq Manzil is at the centre of these efforts. Insha-e-Noor and Zaika-e-Nizamuddin are women enterprises which have roots in the Quality of Life Survey carried out by the AKTC in 2008. It found that only 9% of the women in the basti had any income of their own, and 91% were dependent on the earning male member. That was a key driver for a livelihood programme based on activities familiar to women. sanjhi (paper stencilling), aari embroidery, crochet, tailoring and food were chosen.
The AKTC conducted the initial training, with six-month to year-long courses in tailoring and machine embroidery, and the women got certificates from Jan Shikshan Sansthan, a government agency. In 2016, an ancillary group of Insha-e-Noor took to binding and packaging to make boxes, paper bags and envelopes. Today, the women conduct the training themselves. “We are now getting orders to make paper bags for the Taj group of hotels," says Subhana, a homemaker who is revelling in her status as an Insha-e-Noor trainer for the new batch of women.
Zaika-e-Nizamuddin started as a self-help group in 2012—the 2008 survey had found that nearly 50% of children under the age of 6 in the basti were malnourished. A group of mothers in the community decided to supply healthy low-cost and hygienic snack options, simultaneously empowering the women involved economically.
Their snacks were soon in demand outside the basti too and became regular fixtures at, for instance, the annual Jashn-e-Rekhta festival that celebrates the Urdu language, and the annual bazaar at the Australian high commission. The women now have a bigger menu and offer catering, bulk orders, private dinners and delivery services—last year, their turnover was ₹12 lakh. To place bulk orders, you have to call a day in advance. Smaller orders can be placed that very morning.
Today, on an average, each woman manages to earn ₹12,000-15,000 a month.
In June 2018, they did their first pop-up with Tanushree Bhowmik, a Delhi-based development professional who documents and revives old recipes through her pop-up Fork Tales. While the women would earlier pander to popular tastes and cook biryani and kebabs, Bhowmik and Jyotsna Lall, director, programmes, AKTC, encouraged them to draw on the seasonal heirloom recipes of their families and make home-style food. Some of their popular dishes include lauki ka kofta, nihari, urad bathua, hari mirch keema and chawal ki roti.
It took Bhowmik two sessions to break the ice and get them to appreciate their own ghar ka khana. “We did eight classes, spread over two months, ran a test kitchen and took them through the rigours of doing a pop-up, which is very different from a delivery service," she says. They even had a session on food presentation.
Such sessions have been important for learning how to run a professional kitchen. “At home, we make according to andaz (guesstimate). Earlier, our dishes would sometimes be high on salt. But now we make dishes according to a standardsized measure," says 26-year-old Fatima Khatun.
Bhowmik also got chef Thomas Fenn, owner-partner of the Kerala cuisine restaurant Mahabelly in the Capital, to do a session with this group of women, aged 25-35, on how to do inventory. Some work as house helps in plush homes in Nizamuddin East and now get orders from their employers as well.
According to Khatun and her team members, Noorjahan (28), Roobina (34), Sakina (27) and Sahiba (26), the USP of Zaika-e-Nizamuddin is its hygienic and fresh food. “We have just got an order, so one of our colleagues has just gone to get fresh mutton. We make our own garam masalas. Nothing is packaged or with preservatives," says Sakina.
Besides cooking, the women are learning to keep accounts. While Noorjahan is the only one who is proficient at reading and writing, the rest are trying to catch up. “They are a spunky group of women. One can see the change in them, the way they take orders and interact with the customers. They are so confident. They have the courage to dream a little more now," says Bhowmik.
According to a fresh survey conducted in 2018, 14% of the women are now part of the workforce—nearly 150 women alone are part of Insha-e-Noor, 11 are with Zaike-e-Nizamuddin. Fifty work as sehat aapas and sahelis and many more are heritage guides with Sair-e-Nizamuddi
One of the tangible affirmations of this change is the rise in profits. For instance, Insha-e-Noor did total business of ₹42 lakh in 2018, creating products for companies like Fabindia and retailing at a kiosk in the Humayun’s Tomb complex and the weekly market at Sunder Nursery.
Besides craft items, one of the signature items at Insha-e-Noor is a brown paper folder with a translucent window, which could be a nice replacement for the plastic ones. “But people forget that you need to place a handcrafted order in advance. One can’t do 500 pieces in a week. I wish people were a little more sensitive to this fact," says Lall.
Most of the women would earlier hesitate to step out of their homes, let alone stay out for 8 hours and bring their children to Mashaq Manzil—now on any given day, the space resounds with the cackle of children’s laughter. That is perhaps the biggest change in the basti today.
According to Usma, who is part of the crochet group, the income has empowered them—they can choose whether to spend that money on household items or on their children’s education. “One has helped her husband buy a second-hand car, others have found small pleasures in being able to dip into their own savings for a niece’s wedding gift," says Lall.
Clearly, from being the most vulnerable group in the basti, the women of the basti are on their way to becoming among the most empowered.