Friday, June 14, 2019

The World's Wildest Cities

Some surprisingly large wild spaces are thriving within metropolitan areas.

By Jason Overdorf (US News & World Report - June 2019)

As cities search for ways to combat sprawl, adopt smart technology and go green, officials are also looking to minimize habitat loss for native and endangered wildlife species. Since the 1970s, some surprisingly large wilderness areas have been set up within metropolitan areas – and sometimes within city limits – all over the globe. Call them the World's Wildest Cities.

"A large block of habitat is much more valuable than a bunch of small blocks. You get a greater diversity of animals. You have better connectivity to their resource needs – they need water and they need cover and places to be wild and free," says Scott Hamilton, natural resource manager for the city of Scottsdale, Arizona.

Here are nine cities that have ample amounts of green within their borders.

1. Chugach State Park, Anchorage, Alaska (495,199 acres)

Established in the 1970s, the mammoth Chugach State Park is located completely within the metropolitan area of Anchorage, Alaska. Some of the best trailheads and access points are 20 minutes from downtown, according to city officials, attracting more human traffic than any other wilderness area in the state. Yet it remains home to 45 mammal species including 1,000 moose, 120 brown and black bears, at least one wolf pack, and 2,000 Dall sheep, according to Travel Alaska. Moose and bears wander into town now and then, but nobody seems to mind.

2. McDowell Sonoran Preserve, Scottsdale, Arizona (30,580 acres)

The Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve started small in 1994, but it was always envisioned as the huge “people’s preserve” it is today, functioning as an important wildlife corridor for at least 25 mammal species, 35 species of reptiles and amphibians and 128 identified species of birds like prairie falcons, great horned owls and, of course, roadrunners. Featuring archeological sites and ancient petroglyphs as well as stunning natural scenery, it prompted city officials to realize “the desert was our ocean,” according to Rachel Sacco, longtime president and CEO of the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. Bow hunting is allowed in the preserve, but firearms are prohibited.

3. Table Mountain National Park, Cape Town, South Africa (54,610 acres)

Set up in 1998, South Africa’s Table Mountain National Park is entirely surrounded by the city of Cape Town. It’s not all unspoiled wilderness, and it sees some 4 million visitors a year, yet it’shome to several species of small and large antelope, the Cape Mountain Zebra, Chacma Baboons, the Cape Fox and many other fascinating animals – along with 8,200 different species of plants. The Cape Floral Kingdom lies within the park’s boundaries; the smallest and richest of the six floral kingdoms that occur on earth, it was named a Natural World Heritage Site in 2004. The climbs up Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head are popular, notes Fodors, but often more people die in a year on Table Mountain than on Mount Everest.

4. Pedra Branca State Park, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (30,626 acres)

Located in the western part of Rio de Janeiro, the Pedra Branca State Park touches 17 different city neighborhoods and occupies 10 percent of the total municipal area of the city, according to ScienceDirect. Created in 1974, it’s an important fragment of the Atlantic Forest – which runs along the Atlantic coast of Brazil – offering a home to the white-eared parakeet, the fruit bat and the brown-throated sloth, as well as other threatened species of birds, bats and reptiles.

5. Rouge National Urban Park, Toronto, Canada (19,521 acres)

Established in 2015, Rouge is Canada’s first National Urban Park. It spans parts of the cities of Markham and Pickering, but most of it lies in the Scarborough district of Toronto. An ecologically protected zone that includes farmland, wetlands and rivers, it’s home to 247 species of birds, 73 species of fish and 44 species of mammals, including deer, coyotes, beavers and mink. Now on the anvil is a project called The Meadoway that will connect the park to downtown Toronto via a 10-mile “amazing meadow full of all kinds of insects and butterflies," according to Richard Ubbens, director of parks for the city.

6. Losiny Ostrov National Park, Moscow, Russia (28,717 acres)

Nearly a third of Russia’s Losiny Ostrov National Park falls within the Moscow city limits, providing a home for moose, elk and wild boar, as well as rare species like the blue-footed owl and gray-headed woodpecker. The name means “Elk Island” in Russian, and the park was a popular hunting ground for the czars before it was turned over to the Forest Department in 1804. It became a national park in 1983. Nearly half the park’s area is closed to the public and another third is open only for restricted use to ensure that the habitat remains pristine. But that still leaves around 7,500 acres for recreational use.

7. Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai, India (25,659 acres)

An island of thick jungle amid the sweltering bustle of Mumbai, Sanjay Gandhi National Parkattracts more than 2 million visitors a year, largely due to the 2,400-year-old Kanheri caves – single cell monasteries built by Buddhist monks that feature elaborate carvings. But the park is also home to spotted deer, rhesus macaque monkeys, the Indian flying-fox and leopards – which occasionally attack people on the park’s fringes in their hunt for delicious stray dogs amid the garbage dumps.

8. Bukhansan National Park, Seoul, South Korea (19,749 acres)

Like similar parks in India and South Africa, Seoul’s Bukhansan National Park is completely surrounded by urban life. Set up in 1983, it encompasses the Bukhansanseong Fortress, built to protect the capital from foreign invaders in 132 AD, as well as three mountain peaks over 2,500-feet tall and more than 100 Buddhist temples and monk’s cells. Attracting around 5 million visitors a year, it’s not an unspoiled wilderness by any means, but it nevertheless provides a habitat for more than 1,300 species of flora and fauna, including the rare Great Spotted Woodpecker.

9. Margalla Hills National Park, Islamabad, Pakistan (17,386 acres)

Located in the capital city of Islamabad, the Margalla Hills National Park boasts hiking trails through the foothills of the Himalayas and provides a home for larks, spotted doves, Egyptian vultures and eagles, as well as the Russell’s viper and Indian cobra. Barking deer, golden jackals and leopards are also fairly common. In 2018 inaugurated the country’s longest hiking trailthrough the park, at around 27 miles, as part of a bid to attract more tourists.

Chugach State Park, Anchorage, Alaska (495,199 acres)
McDowell Sonoran Preserve, Scottsdale, Arizona (30,580 acres)
Table Mountain National Park, Cape Town, South Africa (54,610 acres)
Pedra Branca State Park, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (30,626 acres)
Rouge National Urban Park, Toronto, Canada (19,521 acres)
Losiny Ostrov National Park, Moscow, Russia (28,717 acres)
Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai, India (25,659 acres)
Bukhansan National Park, Seoul, South Korea (19,749 acres)
Margalla Hills National Park, Islamabad, Pakistan (17,386 acres)

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

One-Man Show Explores Conflicts, Compromises of North Korea Visit

By Jason Overdorf - The Washington Diplomat (March 2019)

It’s not until the end of John Feffer’s one-man show, “Next Stop: North Korea,” that the foreign policy scholar-cum-playwright offers a withering comment on the failed second summit meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Adopting the guise of a Scottish tour leader who sets the context for the contemplative 12-scene comedy, he opens the question-and-answer session with a setup for a one-liner: “You could ask me what I think about the recent meeting, for example,” he says, “and I’d tell you: They were having such a lovely love affair, I thought they’d consummate it. But instead, we got summit interruptus.”
The co-director of the Foreign Policy in Focus project of the Institute for Policy Studies, a D.C.-based liberal think tank, Feffer has long blurred the line between his academic and creative work. His most recent novel, “Splinterlands,” for instance, describes a dystopian future that’s informed by his study of virulent nationalism and the pressures threatening to dissolve the European Union. And earlier one-man shows dramatized his thinking on the failed response to an ecological collapse and his research on the fall of the Berlin Wall and spoofed a well-known local type: the foreign policy pundit grubbing for “that most coveted of D.C. positions: a top administration job.”
The blending of disciplines works particularly well in his latest show, which is less a satire than a travelogue that takes the viewer on an imaginary visit to North Korea. Where journalism and policy writing all too often eclipse the ordinary people affected by the momentous events they describe, dramatization allows Feffer to portray and explore the nuances of life in one of the most closed-off countries in the world.
This includes delving into the conflicts and compromises that the totalitarian state demands of a foreign tourist and aid worker; a tour guide schooled in propaganda; a government apparatchik; and a taxi driver wrestling with patriotism and the struggle to survive. Because the so-called Hermit Kingdom is the proverbial black box for most viewers, the imaginative journey is especially evocative, although director Angela Kay Pirko has eschewed all but the barest hint of sets and costumes.
- continues here

Security Bloc’s First Post-Soviet Members Remain Focused on a Resurgent Russia

By Jason Overdorf - The Washington Diplomat (April 2019)

A day after NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg called for the alliance to hold its ground against an increasingly bellicose Russia, the foreign ministers of the three Central European countries that joined the bloc as part of its first eastward expansion following the collapse of the Soviet Union also warned of new threats from Moscow even as they celebrated what Polish Ambassador Piotr Wilczek termed “arguably the most successful alliance in the history of mankind.”
The Czech, Hungarian and Polish foreign ministers were marking the 20th anniversary of their membership into NATO as well as the security alliance’s 70th anniversary. The day before the three ministers spoke at the Polish ambassador’s residence in Washington, D.C., Vice President Mike Pence reiterated his boss’s criticisms that some NATO members aren’t carrying their weight, although Pence declared that “the alliance at 70 has never been stronger,” due in large part to President Trump’s leadership.
The three foreign ministers backed Trump’s calls for increased defense spending but cautioned against viewing the alliance in transactional terms during a panel discussion titled “Twenty Years Later: Lessons from NATO’s Enlargement and the Alliance’s Future.”
Pushed through despite protests from Moscow, NATO’s first eastward expansion added the three Central European countries in 1999, as the sheen was just starting to wear off Francis Fukuyama’s idea of the “end of history,” Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz recalled. Two weeks later, NATO’s intervention in the Kosovo War began.
“With [NATO] membership, we got more rights, we got more security, but at the same time we took responsibility,” said Czech Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček, touching on a key theme all three countries repeatedly emphasized — that they are among the most vocal proponents of a muscular alliance.
“We want to be active and we have been an active member of NATO. We contributed to many missions, and we also sacrificed the most valuable price, the price of human life,” Petříček said.
- continues here

The World’s Most Controversial City Developments

From New York City to Moscow, these urban developments have sparked outrage and debate.

By Jason Overdorf - US News & World Report (May 2019)

Hudson Yards - New York

New York's pricey Hudson Yards real estate development bills itself as "a triumph of culture, commerce and cuisine." But the mammoth cluster of multimillion dollar condominiums, retail outlets, restaurants, plazas and green space has inspired more loathing than love amid growing resentment of runaway inequality.
It's not just the eye-popping rents (a two-bedroom corner apartment at One Hudson Yards goes for $9,715 a month). Critics argue the entire development is a kind of ode to consumption. New York Magazine dubbed it "a billionaire's fantasy city," decrying it as urban life as imagined by Ayn Rand, "a corporate city-state, branded from sidewalk to spire." Even Forbes magazine – which unashamedly calls itself "the capitalist tool" – carried a review that scoffed at developer Stephen Ross's claim the project wasn't only a playground for the wealthy.
Developments like Hudson Yards – centered around posh shopping and luxury apartments – remain as popular with city planners around the world as they are despised by local residents fed up with skyrocketing rents. Here are nine other big redevelopment projects around the world that have inspired similar passions.
- continues here

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

India’s Modi stakes claim to future – and past – with world’s tallest statue

By Jason Overdorf
(Christian Science Monitor, October 2018)

KEVADIA, INDIA --- On his small organic farm in Gujarat, the western home state of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Lakhanbhai Musafir flings out his arm in disgust in the direction of the soon-to-be-inaugurated Statue of Unity – billed as the tallest statue in the world.

“Modi calls this development,” says Mr. Musafir, an advocate for local tribes. “It’s his obsession to make himself immortal, like Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal.”

Towering over the Narmada River, the $410 million statue depicts Vallabhbhai Patel, known as Sardar Patel, one of the most important figures in India’s fight for independence from Britain, and an icon of national unity. The bald, stoop-shouldered subject presents an image of humility – though at nearly 600 feet tall, and clad in some 1,850 metric tons of bronze, it is commanding all the same.

Twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty, the Statue of Unity will be inaugurated on Oct. 31 opposite the Sardar Sarovar Dam, marking the official launch of Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) 2019 election campaign. As a symbol, however, it may represent a different kind of unity from the multicultural, secular one that has defined India’s identity since the election of its first prime minister in 1947, and the framing of its Constitution two years later.

Modi’s party, which has brought Hindu nationalism to the forefront of Indian politics, is on the hunt for a new hero, historians and political analysts say. And though Patel was not a vocal supporter of “Hindutva,” as that ideology is called here, the BJP is now claiming Patel as one of their own – one of several cases in which the party has been accused of rewriting history with a Hindu nationalist bent.

Patel stands in stark contrast to India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, says Tarun Vijay, a former BJP member of parliament.

Patel was not a “half-converted Englishman,” he says. “Patel belonged to the Indian soil…. He had the firmness of Napoleon – unshakeable, rock-like decisiveness.”

Under Nehru’s leadership, India adopted a Constitution that guaranteed the rights of religious minorities and enshrined separate laws on issues like marriage and inheritance for Hindus, Muslims (about 13 percent of the population), and Christians (some 2 percent). For many people, that multicultural vision remains the fundamental ethos of India.

But for Hindu nationalists, that “pseudo-secularism,” as some call it, is an affront. Their core ideology of Hindtuva, or Hinduness, envisions a state in which Hindu faith and culture are front and center – and that many fear will leave minorities second-class citizens. And since Modi’s election in 2014, his critics argue Hindu nationalists have used increasingly bold tactics to make that vision a reality: from rewriting textbooks and stacking academic institutions, to emboldening mobs who have killed two dozen people for allegedly eating or transporting beef.

Iron Man of India

Modi launched the project and lay its foundation stone in 2013, amid the lead-up to the 2014 general election, as he wooed moderates with business-friendly reform. At the time, he had been chief minister of Gujarat for more than a decade, including during 2002 riots that killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslim. His administration’s response to the attacks has been hotly debated, with many researchers blaming officials for failing to quell the violence.

Now, as he begins his campaign for re-election in 2019, the statue has become fraught with political meaning, says Indiana University professor Sumit Ganguly.

Early Hindu nationalist groups, the BJP’s precursors, did not take a leading role in India’s struggle for independence. And it was a Hindu nationalist, Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Mohandas Gandhi in 1948, because he felt Gandhi had proved too accommodating to Muslims. By building a mammoth statue of Patel, Modi hopes to gain his own iconic freedom fighter, analysts say.

“The BJP desperately needs to seize upon Patel because it has no other reverential figures” from the freedom movement, Dr. Ganguly says.

For Hindu nationalists, Patel presents a compelling alternative to Nehru – whose great-grandson, Rahul Gandhi, is the present leader of the Congress Party, the main opposition.

Known as “the Iron Man of India,” Patel helped convince some 550 princely states to cede their power to the new government after independence. He thus suits many nationalists’ craving for muscular leaders, some analysts observe – reflected in how the movement has embraced a warrior-like version of the Hindu deity Rama and the monkey-god Hanuman who fought beside him; and even in Modi’s boasts about having a 56-inch chest.

Right-wingers have also suggested that Patel opposed Nehru’s interpretation of secularism, and would have forged a different country had he been India’s first leader, says Mujibur Rehman, an assistant professor at Jamia Millia Islamia University who recently authored a book on the Hindu right, titled “Rise of Saffron Power.” Patel was a life-long member of the Congress Party, but Hindu nationalists have long argued that he envisioned a more assimilationist secularism devoid of “appeasement” of minorities.

“They see him as an anti-Nehru figure that the Congress [Party] did not explore [as a potential prime minister], and say therefore things have gone wrong in our country,” Dr. Rehman says.

At times, Patel opposed faith-specific policies that Nehru had supported, says Hindol Sengupta, the author of a recent biography of Patel titled “The Man Who Saved India.” For example, during the division of British India into majority-Hindu India and majority-Muslim Pakistan, which displaced millions of people, Nehru pushed to reserve the homes of Muslims who fled to Pakistan for other Muslims. Patel, meanwhile, argued the homes should be offered to anyone.

“Patel was strongly secular. He wanted parity for all faiths,” says Mr. Sengupta. “He argued that the principle of division had already divided the country. Now what remained must be one nation.”

Patel also opposed Nehru’s decision to let the United Nations determine the fate of the Kashmir region, still contested today.

“For decades, one party devoted all their energies to serve one family,” Modi said in a parliamentary speech in February, excoriating the Congress Party’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. “If Sardar Patel had become the prime minister, today a part of our beloved Kashmir would not have been under Pakistani occupation."

Look on my works

The Sardar Sarovar Dam that the statue overlooks has been at the center of protests and court cases for decades, over disputes about displaced villages and environmental impact. The dam has already displaced hundreds of villages; now, the statue will add another 16 to that number, according to Mr. Musafir, the tribal activist.

“We told the government if you spend 10 million rupees ($140 million) to repair the existing canals, the farmland of this entire area can be irrigated, but they said they don’t have the staff or the money,” he says. “Yet to build this one statue they are spending 30 billion rupees ($410 million).”

But by locating the giant statue opposite the massive dam, the BJP also highlights technological progress, which Modi has promoted in plans for “smart cities” and bullet trains. Constructed at enormous cost and projected to attract 15,000 tourists a day, Patel’s statue includes an elevator up its spine that allows visitors to look out over the dam through Patel’s eyes.

Amarsingh Tadvi, whose construction crew may work on related projects, is a fan of the statue – and the man it depicts.

“Nehru thought about his family and his family’s development. But Patel was more selfless,” he says.

As for Modi, “he’s a great man of India. Modi and development are like the two sides of a coin.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Cowboys and sanyasis

Wild Wild Country - TV Series
Chapman Way, MacClain Way

Reviewed by Jason Overdorf
India Today (March 29, 2018)

In the early 1980s, the era of gurus and seekers was finished in America. The Christian right had seemingly put the last nail in the coffin of the counterculture. Ronald Reagan was president. The Official Preppy Handbook was hot. And greed was good.

But in one rural corner of Oregon, where a handful of ranchers and retirees had hunkered down and waited out the radical '60s and psychedelic '70s, a new revolution was brewing, filmmaker brothers Maclean and Chapman Way suggest at the outset of Wild Wild Country, a remarkable documentary series about America's encounter with Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, also known as Osho.

What's stunning about the six-part Netflix series is its subtlety. There's something archetypal about the story: Like Socrates, Osho is mainly a cipher, his wisdom sketched out by the memories of his disciples. Like Jesus, he comes to destroy the conventional order of things and is eventually betrayed. Or like Mao Zedong, he cleverly shifts the blame for his excesses onto his personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela - a sort of Jiang Qing figure who presided over her own version of the Gang of Four.

But the Way brothers aim to do more than investigate the Rajneeshis' alleged crimes - which included what prosecutors dubbed the largest immigration fraud in American history and the largest mass poisoning. The series is pitched to a contemporary American audience, and it's therefore designed to shake the conventional notions of today's liberals and conservatives in a way that Osho - an admirer of the 19th Century Greek-Armenian philosopher George Ivanovich Gurdjieff - would no doubt find pleasing. (Gurdjieff thought most people live in an oblivious somnolent state and used unconventional mind traps to awaken his disciples).

This clever use of context invites the liberal American viewers who surely comprise the series' intended audience to identify with the Rajneeshis and to see the townspeople in the same light as more recent rural holdouts against the march of the New York-California brand of modernity - such as Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy and his supporters, who in 2014 took up rifles, shotguns and sidearms to resist the American government's attempt to make the cowboy pay $1 million in fees for grazing his stock on public land. If the Constitution and the majority rule, the isolated rural holdout must be a nut or an idiot. But as the series unfolds and more and more details emerge about what was really going on in Rajneeshpuram - which was supposed to be a boundary-busting community dedicated to creativity and individualism, not just uninhibited sex - the Gurdjieffian trap springs shut.
In the contemporary interview footage, the supposedly ordinary citizens of Antelope, Oregon, present as exotic, while the one-time Rajneeshis feel familiar. Dressed archaically in farmers' overalls and unfashionable glasses and carping about "evil", the townspeople look and sound like the white nationalist supporters of Donald Trump. In contrast, Rajneeshis like former Los Angeles lawyer Swami Prem Niren (a.k.a. Philip Toelkes) look and sound like the coastal liberals who are now culturally dominant, quoting the Constitution and condemning "ignorance" and "bigots".

Spoiler alert: Stop reading and start watching if you want to be surprised by what unfolds.

The first inkling that something is amiss comes midway through the series, when the Rajneeshis begin collecting homeless people from cities all around the United States and bringing them to Rajneeshpuram to live. It's a brilliant maneuver. After purchasing a defunct desert ranch that's larger than the island of Manhattan, Osho's followers, now demonized as a cult, have seen their dream of creating a utopian city of some 10,000 disciples frustrated by a bureaucratic interpretation of land-use laws. But because they outnumber the 40 townspeople (the number itself is exotic!) many times over, they've taken over Antelope by democratic means. With the addition of the thousands of homeless people, they aim to take over all of Wasco County. As one of the townspeople puts it, they offered food, shelter, health care, even a ration of two beers a day, and "all you had to do was vote." But when one of the homeless men runs amok - many of the men were homeless because they suffered from serious psychological disorders - a syringe full of Haldol comes to the rescue, and the staunch individualists come to a frightening decision. They decided the best way to control the street people would be to tranquilize them all, without their knowledge or consent, explains Ma Shanti B. (a.k.a. Jane Stork).

From there, it is a short road to stockpiling guns and organizing a militia - an unmistakable maroon flag for the contemporary liberals now squared off against the National Rifle Association and rural "gun nuts." And if you're doling out tranqs to keep your own voters in line, why not cultivate an arsenal of salmonella bacteria to dust on the local salad bars a few days before the election? Then again, the only way to stop the insidious plots against the guru might be to assassinate the US attorney general.

What once seemed reasonable is revealed as insane. But because it appeared rational initially, its destruction is destabilizing rather than comforting - the exact opposite of the solving of a crime at the end of a detective novel. You cannot return to your comfortable opinions about the contemporary analogues for the townspeople and the Rajneeshis -- refugees and undocumented immigrants and redneck white nationalists and gun nuts and crusading liberals. Or, perhaps, in India, to "bigoted" Hindu nationalists and "pseudo" secularists.

Friday, March 30, 2018

India’s Christians fault Hindu PM for rising climate of persecution

By Jason Overdorf — Special to The Washington Times - - Tuesday, March 27, 2018

NEW DELHI — Religious clashes in the troubled northern Indian state of Jamma and Kashmir are nothing new, but the riot that broke in January targeted an unexpected group: Christians.

While most of the state’s problems pit an Islamist separatist movement against India’s Hindu majority, Christianity was at the heart of the violence this time as a mob of thousands interrupted a burial ceremony to seize the body of the deceased for a Hindu cremation.

Local Christians and international religious rights groups say anti-Christian incidents are on the rise, particularly since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party assumed power in 2014. They contend that the government’s failure to censure local leaders for inflammatory rhetoric and sectarian persecution has encouraged a culture of impunity for anti-minority violence — a charge the BJP denies.

The Evangelical Fellowship of India documented some 350 cases of violence and other forms of persecution against Christians last year. That is more than double the rate compared with the 140 annually before the BJP assumed power and the highest level of violence since an anti-Christian pogrom that resulted in dozens of rapes and killings and the burning of hundreds of churches in the state of Odisha in 2008, said EFI Executive Director Vijayesh Lal.

High points of the Christian liturgical year, such as the coming Easter celebrations, are proving times of particular peril.

“It is distressing to see even private worship being attacked by Hindu right-wing activists violating the privacy and sanctity of an individual or a family and trampling upon their constitutional rights,” Mr. Lal said on releasing the organization’s 2017 survey last month. “The instances of attacks on churches on Sundays and other important days of worship such as Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter and Christmas have increased.”

Based on voluntary reporting and investigations by civil society organizations, the EFI report documented attacks on churches, the unlawful detentions of children on their way to Bible camp and homicides.

Even so, police registered complaints in fewer than 50 cases last year.

“There are many reasons,” Mr. Lal said. “Fear is the most common. Victims don’t want to get caught in the whole web of the police and the courts. Refusal to file an [information report] on the part of the police is also very common.”

The Ministry of Home Affairs, which is responsible for law and order, did not respond to questions about the EFI report or associated data by the U.S.-based Save the Persecuted Christians Coalition. Indian authorities do not track such incidents.

More broadly, clashes among various ethnic and religious communities rose 28 percent from 2014 to 2017, according to an analysis of Home Affairs Ministry data by IndiaSpend, a nonprofit journalism initiative. But the BJP Minority Morcha, the party’s wing devoted to courting minority voters, insisted that neither the Modi government nor BJP policy is to blame.

Violence and other forms of persecution may occur, said BJP Minority Morcha head Abdul Rasheed Ansari, “but it is never sponsored by the government or the political party.”

Clashes over conversions

It’s a thorny issue, analysts say.

Almost 80 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people are Hindu. While just 14 percent of the population is Muslim, Indiaboasts the world’s third-largest Muslim population. Christians make up about 2.3 percent of the population — nearly 30 million believers — and there are smaller communities of Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in its 2017 global survey rated India as one of a dozen Tier-2 countries for religious restrictions, behind countries of top concern such as China, North Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia but on par with Cuba, Iraq and Turkey.

“While [Mr. Modi] spoke publicly about the importance of communal tolerance and religious freedom, members of the ruling party have ties to Hindu nationalist groups implicated in religious freedom violations, used religiously divisive language to inflame tensions, and called for additional laws that would restrict religious freedom,” the commission’s report noted.

“Christian communities across many denominations reported numerous incidents of harassment and attacks in 2016, which they attribute to Hindu nationalist groups supported by the BJP.”

The January incident in Jammu and Kashmir shined a spotlight on concerns across India about Christian proselytizing and religious conversion. In that case, the mob violence erupted over charges that the deceased, Seema Devi, had been forced to convert to Christianity by her husband and subsequently died from illness after he took her for “spiritual healing,” according to The Indian Express daily newspaper.

Afterward, nearly 45 families from the village of Sehyal and the surrounding areas converted from Christianity to Hinduism as part of a “ghar wapsi” or “homecoming” program promoted by the local BJP member of the state legislative assembly. The few Christian holdouts are living under police protection.

That assemblyman, Ravinder Raina, said Christian missionaries had converted “poor people through force and deceit,” echoing accusations that BJP legislators and others have used to introduce anti-conversion laws in nine of the country’s 29 states.

Lawmakers in a 10th, the northern state of Uttarakhand, introduced a similar bill last week, suggesting a penalty of up to two years in prison for anyone seeking converts through force or “allurement” — which could include money, employment or any material benefit.

Conversion is particularly contentious in India because the patronage-oriented political system courts voters based on their caste and religious identities, much the way American political parties target communities based on their race, income, gender or ethnic backgrounds. Hinduism over the centuries has faced a steady exodus of the erstwhile untouchables — now called Dalits — whom the tenets of the religion declare to be subhuman. The conversion of aboriginal tribes has also eroded Hindu dominance in some areas.

Christian activists insist forcible conversions and allurement are myths invented by the Hindu nationalist right, and the associated push for anti-conversion laws has resulted in the rising climate of persecution.

“When challenged in court, when challenged elsewhere, no government at the state level or the government in New Delhi has ever been able to accuse a single person of forced or induced conversion,” said John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council. “The most they can say is there has been a conversion. But conversions are not illegal. They are creating paranoia to develop a Hindu vote bank.”

Mr. Ansari objected to that characterization and referred to an oft-repeated slogan of the prime minister, “Sabka saath, sabka vikas,” or “All together, all for development.”

“All means all,” Mr. Ansari said, “including the minorities.”

Monday, February 19, 2018

Guardian Dogs of the Mongolian Steppe

By Jason Overdorf
Scientific American (February 2018)

Two days' drive from the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, 100 miles from the country's border with China, the foothills of the Altai Mountains slash a jagged brown line across the scrubby southern Gobi grasslands. Home to hungry wolves and snow leopards and brutal winters, it is rough country for herders such as 57-year-old Otgonbayar, a weather-beaten nomad who works his flock of 1,000-odd cashmere goats and two dozen sheep from the back of a 100-cc Chinese motorcycle.

“The wolves were terrible this winter,” Otgonbayar says on a spring day in 2016, as his wife passes around a dented aluminum bowl filled with Russian candies and sugar cubes. “If it weren't for my dog, my losses would have been much greater.” Just a few days earlier wolves had killed four of his animals. In a typical season, they can take 50 or more.

Since the 1990s, to compensate for the animals lost to predators and inclement weather, herders such as Otgonbayar have vastly increased the size of their flocks, which has led to overgrazing that has plunged the steppe into a vicious cycle of herd expansion and environmental degradation. Now, however, an American biologist-turned-entrepreneur named Bruce Elfström is working with the herders to break that pattern by reintroducing a tool developed thousands of years ago: an indigenous livestock guardian dog known as the bankhar. “The idea was to find the dogs of old, their grandfathers' dogs, then breed them and give them back to the people. The goal being that without the fear of predators, they won't raise so many goats, which are turning the steppe into desert,” Elfström says.

Collective Failure

Before Mongolia abandoned communism in the 1990s, socialist controls dictated how many animals herders could raise. Regulations prevented overgrazing through a system of rotating pastures, and the government made sure herders in remote grasslands could get their meat and wool to market. During the country's transition to a market economy, that scheme was dismantled. The government privatized the herds, but the pastures remained common land. That arrangement encouraged herders to raise more animals without providing any incentive to preserve the range. At the same time, the rise of neighboring China resulted in soaring demand for cashmere, explains Zara Morris-Trainor, a doctoral candidate at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, who is studying the impact of the trade on Mongolia's snow leopards.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991—which resulted in a precipitous drop in bilateral trade with Russia—made Mongolia more dependent on China. Almost overnight, nomads who had traditionally raised a mixed herd of camels, goats, horses, sheep, cattle and yaks began ramping up herd sizes with more and more cashmere-producing goats, which are harder on the soil because their sharp hooves puncture the biological crust that prevents wind erosion. Historically accounting for less than a fifth of all livestock, goats made up about a third of some 29 million domesticated grazers by 1996. By 2015 the goat population had surged to nearly 24 million out of a total herd of 56 million livestock.

The expansion of Mongolia's desert has kept pace with that increase. Since 1996, which was also the year in which the country first joined the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, the amount of its land severely impacted by desertification has more than tripled to around 100,000 square miles—about a sixth of Mongolia's total land mass. As much as 80 percent of the damage is the result of overgrazing, researchers at Oregon State University concluded from satellite maps of the vegetation in 2013.

Over roughly the same period, uncontrolled hunting and habitat destruction have killed 75 to 90 percent of various prey animals. Their downfall has forced wolves and snow leopards to target the nomads' herds, even as ever more frequent winter storms known as dzuds have periodically killed millions of livestock. Without other adequate forms of insurance, the nomads have taken matters into their own hands: in good times, they have enlarged their herds in hopes of ending up with at least some animals in the spring; in lean times, they have confined their livestock in smaller areas to try to protect them. Both responses have intensified the problem of desertification.

Making matters worse, because the herders are impotent against drought, snow and climate change, many of them focus their resentment on predators. Reliable statistics about how many animals they kill are hard to come by. But as many as 14 percent of Mongolian herders interviewed for a 2002 study admitted to killing snow leopards in retribution for dead livestock. And experts still cite retaliatory killings as among the main threats to the big cats, according to Bayarjargal Agvaantseren, director for the Snow Leopard Trust's partner organization in Mongolia. Wolves are in the crosshairs, too. “For wolves, there is still local-government-level hunting organized annually in some areas,” Agvaantseren says. Conservationists fear for the future of both species in Mongolia.

Rescue Dogs

Elfström believes he can help. In 2013 he designed a program to reduce livestock losses—and thereby encourage support for wildlife conservation—by bringing back the bankhar, a large, black-and-brown mountain dog. The Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project has set up a breeding and training center near Ulaanbaatar and placed the dogs with nomads who face high pressure from predators. Otgonbayar is one of the first participants. “The goal is to take what we're doing and hand it off to Mongolians so we can have satellite breeding centers around the country,” says the 51-year-old Elfström, who owns a Connecticut-based off-road driving school called Overland Experts.

Bankhars were once ubiquitous on the Mongolian steppe. In a nod to their fearsome nature, the traditional Mongolian greeting is “Hold your dog.” Dogs are the only animals the Mongolians believe to be worth naming. Various defining myths and folktales—including the origin myth that traces the birth of Genghis Khan to the coupling of a blue wolf and a fallow deer—confirm that traditionally nomads believed that the Mongolians and their dogs were “of the same bones,” notes anthropologist Gaby Bamana, currently a visiting scholar at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

Despite their cultural importance, however, true bankhars have mostly disappeared since the communist era. A symbol of independence, fierce, territorial dogs were unsuited to the ideology of the times and the practical realities of state-owned herds, which allowed herders to keep only seven animals per person as private property. There was even a brief craze for bankhar fur coats in Moscow in the 1930s. Furthermore, crossbreeding between bankhars and other dogs, including an influx of German shepherds that accompanied the effort to build the Trans-Siberian Railroad in the 1940s and the guard dogs and household pets of more than 100,000 Russian military personnel who moved to Mongolia in the 1960s, has diluted the gene pool of the indigenous bankhar population. Indeed, it is hard to find bankhars that have not been crossed with foreign breeds, which can reduce their effectiveness as livestock protectors by reintroducing predatory traits that breeders promote in dogs like the German shepherd.

The expertise required to raise effective bankhars is also in short supply. The same collectivization programs that discouraged their use resulted in the loss of much traditional knowledge. Few of the herders whose families have occupied the steppe for generations now remember how to rear dogs to protect livestock.

Why, then, is Elfström intent on reviving the bankhar? Guardian dogs are still common elsewhere in the world, from the ovcharka in the Caucasus to the Anatolian shepherd in Turkey to the Great Pyrenees in the West. Why not just import these breeds to Mongolia?

One reason is biological. Like the forebears of other guardian dogs, the bankhar was not created through the kind of careful inbreeding that resulted in modern breeds such as the Great Dane or golden retriever. Rather it evolved through a combination of natural and artificial selection: the best specimens thrived, whereas the nomads did not feed useless ones and culled those that chased or killed livestock. The result is a dog that is purpose-built for guarding flocks under harsh conditions.

Standing between 26 and 33 inches tall at the shoulder and weighing 80 to 125 pounds, bankhars are remarkably well adapted to the challenges of the steppe, where temperatures can soar to 100 degrees Fahrenheit in summer and plunge to 50 below zero in winter. Their thick, shaggy fur, which feels almost as fine as cashmere to the touch, features a heavy undercoat that protects them from the cold in the winter and is shed in the summer, when they sometimes dig underground dens to escape the heat. Bankhars also need less food than other livestock guardian dogs of similar size—perhaps because they have evolved a slower metabolism, Elfström suggests—an important consideration in a region where many families have little to spare.

But cultural reasons, rather than biological ones, ultimately prompted Elfström to settle on reintroducing the bankhar instead of importing a similar guardian dog such as the ovcharka, which thrives in extreme climates elsewhere in Central Asia. Decades of Soviet meddling have left Mongolians wary of foreign advisers, and herders are especially skeptical that a bunch of Americans who do not seem to know a goat from a sheep will have anything to teach them. The bankhar, however, still has great cultural significance: traditionalists are convinced that the revered dogs can see into the spirit world, and more modern herders view them as a powerful symbol of national pride. “Everybody wants a bankhar,” Elfström says. If he can forge a relationship with the herders through the bankhar program, perhaps they will be amenable to other conservation efforts.

Ups and Downs

Thus far Elfström and his team have bred and distributed more than 60 bankhar puppies to herders. Although the project is in its early stages, a detailed study of its impact is now under way, and Elfström says he has “firm data” showing a 90 to 95 percent drop in the livestock killed by predators. The scheme has attracted the interest of nonprofit groups, including the Snow Leopard Trust and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). In 2016 the WCS helped to place six dogs with three families in an area of the Gobi that sees a lot of predation from wolves and raptors, according to Onon Bayasgalan, a conservationist who works with the WCS in Mongolia. “If the bankhar initiative proves to be a success with these herder families, we will consider expanding the number of families receiving the dogs. In the future, we may also consider collaborating with the bankhar project in our other project sites,” Bayasgalan said in 2016. This year Elfström is supplying the WCS with another 10 to 14 dogs.

Conservationists hope that by reducing stock losses, the dogs can help generate support for other ambitions, such as “sustainable cashmere,” which requires that the nomads focus on smaller herds to produce high-quality wool that they can sell for a higher price than regular wool. Already the distribution of puppies is acting as an informal reward for model herders such as Otgonbayar, whose rangeland is near a protected area for snow leopards. Elfström himself aims to institute further incentives to encourage herders to refrain from killing predators once he has shown how effective the dogs can be at deterring them.

That said, he has run into several hurdles. In May 2016 Mongolian environmental regulations forced him to shift his breeding center to a new location near Hustai National Park in the north of the country, thereby prompting a reboot of the project. Because of an accident, the faithful four-wheel-drive van that the team used to transport dogs and equipment now needs to be replaced. And although herders covet the bankhars, it is a constant struggle to find ones who are willing to implement the training protocol necessary to raise the puppies to be effective working dogs. The regimen, which requires keeping the puppies corralled with the livestock from the age of six to 13 weeks so that they bond to the goats and sheep the way pet dogs do to humans, is not complicated, but it requires a herder who is willing to listen.

More discouraging, the collaboration with the Snow Leopard Trust has stalled. A little headway has been made, but Gustaf Samelius, assistant director of science for the trust, says it is not actively working to place dogs from Elfström's bankhar project because all the nomads in the areas where the organization works already have dogs of their own. “From the few people I've talked to, they all seem to be happy with the dogs they have,” Samelius says.

That claim is a major source of frustration for Elfström. Virtually without exception, the dogs in question are strays or crossbreeds that were not raised to bond with the herders' livestock, he says. They provide some deterrent against predators, mostly by barking if a snow leopard comes near the corral at night, but they cannot be trusted to guard the herd in the pasture because they are bonded to the family rather than its livestock. They are more likely to follow the shepherd back to the yurt than to keep watch over the flock.

Despite Samelius's assertion that nobody wants them, the bankhar team is working on its own to place pups with families who live in the same areas where the Snow Leopard Trust is active, though perhaps not the same families who say they are satisfied with their current dogs. Herders sometimes call their untrained crossbreeds bankhar out of ego or loyalty. But when they are offered a true, working bankhar from the breeding project, “all of a sudden, their dog becomes a mix, and they want ours,” Elfström says.

“Many people, including scientists, are still of the mindset that ‘a dog is a dog,’ despite an overwhelming glut of papers and data to prove them wrong,” Elfström says. “Herders know bankhars are not just dogs.” Research has shown that similar livestock guardian dogs have had dramatic impacts in Africa, Australia, Europe and the western U.S., where breeds such as the Great Pyrenees and Anatolian shepherd have reduced or eliminated livestock losses to cheetahs, coyotes, dingoes, foxes, bears and wolves. In Namibia the introduction of some 450 Anatolian shepherds over the past 20 years virtually eliminated livestock predation by cheetahs, helping to convince farmers to stop killing as many as 1,000 big cats a year. In Mongolia, where wildlife conservation is in its infancy, the effect could be equally dramatic, Elfström believes.

Provided the project succeeds in breeding enough dogs and in convincing enough nomads to rear them the right way, a reduction in retribution killings is likely. Other successful livestock guardian dog programs, including Cheetah Outreach in South Africa, have convinced farmers to sign contracts agreeing to not kill predators, leading to a sharp decline in retribution killings. And evidence from a livestock vaccination program run by the Snow Leopard Trust in Pakistan suggests that reducing livestock losses can encourage farmers to raise fewer animals: the program helped to reduce herd sizes by 17 percent.

But even if Elfström does succeed in persuading people to limit the size of their flocks, changing the practices of a few herders will be merely a Band-Aid on the proverbial bullet hole, he realizes, unless it is accompanied by a raft of other nonprofit efforts and policy measures aimed at conserving the Mongolian steppe and its denizens. Luckily, many such programs are already underway. Ulaanbaatar-based Sor Cashmere, for instance, is working to popularize cashmere made from the hair of yaks and camels, which are less environmentally damaging than goats. The Wildlife Conservation Society, for its part, is working with herders, mining companies and other stakeholders to fund ecological mitigation projects and promote sustainable goat cashmere.

“What we want to see is the herders moving more. What we want to see is them having a diverse herd. What we want to see is them not having extra animals to counter the fact that they're going to lose so many,” Elfström says. “But that requires that we work with other nongovernmental organizations. We can't do everything.”

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A Guide to the Hidden Gems of Delhi’s Architectural Legacy

By Jason Overdorf
Destinasian (January 2018)

From the rooftop of Haveli Dharampura, Old Delhi stretches toward the horizon. Turning slowly, I can pick out the towering minarets of the Jama Masjid, the red Lego blocks of the Shri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir temple, the gleaming onion domes of the Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib, and the bustling market of Chandni Chowk. As dusk falls, the sky is fluttering with hundreds of kites, and the neighborhood pigeon caller is readying his birds for flight. It’s a glimpse of a culture that has endured for hundreds of years, practically since the days of the fifth Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, whose architects built much of what is still sometimes called Shahjahanabad in the early 17th century.

First settled in the sixth century B.C., Delhi has been the capital of a dozen-odd empires dating back to the dynasty of the Pandavas, the five sibling heroes of India’s ancient Mahabharata epic. Remnants of that storied past are scattered throughout the city—some dating to 300 B.C., others from the medieval and colonial periods. But so far, the government has failed to capitalize on this rich trove of monuments, which could make Delhi a tourist center on the order of Athens or Rome. Until now, perhaps.

From the rooftop of Haveli Dharampura, Old Delhi stretches toward the horizon. Turning slowly, I can pick out the towering minarets of the Jama Masjid, the red Lego blocks of the Shri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir temple, the gleaming onion domes of the Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib, and the bustling market of Chandni Chowk. As dusk falls, the sky is fluttering with hundreds of kites, and the neighborhood pigeon caller is readying his birds for flight. It’s a glimpse of a culture that has endured for hundreds of years, practically since the days of the fifth Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, whose architects built much of what is still sometimes called Shahjahanabad in the early 17th century.

First settled in the sixth century B.C., Delhi has been the capital of a dozen-odd empires dating back to the dynasty of the Pandavas, the five sibling heroes of India’s ancient Mahabharata epic. Remnants of that storied past are scattered throughout the city—some dating to 300 B.C., others from the medieval and colonial periods. But so far, the government has failed to capitalize on this rich trove of monuments, which could make Delhi a tourist center on the order of Athens or Rome. Until now, perhaps.

Opened as a 14-room boutique hotel in March 2016, Haveli Dharampura is one of the flagships of a nascent heritage renaissance underway across Delhi, a movement facilitated by the Internet, corporate sponsorship, and private initiatives. Another is the dramatic transformation of the area surrounding Humayun’s Tomb and the Nizamuddin Dargah shrine, where the Aga Khan Trust for Culture completed a massive restoration and expansion project in 2013 in an effort to create a template for conservation that could be emulated across the country. Other endeavors—sometimes haphazard, sometimes centralized—have also turned once-ignored monuments like the ruined 13th-century mosque and madrasa of South Delhi’s affluent Hauz Khas neighborhood and the colonnaded colonial center of Connaught Place into thriving entertainment hubs.

A growing environmentalist movement, meanwhile, has made strides toward restoring this surprisingly leafy city’s natural heritage, through the conservation of the 80-hectare Mehrauli Archaeological Park as well as the creation of the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary and the Yamuna Biodiversity Park—projects that have involved uprooting invasive species and clawing back forests from slums and garbage dumps.

As a longtime resident of Delhi, I had witnessed all this without really registering what was going on. That’s probably because when you are surrounded by its whirling throng, India’s capital always seems to be coming apart at the seams. Up close, it looks like nothing is changing or ever will change. But after living in the city for close to a decade, I moved to Berlin for 18 months—just enough of a hiatus for me to register the transformation I’d missed upon my return in early 2015. This summer, I revisited some of my favorite haunts and discovered a new sense of optimism.

A late Mughal–style mansion built in 1887 in the Chandni Chowk area, Haveli Dharampura is among the few local conservation projects to turn heritage into a straightforward commercial proposition. So-called “heritage hotels” have become the lynchpin of neighborhood conservation in Rajasthan, where, in 1971, former prime minister Indira Gandhi inadvertently created a new generation of hoteliers when she abolished the privy purses awarded to the state’s erstwhile royals. Haveli Dharampura marks the first significant hotel-conversion project in the historic center of Delhi.

Fronted by a massive arched gateway, the mansion had been carved up into warehouses and shoebox apartments when Vidyun’s politician father (and current minster of state) Vijay Goel acquired the property in 2010. The weight of the roof was causing the building to collapse on itself, and most of the original fixtures had been stripped away and sold. Perhaps even worse, a thicket of well-intentioned government regulations designed to protect heritage buildings paradoxically made every attempt at renovation a maze of bureaucratic hurdles.

Formerly a parliamentarian representing the constituency of Chandni Chowk, Goel understood those obstacles as well as anyone. He had initiated the first, halting efforts to restore the 17th-century bazaar district to its former glory in 1998, spearheading a government-led effort to repaint the facades of all the buildings along the main road from the Red Fort to the Fatehpuri Masjid and remove the rats’ nests of improvised electrical wiring strung overhead for a first-of-its-kind cultural festival that attracted some 500,000 visitors. But since then, he’d seen dozens of grandiose plans to turn the city’s historical center into a top-flight tourist attraction broken by their own ambition. Every square meter of Chandni Chowk is occupied by shops and residences. Nobody has any money (or much motivation) to invest in renovation. And the city’s strong culture of tenant rights makes evicting people to make way for historical restoration all but impossible.

Rather than a grand plan, therefore, Goel envisioned an anchor project that would be like throwing a pebble into a pond, sending ripples outward into the city even as it inspired like-minded entrepreneurs to develop their own heritage properties.

“Ten years ago, my father brought me and my brother here and told us he was taking us to the Taj Mahal of Delhi,” Vidyun recalls as we sit beneath one of the scalloped arches in Haveli Dharampura’s ground-floor restaurant. “I was standing in this complete ruin! It was ready to fall apart at any time.”

Today, the property is a stunning example of late-Mughal architecture. Over six years, Goel and his son, Siddhant, painstakingly reviewed documents and photographs and scoured the country for artisans to recreate the original structure, replacing the terrazzo and sandstone flooring, stripping out partitions, and restoring the original scalloped arches, columns, and marble latticework.
“They didn’t want to restore it to how it was 10 years ago, but to how it was 100 years ago,” Vidyun says.

You can already see the impact the hotel is having on its neighborhood, in the form of new businesses catering to the comparatively well-heeled guests Haveli Dharampura attracts to an area that had hitherto featured only backpacker accommodations. While it’s a long way from the posh medieval lanes of Italy’s Siena or even the rebirth that turned Beijing’s hutong district into a warren of art galleries and hip restaurants, it offers just enough evidence to inspire hope that such a revolution could be possible for Old Delhi, where as many as 200 historic havelis survive in a sad state of neglect. (One notable exception is the Seth Ram Lal Khemka Haveli, a private residence in the Chhota Bazaar area that was recently restored using traditional building materials and techniques—including grout mixed in a specially made circular mill—by young Delhi architect Aishwarya Tipnis.) But first, the bureaucrats will need to get out of the way.

“The government should come to the support of the people,” Vijay Goel says. “We should relax the rules that have prevented renovations and give concessions to people who want to restore other havelis.”

Neither Goel nor many other Delhiwallahs expect that kind of government support to materialize anytime soon. But across town in another of the city’s remarkable historical centers, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) has demonstrated that civil society can accomplish the same kind of transformation, combining conservation with urban renewal.

Despite achieving World Heritage status in 1993, the 16th-century Humayun’s Tomb complex has never drawn as many visitors as the Red Fort or Qutub Minar, the city’s other two UNESCO sites. That’s in part because of the name, explains AKTC’s Ratish Nanda, who has devoted most of his career to the site’s restoration. While the Taj Mahal is also a burial site, it’s known as a “palace,” not a “tomb,” and promoted as a testament to emperor Shah Jahan’s love for his favorite wife. For some reason, the Empress Bega Begum’s devotion to her late husband, Humayun, has never attained the same cachet.

To me, though, that has always made Humayun’s Tomb and the neighboring Nizamuddin Dargah more exhilarating. On the off-season morning when I meet Nanda for a walking tour of the restoration project, I am one of perhaps a half-dozen tourists exploring the 12-hectare Persian-style garden that surrounds the massive, domed tomb of India’s second Mughal emperor. It’s not always so deserted, Nanda assures me. The number of visitors has increased from around 200,000 to more than a million per year thanks to the restoration project. But because the complex is so large, you don’t get the fish-in-a-barrel feeling that hits you amid the thicket of touts at the Taj Mahal.

A sandstone precursor to the white marble Taj, Humayun’s Tomb had deteriorated steadily even after it was named a World Heritage site in 1993. Poorly planned and underfunded preservation efforts using cement had marred the main structure and devastated some of the 100-odd outlying monuments, while overlooked stone walls and gardens had simply decayed into ruin. Using funds donated by the Aga Khan on the 50th anniversary of India’s independence, in 1997, Nanda undertook the restoration of the gardens surrounding the building. Then, when that project was successful, he began a comprehensive restoration of not only the tomb itself but also the adjoining neighborhood—a medieval colony surrounding a vibrant shrine to the Sufi saint Muhammad Nizamuddin Auliya that is now essentially a slum, though it is nevertheless interesting to visit.

According to Nanda, the idea was to counter the perception that conservation was the opposite of development. Bringing in artisans from all over the country, the 200,000-man-hour project created employment and reestablished a sense of ownership among community residents. “Almost 75 percent of our budget goes to wages for our craftsmen,” Nanda says. Along with restoring buildings, the trust improved access to education and healthcare and invested in parks and other public infrastructure, including performance areas for Qawwali music, a devotional genre that began here in the 14th century and is still popular today. (Every visitor should take in a Thursday-night Qawwali performance at the shrine; they’re one of the city’s cultural highlights).

Like the owner of Haveli Dharampura, though, Nanda is equal parts optimistic and pessimistic about the future of similar conservation projects. He’s convinced the AKTC project has ably demonstrated the way forward, and he is encouraged that corporate funding has poured in since the government ruled that heritage conservation projects qualified under a recent law requiring companies with a turnover of more than one billion rupees (US$150 million) to give at least two percent of their profits to charity. Low-cost airline IndiGo, for instance, is sponsoring the restoration of the tomb of Abdul Rahim Khan-I-Khannan, who was a prominent courtier during the reign of Akbar the Great. And the chari-table arm of Mumbai-based conglomerate Tata Group partly funded the restoration of Humayun’s Tomb.

Nanda, however, remains skeptical that anyone will pick up the torch when the AKTC project—which was recently extended another five years to undertake the restoration of more monuments in the area surrounding the tomb—officially comes to an end.

“This cannot go on in perpetuity,” he says pensively as he shepherds me through the warren-like Nizamuddin shrine. “There will be things left undone.”

Among other issues, AKTC is only responsible for the restoration project. Though Nanda is working on a 1,000-square-meter museum that promises to improve the standard of curation and interpretation (a weak point here as at most Indian historical sites), the job of running the complex as a tourist site falls to the overburdened and underfunded Archeological Society of India (ASI). This leaves it vulnerable to the same pressures that have allowed ill-informed and irritatingly aggressive freelance guides to take over so many of the country’s remarkable landmarks.

Fortunately, the Internet has facilitated a boom in “software” that more than compensates for the city’s failures in the “hardware” department. Facebook-based event calendars and dedicated websites like now make it easy for travelers to find guided food tours, heritage walks, and nature hikes organized by young volunteers or nonprofit groups like the Bombay Natural History Society and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).

Perhaps more than anything else that has happened over the past decade, this has liberated visitors to Delhi from the tyranny of touts and package tours, says INTACH’s Alisha Pathak. “The most exciting thing about it is that now Delhi is discoverable on foot,” she tells me.

Every few weeks, for instance, the Bombay Natural History Society organizes a morning hike of some kind through the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary, where not long ago I joined an excursion to search for proof that the park has attracted its first leopards. Each winter, the Delhi Walk Festival inaugurated in 2016 by the nonprofit Delhi, I Love You group now offers some 85 culinary, architectural, and bird-watching walks through some of the city’s most fascinating neighborhoods, led by volunteer historians, gourmands, ecologists, and flaneurs. And groups like Delhi By Foot and INTACH itself organize similar outings on a weekly basis that have earned local experts like historian Sohail Hashmi and environmentalist Pradip Krishen a cult following.

“If you walk around the hinterlands of Delhi, you keep stumbling on forgotten monuments that are intimately connected to the city’s history,” Pathak says.

To me, that’s the most amazing part of this renaissance. I’ve lived in Delhi for more than a decade now, and every year I continue to “discover” major archeological sites such as the 12th-century Qila Rai Pithora (the fortified citadel of the so-called Slave Dynasty) or the 17th-century tomb of the Mughal general Azim Khan.

Now, everyday visitors to India’s capital have the chance to discover these hidden gems too—and it finally looks as though they may survive to make Delhi a rival to the other great ancient cities of the world.

This article originally appeared in the December 2017/January 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Restoration Drama”).