A love affair with Sunder Nursery, faults and all | Latest News Delhi - Hindustan Times
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A love affair with Sunder Nursery, faults and all

Jan 13, 2024 10:22 PM IST

The overwhelming numbers of vehicles outside the nursery and the lack of adequate parking space has left the management scuttling for solutions

It was a perfect November day. Narayani Basu and her friend found a spot under a tree, next to the lake at Delhi’s Sunder Nursery, where they placed a dhurrie, spread out their picnic basket, pulled out a book each, and just “flopped.”

On a typical winter weekend, Sunder Nursery — Delhi’s favourite spot — sees over 15,000-20,000 visitors. (Sanchit Khanna/HT Photo)
On a typical winter weekend, Sunder Nursery — Delhi’s favourite spot — sees over 15,000-20,000 visitors. (Sanchit Khanna/HT Photo)

From 10.30am to 5.30pm, the two women napped, indulged in people-watching, played with other visitors’ dogs, and devoured their picnic spread – sliced vegetables and hummus, home-made brownies, Lay’s magic masala chips, Britannia fruit cake, and a flask of iced tea. “It was the nicest day at Sunder Nursery. We just lay there like potatoes, with no agenda and no plan,” recalled the 36-year-old historian and author, with a laugh.

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On December 30, to bid goodbye to 2023, Basu returned to Sunder Nursery – waited for 15 minutes to buy the entry ticket, another 10 minutes in a queue to get the ticket checked at the entrance, and then wandered looking for a place to sit before giving up and settling for a coffee at the Fabcafe next to the lake.

“There was no space to sit in the park. It was like an open-air party. Small and big gatherings, picnics, families and their extended families... Basically, all of Delhi was there, just like us. We expected the crowds to thin by 3pm but we were wrong... Still, I am glad that people are discovering this green, open space,” Basu said.

A traffic snarl awaited the visitors outside, as car after car tried to get inside the lane that leads to Sunder Nursery. Many chose to surrender to the rush and walk instead – 500 metres, even 800 metres. In November last year, 83,110 people visited Sunder Nursery. In December, that number rose to 187,601 – the highest footfall in 2023. In 2018, Sunder Nursery – with its 15 Mughal-era monuments, including six Unesco world heritage sites, such as Sundarwala Mahal and Lakkarwala Burj, a lake, a lotus pond, an amphitheatre – opened to the public after a decade-long restoration project by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC).

So far, 118 different bird species have been spotted there since it opened, along with over 35 different butterfly species and over 300 different tree species, some of which are lone specimens in Delhi, including an African Mahogany and a Coca tree.

In 2019, the park’s first full year, 189,000 people visited. In 2023, the recorded yearly footfall was 1.150 million.

This brings with it problems.

On a typical winter weekend, the Nursery sees over 15,000-20,000 visitors, said Ratish Nanda, conservation architect, and CEO of AKTC. Vehicles line up at the entrance near the Sabz Burj roundabout. The small parking space at the entrance leading to Sunder Nursery can accommodate around 150 vehicles, while the larger parking space inside has a capacity to hold around 400 vehicles. “But on weekends, especially in December and January, there are 800-1,000 vehicles daily. This obviously leads to congestion outside,” said Nanda.

The overwhelming numbers and the lack of adequate parking space, especially in the winter months, has left the management scuttling for solutions.

In the 16th century, Azim Bagh, a Mughal garden was built adjacent to the Humayun’s Tomb. In the early 20th century, Azim Bagh became a nursery as work on turning Delhi into the Capital began. It was here that once-exotic plants were nurtured and propagated.

Soon, Azim Bagh — the name — disappeared, and the area came to be known as Sunder Nursery, after Sunder Burj, a Mughal-era tomb located inside the 90-acre complex.

In 2007, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between AKTC, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) to carry out urban restoration and conservation of the area — which consisted of a local nursery and 15 Mughal era monuments in disrepair.

The Mughal Garden pavillion was surrounded by foliage and barely visible; the 16th century lotus pond was in a dilapidated state; the Lakkarwala Burj needed re-installation of jaalis; and the Quranic inscription inside the Sunderwala Burj needed to be restored. A large part of the land was overgrown and unkept.

The restoration lasted around a decade, and included creation of wilderness zones and development of nurseries of native plants, apart from restoration of the monuments.

Since then, Sunder Nursery has become Delhi’s favourite picnic spot. “While we were restoring Sunder Nursery, around 22,000 sqm roads running through the area were completely removed to reduce the impact of vehicles inside and minimise disturbance. Instead, one road that runs along the boundary of the park was planned,” Nanda told HT.

He said that the two parking spaces were planned to accommodate vehicles as per the yearly projected footfall would be 250,000 visitors. “But over the years, this has grown rapidly. We encourage visitors, via social media posts and signage, to use public transport to get here,” said Nanda.

AKTC has no plans to create any more parking spaces as there is no additional land available for that, said Nanda. Humayun’s Tomb – adjacent to Sunder Nursery -- shares the common road, and sees around 10,00,000 annual visitors. This too contributes to the traffic in the area.

Each weekend, the Delhi Traffic Police deploys additional personnel near Nizamuddin’s Sabz Burj roundabout in coordination with AKTC to not allow any more cars to move towards Sunder Nursery once parking is full.

For residents of Nizamuddin West and East, this rush towards Sunder Nursery means staring at lengthy traffic snarls along Mathura Road. “It’s terrible on weekends. There’s traffic for several kilometres, and we get stuck at the roundabout for over 30 minutes. On January 1, we were stuck for an hour,” said A Kapoor, a resident of Nizamuddin West.

Apart from eager picnic goers, Sunder Nursery also holds a series of events and workshops on weekends, including their famous farmers’ market on Sundays.

In 2023, over 48 environment-related events were held here, including bird watching and sparrow nest making. Another 100 workshops – such as one on bee keeping – were held at Sunder Nursery, and the amphitheatre too was booked over 60 times.

“But this winter onwards, we have decided to not hold any workshops, exhibitions or events on Sundays, to reduce congestion outside, owing to limited parking spaces. The only exception is the Sunday farmers’ market, which will soon be shifted to Saturday,” said Nanda.

AGK Menon, veteran urban planner and former convener of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), said the problem is not limited to Sunder Nursery alone.

“It boils down to poor urban planning. The only solution is to have more open, green spaces in different parts of the city. Everyone goes to Sunder Nursery because there aren’t enough public spaces like this. Once we develop more such places, there will be better distribution of crowds,” he said. While Lodhi Garden and India Gate, too, attract thousands of people each day, Menon said that the number of such spaces is still not enough for Delhi’s population.

“People go to Sunder Nursery because it’s well-maintained and designed. Delhi has a population of 20 million people with only a handful of such places. There is a park in every neighbourhood which can be made attractive. It is a matter of design, so if consultants are hired, proper landscaping is done and walkways are made, then people wouldn’t have to go all the way to Sunder Nursery when there are such spaces in their own localities,” he said.

For Basu, what works most in favour of Sunder Nursery is the aspect of safety. “You are almost never alone in any part of Sunder Nursery. We can crib about the crowd, but crowd also means safety, especially in a city like Delhi. Also, great PR. It’s all-over social media, and has become the obvious choice,” said Basu.

The Sunder Nursery hashtag on Instagram shows over 35,000 posts.

Meanwhile, AKTC is looking for “environmental volunteers,” whose job would entail telling visitors not to litter and feed animals on the premises.

As of now, there are 50 guards and 100 staffers at the nursery. AKTC is yet to find any environmental volunteers. There are also 72 CCTV spread across the 90 acres, which catch any violation — from defacement, littering and damaging property to stealing, and use of contraband products by visitors.

“Last year, a visitor set a swing on fire, and was caught after a guard monitoring the real-time footage saw it on CCTV. That person was handed over to the Delhi police,” said Nanda.

In 2019, a video of a woman stealing plants from Sunder Nursery was uploaded on social media. “We want more visitors to come and enjoy the Nursery for what it was planned to be — an open, green space which allows culmination of greenery, culture and heritage. But it is also important for visitors to do their bit and keep it clean,” he said.

Visitors often feed stray dogs, birds, and ducks on the premises – an innocent act that led to a disastrous incident last September. Of the 32 Indian spot-billed ducks, nine were reported dead in a matter of days. “We found out through CCTV footage that visitors were feeding them bread. We then spoke to scientists and veterinary experts who said that this was likely the reason behind their deaths, as bread is harmful for them. Since then, we have placed signage in different parts of the nursery, asking visitors not to feed any wildlife. A long-term plan includes completely fencing the small pond near the Fabcafe, preventing access to visitors. This way, birds won’t be harmed,” said Nanda.

Despite all the challenges, Delhi can’t seem to have enough of Sunder Nursery. On a lazy, crowded Sunday afternoon, three friends from Delhi University set up their humble picnic lunch — pulao and raita. And in another corner, 33-year-old Shantanu Sharma, an IT professional, is chuffed that he convinced his parents to come along for a picnic. “This is my third time here and the first time for my parents. I wanted to throw a picnic and I showed them some pictures and convinced them there was no place better than Sunder Nursery to eat out in the open,” he said.

A few metres away from the Sharma picnic spot sat a group of around 20 women on foldable lawn chairs, and a table with a variety of snacks in the middle.

“This is the third time we are throwing our kitty party here. We are tired of going to restaurants. There is no other place like this in Delhi, is there?” asked Anshu Sharma.

With inputs from Ashna Butani

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