At the heart of a congested, intimate colony of houses is the recently restored stepwell of Bansilalpet. This heritage landmark, which is rapidly developing into a well-liked tourist destination, is located close to one of Hyderabad's busiest locations. While the local residents gaze at the stunning view through their windows and balconies, tourists pay 50 rupees an hour to see the well and to learn about its history.

A Residential Colony Borders The Stepwell

During the process of restoring the 17th Century stepwell to its pristine glory, a palatial modern gallery and an extravagant garden space with an amphitheatre were squeezed into the little space that remained in the residential colony.

Elegantly calligraphed on the walls of the same gallery is the motto: “Change is inevitable but transformation is by conscious choice”. However, it also begs the question who is the transformation for?

The Gallery Wall

The six-storied stepwell, as Hajira, the Secretary of Bansilalpet Residence Welfare Association recollected, was a place where everyone gathered to chat, and celebrate. “The children used to be fascinated by the way water was extracted with a rope and bucket, and they played cricket on the ground behind,” Hajira said.

However, over the course of years, the well had deteriorated into a dump yard. It slipped into obscurity, only to headline its way into the local news as the site of unfortunate deaths by suicide.

After 40 years of neglect, the Rainwater Project, headed by Kalpana Ramesh stepped in. Soon, the restoration process began, aided by the Gandipet Welfare Society, in coordination with Kshetra Consultants and Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC).

The prospect seeded hope in residents. As one of them remarks, the officials in charge kept assuring them “It will be good for you. It’s for you.”

The project, along with the transformation of an old dilapidated building adjacent to the stepwell into a gallery was completed in a year. The previously run-down building was an Anganwadi school.

According to Hajira, “Initially the gallery and the second-floor amphitheatre wasn’t planned. However, Kalpana ma’am thought the well would be a beautiful view to look at so we’ve made this really nice gallery. It used to be an old small building.”

During Restoration The Process

Kalpana Ramesh said, the Bansilalpet stepwell is “beyond an architectural restoration. It's how the entire area was revamped. The pollution is reduced. We’ve set up underground wiring for streetlights and drainage lines for each house.

“The residents’ water security level is now higher, the property values around here have blossomed and there’s an obvious health impact. It’s changed their lives.” She also said there were plans to let GHMC use the excess water from this stepwell.

However, have the promises made to the residents been kept? While efforts have been made to make it into a full-fledged tourist spot, to beautify the colony by laying cobblestone roads and delicately designed street lamps, it’s not what some residents had hoped for.

“Did we ask them to do all this?” said a 65-year-old woman who said her family has lived in the locality for a century. She, like many of her neighbours, chose to stay anonymous as they expressed their dissatisfaction.

“What’s the point of doing all this if we are not allowed to use the road ourselves? It’s our road, one we have used for generations and now we are not even allowed to park right outside our houses. Instead, people who come to see this well can,” they claimed.

The residents alleged they have been asked to relocate their vehicle parking to a ground nearby. It is not too far, but the locals say this ground also has been allotted as a parking lot for tourists.

Another resident, a 41-year-old man, claimed the roads were no longer suitable for the local children to play on, like they once could. “There are too many people and vehicles, there is little to no space for them to play, and we are usually scared it’s unsafe as there are so many strangers,” he said.

Amphitheatre And Garden Behind The Gallery

However some residents are happy with the changes. A 39-year-old resident said, the area is “so beautiful now. It used to be full of mosquitoes before, but now that’s not a problem anymore. Obviously, it’s better for us and our children, and we get to live in this clean space.”

A member of the Bansilalpet Residence Welfare Association chimed in and said, “it would definitely be better if we are allowed inside without the fee. Our children see so many new people and kids around here now, entering the well, it makes them curious, makes them want to play but we can’t be paying all the time.”

Hajira believed that the general response was positive. “We play soft music to maintain an ambience, but always make sure it doesn’t exceed a certain volume so it doesn’t disturb the residents. Events need to wind up by 9 pm so as to not disrupt any sleeping schedules,” Hajira said.

Hajira At The Gallery

She added that residents' concerns about issues such as open manholes, damaged street lights, leaking pumps are also quickly tended to after the respotation, as these issues also inconvenience the tourists. According to her, as the surroundings contribute to the stepwell's development as a historical and tourist destination, maintenance of the colony “has been a top concern”.

There were also hopes for small businesses such as food stalls, kirana stores and other establishments to blossom around the stepwell and benefit the residents. However, after the initial allure faded, the tourist rush is now only on the weekends.

The few stores that opened during the first couple of months had to close since the rents in the area are high, and the weekend rush couldn't make up for the lack of customers throughout the week. Even on the weekends, most are unlikely to stop by any stores since their primary purpose is to visit the stepwell and the gallery.

Months after inauguration of this project, the stepwell is today a popular tourist spot. It is also a venue for cultural events and educational excursions for students.

The charges for each of these events are around Rs 25,000 for the stepwell, and Rs 25,000 for the gallery and garden space. However, as Rashree, the Vice President of Gandipet Welfare Society stresses, they are selective of who they rent the venue to.

Priority is given to events that are cultural and educational in nature. “We also sometimes open the stepwell for free. We don’t charge orphanages or sometimes government schools,” Rashree said.

A Virtual Depiction Of A Potential Performance

The funds earned from such events, and daily revenue from ticketing which amounts to around Rs 5000 rupees, is allocated to pay staff salaries and further management of the well.

“The task of maintaining the stepwell has been entrusted with us, to the Gandipet Welfare Society. We are an NGO for zero waste management. Along with the general management, we also manage the waste concerned with the stepwell. It is taken and processed by us” Rashree added.

The basic function of a stepwell is to provide water for the local community, however, residents said that was no longer prioritised. Meanwhile, those involved in the project said the Bansilalpet stepwell restoration has been awarded and recognised for its sustainable revitalisation and employment of traditional knowledge of rainwater harvesting.

The question remains regarding what ‘restoration’ truly means? A local said, “The well has always been our place, and though we are grateful so much effort has been put in, we don’t have free access.”