It’s a hard life for Daupati Bai (24) and her husband, Munim Singh, residents of Jhalapani village in Madhya Pradesh’s tribal dominated Mandla district. Munim, a labourer, has to traverse 20 km to the block headquarters to get some work. Many men in the neighbouring villages migrate to nearby cities for employment, but he has opted to stay near his family.
In the past, the couple worried constantly about making ends meet, but today, thanks to Daupati’s hard work, they are assured two proper nutritious meals a day. Unlike in the past, there is no dearth of choices in preparing the family meal — there’s fenugreek (methi), spinach, capsicum, brinjal and tomato growing aplenty in her backyard and the best part is that she doesn’t have to spend much to grow them.
“A couple of years back if someone had told me that I would be able to afford to eat vegetables, I wouldn’t have believed them,” says Daupati. So what has been the game-changer for this impoverished family? A few years back, activists from the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) showed up at her door and proposed that she grow vegetables in the small patch of land at the back of her house. Desperate to make sure that her little son ate well — he was very weak and fell ill frequently because of lack of nutritive food — she agreed. “When they came to me with seeds, I was quite sceptical of the idea. I had never grown vegetables previously. But then I decided to give it a try and followed all their instructions. Thankfully, at least our meals are taken care of,” she adds.
With food growing right here in our backyard, I know that however bad the times we will get food on our plate at the end of the day.
As such, the daily struggles for the couple have not really eased. Financial troubles are an intrinsic part of their existence. “Yet, ever since Daupati has cultivated the kitchen garden, the pressure on me has marginally reduced. With food growing right here in our backyard, I know that however bad the times are, we will get food on our plates at the end of the day,” says Munim.
Acute food insecurity is common in Madhya Pradesh. As per the National Institute of Nutrition, 49 per cent rural children below five years in the State are stunted, 52 per cent are underweight, and 26 per cent are wasted. Moreover, the National Family Health Survey figures reveal that 57.7 per cent of married women between 15-49 years, and 82.6 per cent children between 6-35 months are anaemic, making them vulnerable to several diseases.
Poor and marginalised tribal communities are among the worst affected because they are dependent on seasonal agriculture and forest produce to keep their home and hearth going. Unfortunately, climate change and increasing inaccessibility to forest areas, brought on by the inconsistent enforcement of the Forest Regulations Act (FRA), have only deepened their food and livelihood insecurities.
In Niwas block, chiefly inhabited by Gond tribals, malnutrition is widespread among women and children. Undernourished mothers are at great risk during childbirth and end up having extremely weak offspring needing special diet, which they are unable to provide. FES has initiated an intervention here to deal with this grave issue by giving the families seeds for developing a kitchen garden.
Generally, Gond tribals depend on wage work to make a living, but then there are several days when they are unable to earn anything. Those who own small pieces of land usually cultivate hardy cereals, such as kodo (wild millet) and kutki (little millet), which grow even in drought conditions and in poor soil, apart from maize and paddy. The yields, however, are not even sufficient to see them through more than one season. Nonetheless, these days, thanks to their green kitchen patches, they are able to include vegetables regularly in their meals, which not only keep them fed but also provide them with sufficient vitamins and other essential nutrients.
Just like Daupati Bai, Laxmi Bai Kudape a resident of Padarpani village in Niwas block, used to spend sleepless nights agonising about making ends meet and feeding the family. Her husband, Devendra, a daily wage labourer, would often be without work and so she would have to forage around for food to make sure that at least her one-year-old would not sleep hungry.
Now that she has understood the nutritional benefits of consuming the fresh, seasonal produce and begun growing her own vegetables she is more at peace.
Her kitchen garden is a big boon, specially considering that work for her husband is rare in the village. “On most days he has to travel to the tehsil town, 2 km away, but there is no guarantee that he will come back home with money. But even as we continue to cope with several challenges, which crop up frequently as there is not enough money in the household, at least I am assured that we will not go without food.”
The industrious young woman employs good farming practices to nurture her garden. “I use recycled water to irrigate the patch and it’s only natural manure for my plants. Every season, I have a selection of green and leafy vegetables, among other produce. Be it fenugreek in winter or bottle-gourd in summer, my little girl relishes everything I make for her. Her health has improved tremendously,” says Laxmi, as a big smile lights up her face. Neither Laxmi nor her daughter is reeling under the dilapidating effects of undernourishment any longer.
Uniformly, there is a renewed sense of hope in all the families that have benefited from the seed distribution. Pointing to her lush kitchen garden, a philosophical Daupati concludes, “I feel proud of what I have managed to accomplish. It just goes to show how even the smallest endeavour can have a profoundly positive effect in life.”
Somewhere in the background, her son, who used to be quiet and listless at one time, squeaks with delight, running around like all healthy children his age.
(© Women’s Feature Service)