A health-screening session for adolescent girls and young women in Gumla district of Jharkhand showed that 90% of them were anaemic and had less than normal blood components. The study was conducted by Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) on a random sample of 100 young adults aged between 16 and 22 years from villages in Gumla.
According to the Gumla District Census Handbook, 2011, the district has 71% tribal households. Of this, over 65% of the tribal population make a living through cultivation while 20% works are agricultural labourers. Farming in villages such as those in Gumla provides us with a reservoir of food. But while we enjoy a bounty of diverse food crops, what do the farmers eat?
While a study revealed that the diet of Gumla’s villagers consisted mostly of rice and leafy vegetables, the National Family Health Survey (2015-16) showed that the percentage of rural women with anaemia and lower body-mass index in Jharkhand was higher than the national average. To enrich villagers’ diet and make it more nutritious in a cost-effective manner, reviving traditional kitchen gardens appears to be the best option.
Everyday diet in tribal households of Raidih block of Gumla includes rice gruel and a vegetable-based curry or chutney. Pulses or animal foods are consumed just once a week. But residents are unable to follow even this minimal diet throughout the year. It is a common practice to reduce the number of meals in a day when there is a scarcity.
“Food is rice and leafy vegetables, usually marua saag, commonly found here after the monsoons. Everyone has a few pulses at home. Good food would mean eating rice with lentils, potatoes, vegetables, and curry. We cannot eat good food every day,” 40-year-old Rita Devi from Patratoli village in Nawagarh panchayat told VillageSquare.in. Hailing from the Oraon tribal community, Rita has no land and works as a sharecropper half the year. The rest of the year she works as a daily wage labourer in Gumla town, which is 20 km away.
“We grow urad dal (black gram) every year, yet we consume it only occasionally. To eat it more often, a family would need 20 to 30 kg. But on an average a household will have only 5 kg, as the rest is sold,” Seema Devi, a self-help group member from Panantoli village in Silam panchayat, told VillageSquare.in.
Local diet in the region has seen several changes over the years. With the adoption of rice and wheat-based food, consumption of once-popular millets has drastically reduced. Only a handful of households grow millets now. Major crops cultivated in the district include cereals like paddy, maize and finger millet, pulses such as arhar and urad and oilseeds such as groundnut, mustard and linseed.
While a wide variety of food is available in the markets, the food consumed by rural households is less nutritious. Use of locally abundant high-nutrient greens such as lebri saag, charota saag, bhatua saag and karonda saag has come down. Villagers are more interested in growing and consuming hybrid varieties of vegetables such as radish, cauliflower, cabbage, carrots and spinach.
Moreover, miscellaneous food items, oils, and fats account for more than half (52%) the calorie intake of villagers. Vegetables, fruits, meat, eggs, milk, pulses, etc., account for a slim share of the calorie intake.
There’s a trend of growing select food crops in homestead lands and between rows of plants in farmlands, during monsoons in Gumla. Families grow maize, vegetables, cowpea, and dolichos beans for household consumption, buying seeds at the market or preserving from earlier harvests.
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Those without homestead lands use available spaces near the house, or homestead lands of others, with mutual consent. Based on this practice, PRADAN (Professional Assistance for Development Action), an NGO, piloted an initiative named Poshan Vari in July 2016. Designed as nutrition-based cultivation models in homestead lands, Poshan Vari gardens were grown in 47 villages across nine panchayats.
The intervention covering over 600 households was intended to enrich the diet and improve the nutrition status of the residents. All the families didn’t have homestead lands; where available, the size varied between 2 and 10 square feet, the most common being 5 square feet to 7 square feet. Families of small and marginal farmers with farmlands measuring less than two hectares grew kitchen gardens.
The number and nature of plants grown in these kitchen gardens depend on many factors. These include availability and extent of homestead land, family size, manpower, and source of water if grown after monsoons, besides the family’s knowledge and purchasing power of seeds.
“For how many days can we buy vegetables from the market? Where will we find money to buy them?” a woman at a group discussion in Shahitola village, centred around growing vegetables, told VillageSquare.in.
According to a study focussed on the status of kitchen gardens by the Centre for Development Research, Pune, it was observed that households in Gumla could save Rs 1,600 to Rs 3,200 in four months, with about 60 to 90 hours of labour in their kitchen gardens.
“When men in our village waste so much money on liquor, can’t we spend 100 rupees to buy seeds to grow vegetables for ourselves?” a Shahitola woman growing kidney beans and French beans in her kitchen garden told VillageSquare.in.
In addition to saving on income, kitchen gardens also helped substantiate the diet of the villagers. From their kitchen gardens, participant households availed seven types of vegetables, three types of legumes, three types of green leafy vegetables, and fruit, cereal and tuber each for at least one agricultural cycle. Vegetables can be used in rotation, and there is a wide availability of food for at least 3 to 4 months in one cycle.
In the first year of implementation of the Poshan Vari initiative in Gumla, villagers showed an enthusiastic interest in continuing the practice. Women are the key participants in growing kitchen gardens. Given that today nearly 70% of the total agricultural work (Source: Reuters) in India is done by women, Poshan Vari is designed in a way that it does not add to the women’s work burden. They spent less than two hours a day in nurturing the gardens.
As an intervention, Poshan Vari provides a rich blend of seeds, local varieties of cereals, pulses, vegetables and green leafy vegetables that are organically grown, to increase both the availability and diversity of food in rural households.
In the present design of the intervention, it is a challenge to include families with neither farmland nor homestead land and to use spaces near such households optimally to grow food.
Such interventions are still relegated to development literature, despite the need to promote them to overcome the present agriculture-nutrition disconnect in India. It is the time that such initiatives are replicated, and agricultural processes are reconfigured so as to increase the availability of food among rural households.
Existing users in Gumla acknowledge the value of kitchen gardens. Kitchen gardens can fix the skewed gender patterns in food consumption prevalent today in Gumla district and across India, besides improving the nutritional status of women.
Soumi Kundu is a research scholar with an M Phil in Development Practice from Ambedkar University, Delhi. She was part of the team at Centre for Development Research, Pune that did the study on status of kitchen gardens across four states. Views are personal.