It is no secret that Punjab’s cancer rates are the highest in the country. In fact, there is a ‘Cancer Train’ that leaves from Bathinda to Bikaner, Rajasthan every day carrying 60 odd cancer-affected patients for treatment at the government’s regional cancer centre.
The horrific state of affairs is reportedly due to the rampant use of pesticides and other chemicals in agriculture, which have mixed with the region’s water table. Consequently, the use of that water for agricultural activities as well as drinking has spread the chemicals in residents’ bodies, causing severe ailments, including cancer.
Just like every resident of the state, Anurag Arora, a resident of Jalandhar, was well aware of this reality while growing up.
“On one hand, where the state is reeling under the drug menace, there is the problem of lethal pesticides that farmers are exposed to, as a result of which we are consuming toxic food. I couldn’t continue my comfortable job and turn a blind eye to the crisis taking place in front of me. I embarked on the road to make pest-free and nutritional food accessible to people,” he tells The Better India.
To help tackle this crisis and provide healthier food alternatives to the population, Anurag quit his lucrative job with Trident India and started MINK Organics, an agro-enterprise, along with his wife Jayati in 2017.
The organisation helps people grow organic food on their rooftops by providing free consultations and seedlings or seeds at market prices. Till date, it has helped around 200 people across Punjab.
At its outlet, the organisation also sells organic veggies, grains, pulses, microgreens and superfood at affordable prices. These products are grown by Arora on its farm and also procured from 20 organic farmers.
Working Towards A Healthier And Cancer Free Future
Anurag and Jayati were low on savings when they started out. With no money to purchase land for farming, the duo used what was available to them—their rooftop.
With no prior experience or knowledge, Anurag purchased seeds and fresh soil from a nursery and planted them. Just when the seeds were turning into saplings, a heavy monsoon destroyed everything.
That’s when Anurag took professional help and underwent a certified course on cultivation from Centre of Excellence for Vegetables Indo-Israel Project, Kartarpur. He also completed a course on organic farming from Punjab Agriculture University.
In the 1.5 square feet area, he planted mushrooms, cucumbers and apple guard. Gradually he expanded to other veggies like broccoli, onion, cabbage, radish, brinjal, lettuce, tomatoes on his 300 square feet rooftop. For most of the plants, he used a vegetable crate, which allows proper drainage.
To keep pests at bay, Anurag prepared jeevamrutham (a mixture of cow urine and dung) and natural fertilisers from neem oil, jaggery, garlic, ginger, and so on.
Once the rooftop veggies started giving regular produce for self-consumption, Anurag intensified his mission of providing nutrient-rich food.
He ventured into growing microgreens like sprouts, wheatgrass and superfoods like stevia—without soil.
“In soilless gardening, minerals and nutrients are provided by mixing fertilisers in water. Natural fertilisers have five macro-elements (nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, potassium and magnesium) and micro-nutrients (iron, manganese, copper, sulphur, molybdenum, zinc and borate) that are needed to grow plants,” says Anurag.
For sprouts, he uses filtered water from the organic pulses.
As the yield from the rooftop garden is limited, he started providing free consulting and services to other people. For people who do not have enough space, he helps them set up a garden, in the balcony or kitchen. Two of his clients even grow veggies in bathtubs!
For people who have no space and time to grow food, the organisation grows them and sells the pots.
“We cultivate the seeds, and just before the harvest period, we sell the pots. After that, all a customer has to do is water the plants and enjoy the benefits,” adds Anurag. The average cost of the organic veggie pots, as compared to setting up a garden is higher by 29 per cent.
Making Organic Food Affordable
In 2018, the organisation scaled up its activities and established its outlet to sell fresh vegetables, pulses, grains, etc. to people.
Anurag rented 7,000 square feet of land to grow vegetables like wheatgrass, leafy greens, radish, onion, spices, etc.
As he practices the multi-cropping farming method, it helps him grow an average of 200 kilos of vegetables daily. He has also collaborated with 25 farmers in Jalandhar who grow vegetables without any chemicals and pesticides.
Customers can either purchase the vegetables at the outlet, his farm model or order it online.
One of the most popular items at the outlet is wheatgrass juice priced at Rs 30 and close to 200 glasses are sold every day. “To see rickshaw driver sipping on the juice on the hot afternoon next to a businessman relishing is such a heartwarming scene. This is why I do what I do,” says Anurag.
Sanjeev Tehran and his wife, who has cancer, are regular customers at MINK Organics outlet.
“Along with medications, switching to healthy diet plans is equally important. It is better to spend Rs 2,000 extra on food that is chemical-free than spend lakhs and lose mental peace. In her new diet, wheatgrass juice has helped a lot in improving her health” Sanjeev tells The Better India.
Overcoming Challenges & Way Forward
One of the biggest challenges that the organisation faced in the initial period was overcoming the perception that organic food is only for the privileged and wealthy.
“The MINK Organics outlet saw 1-2 customers and on same days no people at all. People would look at the store, read the word organic and pass. We worked hard to dispel that notion through social media platforms and word of mouth,” explains Anurag.
Some people even questioned the authenticity of products. Anurag now live-streams his farming activities on his rooftop and farm. Besides, 70 per cent of his shop’s products are organic certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Financial crunch is a recurring problem. To manage the expenses, the husband-wife duo also runs a coaching centre for National Talent Search Examination.
The organisation now aims to scale up its reach across the state. As per Anurag, individuals and organisations have approached them from other cities to adopt a similar farming model.
As the world continues to exploit natural resources, efforts by people like Anurag can go a long way in not only sustaining the environment but also improving our health.
Get in touch with MINK Organics here.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)