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In forested villages powered by solar in Chhattisgarh, kitchen gardens aid in nutrition

With the introduction of solar-powered irrigation in 2021, villages in Chhattisgarh transitioned from growing only carbohydrate-rich paddy and potatoes to cultivating diverse vegetables. Previously, the limited dietary intake and lack of variety in the meals of tribal families was a cause of malnourishment and stunting among young children, an issue widespread across many rural regions in India. Many families now cultivate vegetables such as spinach, tomatoes, carrots and beans right in their backyard and are hopeful about a gradual improvement in their health. This report is by Aishwarya Mohanty

Devmati Sing, 30, has cultivated paddy and potatoes for as long as she can remember. Potatoes and rice, both sources of mostly carbohydrates, were the staple diet of her family of six, including a four-year-old son, a seven-month-old daughter, and her ageing parents. The family consumed what they grew on their small land, measuring less than an acre. However, today, the land and the landscape have changed. As one visits her home in Karaunti, a village in the Surguja District of Chhattisgarh, she enthusiastically shows around a small patch of land adjacent to her house. The land is now a happy mix of yellows, greens and reds. From a seasonal paddy to barren land in summers and winters, Devmati is now able to grow vegetables in her backyard.

“For years we have lived in the dark,” says Devmati. “In 2021, our villages were electrified through solar power. Apart from just lights and fans, we could now irrigate our farms as well. From a single paddy crop a year, since last year we started harvesting vegetables on our lands, too. My children are now able to eat more than just potatoes.” Nestled deep within the untamed expanse of Guru Ghasidas National Park, villages primarily in Koriya, Surajpur and Surguja Districts, within the national park limits, were electrified in 2021 through solar panels in every household. Solar photovoltaic sheets that fill the skyline here, convert solar energy to power water pumps at communal taps, light street lamps and provide electricity in these villages.

Shiv Prasad tends to beetroot plants on his farm. He grows different varieties of vegetables on his land to feed his family.

“Electrification through solar has been a major focus area in these villages as they are deep inside the forest,” says C.S. Goswami, superintendent engineer, Chhattisgarh Renewable Energy Development Agency (CREDA). “Through a 90 per cent subsidy provided by the state government to set up solar pumps, these villages have also been able to irrigate their farmlands. We have ensured that solar-based power generators were installed across these hard-to-access hinterlands.”

CREDA is a registered society under the state’s energy department and is the nodal agency for the development and promotion of non-conventional and renewable energy in the state. In 2016, the state also launched its flagship scheme, the Saur Sujla Yojana, to provide solar pumps across the state. According to Goswami, for the three districts combined, a total of 20,000 irrigation pumps have been installed and about 466 hamlets have been electrified through solar panels.

Harnessing solar to develop kitchen gardens 
“The only source of irrigation here is rainfall, so most of the agriculture happens during monsoons,” says Devmati. “The rest of the year, people either migrated out for work or survived with whatever work they could.” For around 10 kilometres from her village, in Basnara, the only alternative source of irrigation is a perennial canal, which is around five kilometres from the village. But the absence of electrification only added to the woes, as the water could never be used for irrigating their farms.

“After our village was solar powered, we could begin irrigating our field through solar irrigation and drips by drawing water,” says Sahulia Singh from Basnara Village. “We have a small patch of land adjacent to our home. In 2023, with the help of some vegetable seeds, we could start growing vegetables for self-consumption,” says Sahulia who lives with her daughter-in-law and grandchildren after her son migrated for work.

In 2023, Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR) reached out to these villages and helped them switch to organic farming for vegetables and develop kitchen gardens in their backyards. They were provided 11 varieties of seeds comprising proportionate amounts of greens, reds, and yellows to complete an all-colour diet. Around 288 households in the region are now regularly harvesting vegetables from their nutrition gardens, feeding nutritious food to their children, and supplementing their families’ incomes.

“Solar panels are used to generate electricity to power irrigation systems and this technology has helped the villagers to efficiently water their kitchen gardens, even in areas with limited access to electricity,” says Raven Singh, a field coordinator with WOTR. “With reliable irrigation, they now grow a wider variety of crops and increase their yields, contributing to food security.” Additionally, the farmers also produce traditional organic manure prepared by fermenting cow dung, cow urine, jaggery, pulse flour, soil and water, ditching any chemicals that are detrimental to soil health.

Nearly 20,000 solar pumps have been installed across the three districts of Surguja Division, according to an official from Chhattisgarh Renewable
Energy Development Agency.

Apart from just securing a nutritious diet for their families, the village residents have also planned to eventually sell their produce and enhance their income. “We are at present cultivating the vegetables only for our consumption,” says Sahulia. “But we wish to scale up so we can sell the produce within the village and help all households reduce their dependence on the market outside.”

Improving nutrition through kitchen gardens
In these villages, the residents navigate a world where survival is intertwined with the simplicity of a humble diet. The families make a living from an annual sale of paddy and kendu (Diospyros melanoxylon) leaves from the forest. The daily food is shaped by necessity, with rice and potatoes as the staple diet for most of the year for most families. This necessity was also aggravated by the lack of access to the markets. With the main market almost seven kilometres away, going to the market was never an easy or preferred choice. “Going to the market would cost us more than what we bought,” says Shiv Prasad, 62, from Maharso Village. “There are no storage facilities at home and a lot of what we bought would usually rot.”

Shiv now grows vegetables on his half acre of land. “We used to spend a significant portion of our income on buying vegetables from these distant markets, whenever we did,” he adds. “That was also a limitation, which is why we avoided buying vegetables and solely depended on our produce. Now, with our kitchen gardens, we save money and have access to fresh produce every day.”

This limited dietary intake and lack of variety in their meals was also a cause of malnourishment and stunting among young children, echoing a widespread issue across many rural regions in India. These districts roughly have 46 per cent Scheduled Tribe population (according to 2011 census), with a major population residing in and around the peripheries of the national park. With their geographies, accessibility to markets remains scarce, and affordability continues to be a challenge. An analysis of the district nutrition profile of all three districts shows that nearly 30 per cent of children in these districts are either stunted or malnourished. Surguja District falls under the highest-burden districts in terms of stunting, wasting and anemia amongst children.

Studies have shown that under-nutrition/stunting is a consequence of household food insecurity. In this regard, nutritious kitchen gardens are seen as an affordable and sustainable way of ensuring a balanced nutritious diet within rural households. They not only enhance food security, but also the nutritional status of households. “We eat what we grow,” says Sahulia. The transition from monoculture to a diversified diet has been transformative. Many families now cultivate a variety of vegetables such as spinach, tomatoes, carrots, and beans right in their backyard.

“My son got excited when we introduced the vegetables daily. He likes the change in colour on his plate,” Devmati says. “We realised that relying solely on rice and potatoes was detrimental to our health, especially for our children. There won’t be a sudden impact but we are very hopeful of a gradual improvement.”

(Courtesy: Mongabay India/ india.mongabay.com)

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