ON A RECENT TRIP to my hometown Thalassery, in Kerala, I set out of my parents’ house to do the rounds of my relatives’ houses, as one is expected to do on such visits. At the house of one aunt, I enquired politely after the health of the flower garden in her front yard. “This is nothing,” she said, before grabbing me by the hand and leading me up the stairs behind the house. “The best things are here now,” she declared when we had reached the back terrace. On the cramped terrace lay 25 white sacks filled with fresh amaranthus, green chillies, tomatoes, brinjal, ladies’ fingers and green beans. “Try my vegetables,” my aunt said. “After that, your Delhi vegetables won’t suit you.”
My aunt’s pet project had always been her flower garden; this passion for homegrown vegetables was new. But she wasn’t alone—I found that everyone I visited either had a vegetable garden, or was planning to start one. Vegetable plants had even become a hot topic of conversation, their growth, health and, sometimes, death discussed with the kind of excitement usually reserved for the rise and fall of gold prices.
This was surprising, since Kerala has over the past few decades moved away from its traditional farming culture. A 2001 report of the state’s Department of Agriculture had noted that 68 percent of vegetables traded in the state came from the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Many men and women of my parents’ generation had worked in white-collar jobs, and let their ancestral land lie fallow, never really seeing farming as a source of a regular food supply. The occasional household terrace garden was enough of a novelty to feature as a story in Grihalakshmi or Vanitha, popular fortnightlies aimed at women. In the last few years, these gardens appear to have become commonplace.
The present change has its origins in a Rs 7 crore project run by the central-government-funded State Horticulture Mission (SHM), termed ‘vegetable initiative for urban clusters’. In Kerala, the project aims to produce, in the current financial year, 22,500 tonnes of vegetables, worth Rs 33.75 crore, through rooftop cultivation in urban areas, and an additional 18,698 tonnes of vegetables, worth Rs 28 crore, in peri-urban areas.
In the 2011–2012 financial year, when the first phase of this programme was launched, the Kerala SHM targeted the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram and areas around it. “In and around the metro, 30,310 households in 740 residential colonies took part in the programme,” said Dr K Prathapan, director of the SHM, whom I spoke to over the telephone on my return to Delhi. His teams conducted awareness classes on weekends, at which they explained how vegetables could be grown pesticide-free on terraces. Following this, to each of these houses, they provided 25 grow-bags filled with sand, topsoil, and either vermicompost or coir pith. The bags with these three components, in a 1:1:1 ratio, were to be placed on terraces so that they would receive sunlight. Over the next few days, SHM staff would visit these houses and assist in the planting of seedlings, as well as coach participants on preparing bio-pesticides, such as neem oil and garlic emulsion, and tobacco decoction.
“We wanted to show people that one could grow poison-free food on one’s own terrace without much effort, and I believe that we have succeeded in it,” said Prathapan, adding that about 40 percent of the targeted households produced good yields and went on to buy new seeds and manure, as well as change the soil. However, Prathapan’s otherwise matter-of-fact tone turned sour when he spoke about those who abandoned the programme. “Ten to fifteen percent of the people just discarded the project,” he said. “For them it was not just enough that you cook the food and feed them, you also need to make sure that it is pushed down their throat. These are the kind of people that society should also discard. I am sorry for being sarcastic, but it was very painful to watch these attitudes.”
Prathapan says he realised in the first year of the programme that people rarely respect sops. “From last year we started charging Rs 500 for [25 grow-bags],” he said. “So now, since they have spent money on it, they take more care of it.” The initiative was extended to Kochi in 2012–2013, and to Kozhikode in the current financial year. Apart from the centrally funded SHM, the state’s agricultural department has also taken the initiative forward, making the scheme available in all 14 districts in the state.
To encourage more people to take up vegetable farming, Prathapan has ambitious plans to introduce seed vending machines across the state. “On depositing Rs 10, you get a bag of assorted seeds,” he said. “You can also buy individual seeds through the machine. I am trying to place machines in every district, outside railway stations, bus stands and panchayat offices.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article had stated that the SHM’s production targets were 22,500 and 18,698 megatonnes, instead of tonnes. The error has been corrected online.
Leena Reghunath is a freelancer based in the US. She was formerly the editorial manager at The Caravan, and has written for the New Indian Express, The Hindu, the Times of India and the Hindustan Times. She has a law degree and a master’s in English literature. Reghunath also had a brief stint as a public prosecutor and civil lawyer. She received the Mumbai Press Club’s RedInk award for her reporting in 2015 and 2018.