In spite of the steady decline observed in maternal, infant and child mortality, much work remains to be done to tackle undernutrition among women of child-bearing age, adolescents and children under 5 years.
National Family Health Survey 2015-16 (NFHS-4) cites that in Jharkhand, 70% of children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years, and 65% of women ages 15-49 years are anaemic. These high rates of anaemia are attributable to the low iron content in women’s diets from early childhood into adulthood, which has consequences for children’s physical growth, mental development and performance in school. The NFHS-4 further notes that nearly half (45%) of children under age 5 in Jharkhand are stunted and 29% are wasted.
Undernutrition in rural communities can be traced to a dearth of information about nutrition, as well as the unaffordability of nutritious food. The introduction of mono-cropping and the shift in agriculture to a market-driven economy brought in with the Green Revolution in the 1960s in India, drastically reduced crop diversity. With cash crops taking precedence, households shifted from producing a range of cereals, pulses and vegetables themselves, to purchasing them from the market. Although vegetables help combat malnutrition by providing essential vitamins and minerals essential for children’s development and overall good health, India’s present vegetable production level permits a per capita consumption of only 120g per day, against the recommended daily intake 300g.
In Jharkhand, Digital Green is working with Mahila Kisan Sashktikaran Pariyojana (MKSP) and the state Livelihood Promotion Society (JSLPS) on an integrated approach to address the immediate determinants of undernutrition, particularly consumption of adequate food and nutrition. The work is part of the Samvad project funded by the US Agency for International Development, which is working with state Rural Livelihood Missions, state-level agencies of the National Health Mission, and multiple non-governmental organizations to employ video- and other ICT-enabled approaches to increase adoption of optimal maternal, infant and child health and nutrition and family planning practices in Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand.
Through community videos they watch and discuss together, facilitated by the frontline workers (FLWs) trained through Samvad, the women farmers learn about health and nutrition practices, initially focusing on the first 1000 days (which start at the identification of pregnancy and last until the child is 2 years old) for both mother and child. The videos focus on dietary diversity during pregnancy, exclusive breastfeeding, complementary feeding, and so on. Once the groups understand health and nutritional requirements for healthy development, the FLWs guide them in discussions on options for bridging dietary diversity gaps, including backyard agriculture or kitchen gardens. MKSP and JSLPS are successfully promoting agri-nutrition gardens as a year-round source of fruits and vegetables.
After discussions with stakeholders on field conditions and land and water availability, Digital Green developed a model for an agri-nutrition garden, which details the size (about 50 square meters), layout, and options for maintaining a diverse selection of vegetables and fruits by season. The garden boundary and rooftop can be used for climbing plants. The model advocates organic, non-pesticide management practices and compost production. Households use a Jalkund, a pit lined with a polyethene sheet to store household wastewater for irrigation. Establishment of community nurseries ensures timely availability of saplings.
During the last kharif and rabi seasons (2018-19), more than 12,000 community members planted agri-nutrition gardens in Jharkhand.
Almost every garden developed during Kharif season was continued through the next (Rabi) cropping season, showing their importance to the women who plant them.
Many women farmers from the Tilaiya village mentioned that maintaining the small gardens, which they call a ‘poshan bagicha’ or nutri-garden, allows them to diversify their families’ daily diets to an extent not possible when they had to purchase vegetables from the market. In addition to this, they are also saving the money they used to spend purchasing vegetables (an average of Rs. 200-300 weekly).
While interacting with community members in the Tilaiya village of Ramgarh, I realized that the extent of adoption of the practice of growing and tending agri-nutrition gardens, and the communities’ ownership of them, is attributable to the informal convergence in the villages of frontline workers from different domains and departments. MKSP FLWs, known as Community Resource Person or Aajeevika Krishak Mitra, screen the health and nutrition videos and talk about dietary diversity and other issues using platforms such as Anganwadi Centres (AWCs) and Village Health and Nutrition Days, where Anganwadi workers and/or Sahiya are present to discuss the issue with further clarity and details.
Anganwadi Centres have planted model agri-nutrition gardens (either at the centre or nearby) so that women can visualise how a small garden in their backyards could meet their families’ year-round dietary requirements for fresh fruits and vegetables. FLWs from the National Health Mission, the Department of Women and Child Development and NRLM share this common Anganwadi Centre platform for meeting and discussing household health and nutrition issues, and how to meet nutrition needs by developing a small agri-nutrition garden.
This intervention has empowered women socially as well as economically. Each month, they save up to Rs. 1,000-1,200 by growing their own vegetables, which they use for household needs that were previously difficult to meet. They also share or exchange the surplus vegetables from their gardens with needy community members and neighbouring farmers.
This concept even received an award in the state – see our Facebook update here!