New Ideas From Rural India: Growing Food Without Land

There are two ways of looking at development. You can look at what communities don’t have – this is the deficit-based approach, what they don’t have, what you can bring in. On the other hand, our approach is, “What do the communities have?” They are hard working, they might have some natural resources, they have an affinity for their own environment and a historical knowledge of it. How do you use these strengths to help them adapt to the modern challenges of coping with livelihoods and dealing with health and education issues?

So for us the approach has been to understand first how the communities relate to their own environment, and give them enough self-esteem and confidence to try out new ideas.

Bihar is, by most indicators, the poorest state in India. It has 20% of the poorest people of India and is low on all quality-of-life and human development indexes: worst infant mortality rate, lowest per capita income, etc. Most people there are landless. We thought: We have tested our approach in Gujarat, so let’s see if we can apply those skills and knowledge to the state of Bihar. That’s how we became active in northern Bihar.

Growing Food with No Land

We place a lot of emphasis on community learning and also on staff learning. So we encourage our staff to go out and see other organizations, read things. One example of what happens is the landless garden program.

Two of my colleagues were a part of a multicountry exchange program, working on enterprise development. They went to Africa, and there they saw this gunny sack full of vegetables. They were very curious so they took photographs. We have what we call biannual learning-sharing meetings, where everybody listens and somebody shares what they’ve learned recently. So they showed these photographs and everybody felt they were striking because we had been wondering, “How are we going to improve food security for the Biharis if they have no land?” When they saw these photographs they said, “Boy, this makes sense.”

So they worked backwards from the photograph to design a system, tried it out in their own office and with a couple of villages, and saw that it was working. Now it’s a large program with government funding, and we’ve trained large numbers of villages to do it.

Here’s how it works: You take a gunny sack and fill it with soil around a stick. And when you remove the stick, you put concentrated nutrients in the hole, add water. And around the sides you poke three or four holes and there you put the seedlings. You do the seeding through the holes.

You plant a range of vegetables. And because it’s mobile, you put it out in the sun near your house. As the plants grow you can guide the vines to your roof. So a creeper vegetable (like squash) climbs up and all these vegetables start sprouting. You don’t need land. And it can be maintained by children or older people who can’t go to the fields – this is something they can manage. We train them how to deal with pests. Every family now has this program: they get about five gunny sacks, and that produces food sufficient for them.

Many of them now have eight or 10 sacks and grow other things. So we sparked an idea and it grows a life of its own. This is an example.

Why Contribute?

One of the things that attracted me to this organization was a nice quotation by His Highness the Aga Khan: “There are those ... who enter the world in such poverty that they are deprived of both the means and the motivation to improve their lot. Unless these unfortunates can be touched with the spark which ignites the spirit of individual enterprise … they will only sink back into renewed apathy, degradation and despair. It is for us, who are more fortunate, to provide that spark.” If they are touched by a spark then they will grow, they will have self-esteem. And we are more fortunate. I’m fortunate – I’m a middle-class Indian. There are many American citizens who are similarly privileged compared to the world as a whole.

I think giving produces a healthy emotion. When you give you feel good. I think people should give not because they feel guilty, but because giving is a good emotion. It’s good to give and share. India is experiencing a 8% growth rate and people ask, “Why should we give to India?” But India still has the largest population of the world’s poor: I think 24% of the world’s poor are still in India. That has not changed. India is still a place where we should give.

Apoorva Oza, chief executive of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme India, recently visited the Washington, D.C., office of the Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A., and discussed how good ideas travel, with the example of the landless garden program. For more information, visit the Aga Khan Development Network.

Photo caption/credit: Example of a “landless garden” in Bihar, India, growing from a sack with seed, soil and compost. The gardens improve household nutrition and income. Credit: AKF / Jean-Luc Ray

This blog is part of a series in recognition of the UN's International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, Oct. 17.