Forget farmville, dig this

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Ethical eating has led urban Indians to grow their own food. Is it a fad or a new way of life? Sunaina Kumar  finds out

Green revolution Gynaecologist Deepali Prabhat and entrepreneur Vipul Sanghvi prepare compost soil at Maharashtra Nature Park
Photo: Vikas Munipalle

THERE IS NOTHING unusual about the Bandra street — cramped, grimy, choked by traffic — that Adrienne Thadani lives in. Up above, though, on the terrace of Thadani’s building, the cheerily painted walls offer the perfect setting to her rooftop garden. Here grow crisp lettuce, cucumber, spinach, okra and ripe red cherry tomatoes. The fresh fruits and vegetables here look sprightly, as if a testimony to the audacity of hope.

Thadani is an Indian American who moved to India to pursue art and ended up growing vegetables in her spare time. She is now a professional urban farmer and founder of Fresh and Local, an NGO that promotes city farming. It also conducts workshops in the city to teach amateurs, with over 100 people participating in the past six months.

The grow-your-own-food movement is popular in the US, Europe and Japan. In India, the rise of the ethical consumer has coincided with the growth in urban farming. Across Mumbai, Pune and Bengaluru, a movement is taking roots: city dwellers growing food on terraces, balconies and wall spaces. Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India campus recently converted a part of its land to a vegetable patch to provide to the hostel mess.

In Bengaluru, the University of Agricultural Sciences has been holding organic gardening workshops for citizens for the past two years. Rajendra Hegde, a professor at the university, says: “We’ve had about 130 people come in the past year for our workshops. They can afford space and time for gardening.” Urban farming also appeals to people trying to stay on a budget. Vinay Chandra started J-Garden in Bengaluru a year ago, a service for installation of kitchen gardens. He is convinced the food price rise is bringing more people to him. The consumption of a family of four can come from an area of 140 square feet with the first harvest within a month, followed by vegetables, like tomatoes, peas and cabbage, in the next two months.

Despite being at the forefront of the urban farming trend, Mumbai does not have the luxury of space. But citizens have countered that by taking over vacant lots in the city for growing food. Urban Leaves is a collective of over 60 volunteers in Mumbai who grow food at home. On weekends, they get together in public spaces to make them ‘green’. At Mumbai’s Maharashtra Nature Park, the volunteers raise fruits and vegetables on the water tanks.

Preeti Patil, a caterer in Mumbai, founded Urban Leaves two years ago to promote natueco farming, an organic school of farming that converts biowaste to nutrient soil. Her first challenge was the vacant bit of land at Mumbai’s Port Trust, which she converted into a garden. “We are trying to show that people can grow food in any available space. The input is so meagre, all you need is a patch of sunlight,” says Patil, whose family sustains almost solely from her balcony garden.

The tribe of city farmers that volunteers with Urban Leaves is a fascinating sociological mix. One finds doctors and teachers along with young children, corporate executives, lawyers and MBA students. These are people who have chosen to get their hands dirty instead of clicking on Farmville applications.

In the absence of space, Mumbaikars are using vacant lots and water tanks for growing food

What started as a hobby has transcended to a ‘cause’. Ubai Hussein, a 29-year-old former chef, has turned the idea into a successful social model of business with Hari Bhari Tokri. A cooperative of farmers, Hari Bhari Tokri delivers a weekly basket of fresh organic vegetables to 150 subscriber families in Mumbai from various pick-up points in the city. The farmland of over a hectare has been developed outside the city and each basket is priced at Rs. 100 for every two kg of vegetables (a seasonal mix of greens and veggies), about the same price as the retail market offers. “Most people are deterred by the idea of organic food because of costs. We keep our model price efficient by cutting down on the middleman’s margin.” There are 800 people waitlisted for the scheme, as the demand has far outstripped supply. Adds Hussein: “A lot of people even cash in on the fad to make a quick buck.”

Thirty two-year-old yoga practitioner Neesha Noronha’s small garden has been developed jointly with her friend Jumana Parkar, a 29- year-old former flight steward, who now teaches the basics of urban farming to schoolchildren. “My interest stems from the realisation that what we eat is increasingly unhealthy,” says Parkar.

The viability of urban farming has been questioned by naysayers, who insist that it is a cute but impractical idea, as cities need industries and not farms. But the enthused converts take it in their stride. For them every drop counts, or in this case, every pot makes our cities a viable space.

Sunaina Kumar is Special Correspondent with Tehelka
sunaina@tehelka.com