26 September 2012
I am visiting a village called Kanjoli in Melghat region of Maharashtra. This village, situated on a plateau at the fringes of Melghat Tiger Forest Reserve, is inhabited mainly by people of Korku tribe. Majority of the villagers in this area which is infamous for stories of malnutrition and infant mortality, draw out their subsistence not from the forest or their land but by migrating to other areas for unskilled labour work.
I am here for seeing the work that is being done on home gardens. The villagers have been traditionally cultivating some vegetables and herbs in the small plots around their house. In some of the households they also grow corn and pigeon peas in addition to the vegetables. Majority of these home gardens last for the rainy season and cultivation is stopped as the rains recede completely. Efforts are being done to revive these home gardens and to improve the diets of the people through the produce from the home gardens.
As I visit one home garden after another, women and men come forward proudly to show off their planted saplings and vegetables grown in their plots. One man shows his tree guard made to protect his Moringa plant. It has been made innovatively using stems of Besharam, a weed that is so abundantly found in the area that it is called Besharam meaning shameless. Another person comes forward complaining about yellowing that has started in his Papaya plant and worrying about whether it will stop producing fruits. One person shows us how he has planted some saplings and sown some vegetable seeds in the very limited space available around his house. I get a sense that people are quite excited about the intervention.
But then there are some home gardens which show very poor survival of planted saplings. One old lady while visiting her home garden demands that along with saplings she should be given some maintenance cost as well. In one home garden I see some cherry tomato plants. The plants have started bearing tomatoes and their weak stems have started falling on the ground because of the weight of the fruits. I suggest the farmer to stake them. The old man smiles and tells me that they have been grown like that for years and he does not have to do anything for it. Some fruits fall on the ground and decompose but seeds remain in the soil and plants come up every rainy season. I visualise a heap of cherry tomatoes sold at very high price by a vendor in Mumbai and here is a farmer who does not care about it. I see some aerial yams at one house which are becoming rear these days. I ask for its local name to the people around and many are not able to answer my question.
“Eh!” I exclaim as I see a horse roaming freely in the grassy patch outside one house. The animal comes as a surprise just by its existence in Melghat. “Whose horse is that?” I ask. The owner turns out to be just in front of me. “I bought it.” He says proudly. “Why did you buy a horse. Do you have some business carrying loads?” He frowns and answers, “Nope. It’s for my son. He wished for a horse and I had to fulfil his wish. Now he has his fun as he sits on it. The horse is very docile. He will also allow you to sit on its back in case you wish to click a picture of yours with that camera.” He winks and continues, “I bought it for 10000 rupees. I had to bring him through the jungle. I had to find my own way. It was a walk of two days and there was nobody to ask around also but I made it. I could not afford hiring a truck since I had exhausted all I had earned during my stay at the work site. And still I have to spend a lot since that horse needs special feed.” I start imagining how his son would be. He must be a cheerful lad. But the boy turns out to be a gloomy eyed and sad looking one. “Look at the mobile phone he is having. I have bought it for him. There is no network here but still he can hear music with it.” The proud dad continues but I don’t want to continue any more with that discussion in that village where school attendance depends solely on the midday meals served to the students and people migrate in desperate search of work just to fill their hungry stomachs. I move on.
It is the last day of Ganesha Festival and my mother is teaching her new daughter in law how to make Ukdiche Modak, a traditional Konkani sweet delicacy. As I relish one Modak and start unpacking my bag, I reminisce about strongly guarded Moringa trees and rapidly diminishing aerial yams. I smile to myself as the images of the horse and the father son duo flash in front of me. I look at the small plastic carry bag in which I had carried some cherry tomatoes for taking out the seeds. They are ripe but still not spoilt. “They won’t be able to come up on their own. I have to sow them consciously.” I tell myself.