Siddappa, a pump operator with the water works department in Gundahalli village, Gulbarga, Karnataka has a vegetable garden right under the water tank he operates. Ask him where he got this idea from and he points to his son Manjunath, who studies in the village government school. Manjunath is one of many students at the school who enthusiastically take care of the vegetable garden started by his school teachers. The teachers were trained by UNICEF in bio-intensive gardening under the SWASTHH Plus (School Water and Sanitation towards Health and Hygiene) Programme.
The enthusiasm is not restricted just to the boys. In Gabbur village of neighboring Raichur, girls from Balakiyara Girls Govt. PrimaryThe initiative was launched by UNICEF in 2005 in 120 schools of Gulbarga, 200 schools of Raichur and 80 schools in Tumkur districts of Karnataka. School have found a new reason to come to school. They troop in early before regular classes begin so that they can tend to the plants sown by them. Headmaster Chandrashekhar Swamy says he never thought that such a simple thing could help in upping the retention rates. He says, “The girls have total ownership of the garden here and are really motivated to water and weed the plants and take immense pride in their vegetables. They don’t like to miss school for a single day.”
Parents too are in full support for the gardens which are helping their children have nutritious mid-day meals. At times the harvest is so good that extra vegetables are distributed in the village.
Michel Saint- Lot, UNICEF Representative for the states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka says, “Capitalizing on the experience gained by UNICEF in other countries, to enhance nutrition in the mid-day meals served in government schools, we introduced the concept of bio-intensive gardens wherein students learn the life skill of raising vegetable gardens and use the produce from the same to add nutrition to their meals.”
Under the intervention, UNICEF not only provides the materials to set up and maintain the gardens, it also trains the teachers. The trainings help teachers to in turn train their students to prepare plant beds and use the limited area to grow creepers and gourds and mulching to provide moisture to the plants. They also learn how to set up organic manure pits. “Bio-intensive gardening essentially is a non-pesticidal, organic way of raising vegetables. The idea is to grow cost-effective gardens without using much water and providing chemical free vegetables to young students,” says Subramaniam, the trainer at these workshops.
As a result, each school has at least 20x20 feet area set aside for the gardens. They also have at least one organic manure pit, and in some cases earthworm pits to produce manure. Sensing the merit of the gardens, some schools have also set up their own seed banks.
In dry regions like Gulbarga and Raichur where water is an issue, wastewater from the school pump is used to water the garden. Says Nataraj, the Shahpur Block Education Officer: “This programme is proof of what can be achieved with a little motivation. I have noticed that attendance has improved and dropout rates have fallen as a result since starting our bio-intensive garden.”
For Siddappa and his co-villagers, this has also meant an additional source of income in a region that is largely drought prone. The bio-intensive gardening project has effectively demonstrated how an exemplary programme can pass on from child to parent onto the community.
Vasuki Belavadi also contributed to this article.