"We are not hungry anymore"
With help from FAO, a community of lepers is growing food crops and fish in a sprawling New Delhi neighbourhood
7 June 2004, Shahadra/New Delhi, India -- Seen through the yellow haze of early morning, this could be any farm in rural India. Small plots of mustard, spinach and cabbage line up in neat rows. Stooped figures slowly move through them, pulling weeds and tending roots. Talking together in low tones, a group of men tinker with a tractor. Behind them several geese glide across the surface of a pond whose waters hold thousands of fish, destined for sale at market in New Delhi.
On closer examination, though, additional details start to stand out: bandaged feet, missing fingers, old scars, a certain care in the way these farmers carry themselves. Then, too, there's the fact that the farm is ringed on all sides by a dense urban sprawl of cinder-block structures and traffic-packed streets.
The caretakers of this farm are lepers, members of a cooperative self-help association of about 140 families living in a government leprosy colony located east of New Delhi in the vast urbanized periphery that skirts India's second-largest city.
"When we came here there was nothing, the land was all open," says Nathiyadevi, 61, a leprosy patient who has lived here in the Shahadra Leprosy Colony since it was established some 20 years ago.
Today, around 6 000 people call Shahadra home. Not all are sick. Some are the children of lepers (the disease is not highly transmissible), and others simply moved into the neighbourhood that eventually grew up around the converted army barracks that formed the original colony.
Before moving to the colony, Nathiyadevi lived in a home run by Mother Teresa in New Delhi, where she worked as a cleaner. She had come to the city with her husband and children after her in-laws put them out as a result of her illness.
Times were hard, Nathiyadevi remembers, even with the free housing, food and medicine provided by the government. "We depended on one ration [of food] to survive. With the children it was not enough."
Homegrown food security
But then in the early 1990s things began to get better, thanks in large part to an FAO project that helped a group of colony residents convert unused land over to agricultural production in order to raise crops for sale and consumption.
Today the farm is a going concern, and the Gandhi Leprosy Society, as the cooperative is known, is producing a range of grains and vegetables, including rice, wheat, mustard, cauliflower, lettuce, cabbage, spinach, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots and garlic.
The land is subdivided into 16 plots, and responsibility for their care is divided among the Society's families. What is grown is distributed evenly between the family and the Society.
With its share, the Society donates a monthly food ration to members who are too handicapped by illness to work. Others in the community can buy the produce at half the market price. Seeds are purchased locally, and what remains is reinvested in the farm.
"At first it was only a small group working on the fields, but when others saw it was working they came forward to work too," recalls Nathiyadevi. "Also, before we had to go out and sell what we produce -- now people come to us."
The farm has gone so well, in fact, that the Society has been able to reinvest in additional projects and diversify its operations.
Read the related stories linked on the right to learn more about how, with support from FAO and the Rotarian Society, the Gandhi Leprosy Society of Shahadra is improving the food security of its local community, one project at a time.
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