While preparing for a larger survey this February in Sitapur, we were recording background information as well as the weights of all members of 20 families in Madhubana, an active sangathan village. Prakash, a senior Saathi, was in charge of this task. He came by later looking a bit upset – 'कोई मेहरूआ ४० किलो से ऊपर हो तो बताना' translating roughly to 'Do let me know if you find any woman weighing more than 40 kg?'.
We all know – anyone in this country who is willing to look into it knows - that the nutrition status of our people is grim. For those wading into nutrition research, the questions and debates are mind-boggling. Are people eating less today than 40 years ago because they have less or because they don't need as much (due to less physical activity)? Are the new demands on the food budget the cause for lower consumption? And what are these ideas and constructs of nutrition and height-weight charts anyway – aren't they just the legacy of colonial mindsets? And then are the lovers of technical solutions – wheat fortification is needed to reduce iron deficiencies, ready-to-use therapeutic foods are the answer and so on. One point almost everyone agrees with – the population as a whole is not getting enough proteins or micronutrients. More recent research is looking at diet diversity as a necessary factor for good nutrition - that is, the more types of foods you eat in each food group, the better your body can absorb essential nutrients. Another point that a small, but growing, group emphasizes is food security – there is a better chance of consuming certain foods if people grow rather than purchase them.
I have been hearing about the various grains, pulses, oilseeds and uncultivated greens that people used to eat in this region from elders ever since we started our millet-based mixed cropping initiative. In recent discussions, I realized that the landless labourers and marginal landholders had rarely eaten wheat or potatoes 40 years ago, and they were better off for it. Because most people practiced rainfed farming, there were a lot more pulses available – I heard about urad ki roti, moth ka sattu etc.
We are promoting pulses in our millet-based mixed cropping initiative, but the challenges of growing them are daunting. With the big farmers switching mostly to sugarcane, any grain or pulse is a magnet for animals. 3-4 years ago, we'd hear about the menace of nilgai (a wild deer) – how hordes of them would converge and reduce a standing crop to nothing in under an hour. We still do but in the last couple of years, an equal threat are अजर्रा (hordes of) or छुट्टा (loose) cattle. Last season, one of our farmers Tejram had a bumper crop of barnyard and foxtail millet in his three bigha (0.6 acres) plot. Early on, his crop had been raided by nilgai but the plants had recovered, and now he was guarding them day and night. But, one day in late September, he was not able to go look after his land. In a few hours, a horde of cattle had consumed the grain (which had been estimated at around 3 quintal) and stalks, leaving him with just 10 kg to harvest. He was in tears when I met him – 'मैं अगला साल ब्लेड वाला तार लगाऊँगा' - 'I will fence my field with blade wire next year,' he stated.
Blade wire is just that – wire with a sharp, blade-like edge. It is worse than barbed wire. There is a risk that it will hurt passersby or children. Around that time, we heard of an incident in another village where a cow had been cut by blade wire and died. The farmer who had used the wire was picked up by the police and later released, possibly after paying a bribe.
Fodder is expensive, the 2015 drought exacerbated the situation and common grazing lands are almost completely encroached. And of course, the near-disappearance of cattle traders in these parts means that cows past their milk producing stage are a liability. Now, with the crackdown on buffalo meat, even the buffalo trade will be wiped out. And perhaps buffaloes will join the roving hordes.
Many reports and articles are pointing out the protein squeeze people are facing with cheap buffalo meat no longer available, other meats too expensive and pulses also out of the reach of an average family. Growing pulses for home consumption was already fraught with difficulties and has been made worse due to abandoned cattle. But of course, gau mata and her cousin bhais mata will be saved from human cruelty.
I don't want to end this post on a bitter note. People on the margins, like our sangathan Saathis, are resilient and their cheer in the face of one adverse situation after another amazes me. Tejram will be planting millets and pulses again in the coming kharif season and has roped in two other sangathan Saathis to collectively farm with him. Other farmers are planning to grow moth and other pulses, and we have intensified our discussions about nutrition and its impact on health. It would be nice, however, if some government policy or programme would actually benefit these communities rather than become yet another adversity they have to weather.