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article imageIndia's fight against hunger, malnutrition gathers youth power Special

By Stella Paul     Apr 5, 2013 in Food
In villages across the conflict zone of Chhattisgarh, India, young men and women from the most underdeveloped communities are leading a silent movement against malnourishment and hunger
Kanker: Khemwati Pradhan, 21, has never been happier. It’s mid-March and the temperature has already touched forty degree Celsius and the soil in Sindurimeta, her village in central India’s Chhattisgarh state, has turned so dry, it feels like parched paper. For the villagers, this is the season of ‘Aakal’ – local name for famine as there is nothing growing on their farm. Yet, nobody in the village this year has migrated to the city to search of work or food.
“Normally, by this time, half of the village is empty as all the able-bodied people migrate. They return only when rain comes. But this time we have enough work and food to pull ourselves through the summer,’ says Khemwati who, along with a group of youths, runs a small food processing unit that produces a multi-grain cereal. Available in the packets of 1 kg and 2 kgs, the target consumers of the cereal are infants and young women. But, for Khemwati and her fellow youths, it is the cereal that also saves them from the pangs of hunger in this terrible summer.
A young woman heats oil in a large wok in Kurri village of central India to fry grains for making th...
A young woman heats oil in a large wok in Kurri village of central India to fry grains for making the cereal.
Cultivation in Sindurimeta village, like the rest of the district where paddy is the main crop, has always been dependent on rain. The sowing is done during the monsoon and, once the harvest is over, there is a long dry spell of joblessness as there is no means to irrigate their fields to grow a second crop. For those like Khemwati who have little land of their own and are, therefore, majorly dependent on daily wages earned from helping with other farms in their neighborhood, this lack of water and stalled cultivation means no money, and no food.
‘A kg of rice costs Rs 36, a kg of daal (lentil) costs Rs 90. If we don’t work even a single day, we can’t afford a square meal of rice and daal, let alone other things. This is why we migrate, says Narayan Kumar, who, at 27, is already a veteran migrant, having left the village past nine summers, to work as a laborer in cities like Nagpur and Mumbai.
This year, however, Narayan is at home, working with other cereal producers. Assigned the job of procurement, Narayan goes to the city once or twice every month, collects bags of grains from the government-owned warehouse and brings them to the village. It’s also his job to help package the cereal once it’s ready and then supply them to Anganwadi – a government-run community health and nutrition center.
The money, collected from the sale of the packets, is split evenly by the group members. Narayan says that he earns about Rs.3, 000 per month. It may not be a princely sum, but helps him feed stay home, among his loved ones, and feed them as well. “It is far better than working in a construction site all day in the sun, sleeping in a makeshift tent and earn Rs.5,000 (per month) from which you can save nothing to bring back home,” says Narayan who has a wife and a three year old child to support.
Narayan and Khemwati are among a hundred locals who have been trained by the government of Chhattisgarh to produce the cereal and earn a living.
Says Anupama Singh, a government official in the department of Women and Child Welfare who works on the scheme, “This is (a scheme) initiated by the government to prevent malnutrition among children by providing them a 'Ready to Eat Food' powder which provides proper nourishment. We supply 750 grams of the powder, free of cost, to children under the age group of six months to three years, lactating mothers and pregnant women every Thursday or Friday. At the same time, this scheme allows locals, instead of an industrial house, to produce the nutrition supplement. This way, it provides them employment opportunities.”
The scheme has so far worked well. In dozens of villages across the state, men and women have been successfully running their own village-based cereal production units.
While the government supplies on subsidized rates the grains – wheat, millet, soya beans, pea nuts and sugar, the rest – electricity, cost of packaging and transporting are borne by the production group. In most groups, men take care of the post and pre-production duties, while women like Khemwati are engaged in producing that includes cleaning, drying and frying of the grains, as well as grinding and mixing.
The food, which is delivered under this scheme, is served to the children after mixing them in boiling water. Adults, including both pregnant women and mothers with infants, usually take the cereal as a kind of sweetened snack.
Dilip Sahoo, a young health activist in Kanker who has been educating local villagers about the nutrition scheme, says that young women who find it very difficult to work outside their village, have particularly benefited from the scheme. Says Dilip, “In most villages here, the young people are a vulnerable lot. Due to the ongoing Maoist insurgency, most rural employment projects such as road widening and new road construction are stalled because the Maoists won’t allow them to continue. But, sitting at home is not an option as there is a lot of poverty. So, the only way out is leaving their homes and migrate. But, living in the city means spending all that they earn as laborers. For women especially, it also means threat to their physical security. Getting a chance to earn a living right in their own village, therefore, is a blessing.”
However, for some of the youths, turning food producers is not just about earning money, but also empowerment. An example of that can be seen in Vihiri village of Rajnanadgaon district. Here, over twenty Dalit men and women have, for the first time, found the power to have a say in their village affairs, all thanks to their new role as cereal producers.
The cereal that the village youths produce is providing the much-needed nutrition to young children ...
The cereal that the village youths produce is providing the much-needed nutrition to young children of their own village
Says Bhan Sahu, who heads an NGO called Jurmil Morcha and has produced a documentary on the nutrition supplement scheme, “Previously, when they worked in others’ fields or on other employment projects, they were paid less wages than their non-Dalit counterparts. As for the women, it was their husbands who often collected the payment on their behalf. But now, each of the groups has a bank account and the money that they earn comes to a bank account that their group owns. So now, nobody outside their group can withdraw this money. They receive equal pay and share equal work burden. This is real empowerment, where a young man or woman discovers her own strength and ability to do anything.”
However, there are also challenges faced by the rural youth entrepreneurs. The biggest of them is storing the grain well, so their quality will not be compromised. In most villages, the producer- groups run their little factories out of a cowshed or a deserted granary where pest attacks are rampant. Also, in monsoon, leaked roofs and rain threaten to damage the grains, causing fungus and a rotting smell to the cereal they produce.
'The solution is', says Rajwant Dugga of Kurri village in Narayanpur district, 'to come together as a community and find a way out'. The twenty three year old who is a member of the cereal-producer group in his village, recalls how they had no storage facilities and ran their business from a cow shed. However, eight months ago, the youths of the village appealed to the village council for help. Accordingly, early this year, the council built a grain store with the help of the villagers who worked for a month and were paid wages under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act - a government-run scheme to provide employment to the rural poor.
‘The villagers got work and earned wages while we got a permanent store to keep our grains. And now, we can provide better quality cereal to the children of the village” says Dugga, whose eleventh-month son is one of the many consumers of the cereal his group produces.
More about Malnutrition, Child malnutrition, youth power, youth leadership, Food
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