With help from FAO, a community of lepers is growing food crops and fish in a sprawling colony on the outskirts of New Delhi
Shahadra, 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 neighborhood 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 done so well that the Society has been able to reinvest in additional projects and diversify its operations.
Part 2: Little pond, big fish
A modest investment and lots of hard work pay off
In 2001 Shahadra’s Gandhi Leprosy Society teamed up with the South Metropolitan Rotarian Club of New Delhi and approached FAO with a proposal for another project: a fish farm.
A small, one-time investment of US$4 000 by FAO’s TeleFood Campaign paid for a well and pump, 50 000 fingerlings to get the crop started, one year’s worth of fish food, and some additional inputs.
TeleFood holds international fundraising events and directly invests the proceeds in small, self-sustaining projects to help poor families in food-insecure communities like Shahadra produce more to eat.
The Rotarians matched TeleFood’s contribution, paying for additional equipment and some construction costs, and Society members pitched in and dug the fish ponds by hand.
Two and a half years after their first harvest in October 2001, the Society continues to successfully grow several kinds of fish, including magur (Clarias batrachus), rohu (Labeo rohita), bhakur (Catla catla), mrigal (Cirrhinus cirrhosus), common carp (Cyprinus carpio carpio) and grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella).
A retired aquaculture expert previously with the New Delhi state fish warden’s office, Ganysham Singh, 66, helps the Society manage things.
Decisions regarding when to net and sell fish are made based on the size of the current crop and on local market conditions.
When prices are up, the Society calls a fish seller who comes and nets the fish for them and then transports them to New Delhi for sale.
“If we sold them ourselves at market, we might get around 23 or 24 rupees per kilogram after expenses because it costs money to transport the fish and have a stall,” explains Surinder Singh, 25, a Society member who works on the pond and the farm.
From the seller, the group gets around 35 rupees (US$.79) per kilogram, but the price can rise occasionally to as high as 60 rupees/kg.
The Society earns around 500 000 rupees a year – just over US$11 000 – from the fish farm.
Half of this money is reinvested in Society projects, and families with members who are sick or handicapped receive a free ration of fish, while neighbors buy at half price.
In three short years the Society’s aquaculture operation has done so well that the group has been able to invest its profits into yet another project: a poultry farm.
“When they saw that the farm and the fishing could bring a better income, some younger members in our community said we should build a poultry farm,” explains Athhan, 58.
He is one of the earliest residents of the colony and this year is serving as the elected chair of the Society’s council.
The Society saved around 8 500 rupees from the sale of fish and approached the Rotary Club with their idea, he explains. The Rotarians decided to match those funds.
According to Athhan, the group hopes to save as much as 1 000 rupees per month per person through the poultry farm.
“Now the youngsters have more projects they are thinking of,” he says, gesturing to Satayan Das, 35, the secretary of the Gandhi Leprosy Society and a driving force behind its projects.
“We’re always looking for more to do,” says Das. “We would like to establish an orchard and open some small shops. But it’s hard – especially the technical aspects. We need more knowledge, more training.”
Part 3: Small drop, wide ripples
Alongside the fish ponds and farm fields, something less tangible – but equally important – has been built in Shahadra
Community members agree: the projects they started with help from FAO have changed things in Shahadra.
“There have been lots of improvements in the way we live. We are more comfortable than we were 20 years ago,” Athhan says. “Before, we had nothing; now we are living comfortably. The fish project is bringing us extra money. We can buy things, pay for our children’s weddings, fix up our houses.”
Nathiyadevi nods. “Before these projects there was no way for us to make money. Now we have a way to grow food for ourselves and even save a little,” she says. “We get shares of fish, wheat, rice and vegetables. We are not hungry any more.”
She adds: “Before, life was unpredictable. The worst thing was not knowing where the next meal was coming from. Now it’s not like that.”
With their extra money, Nathiyadevi’s family can now make capital improvements to their small, one-room home in the old army barracks, such as buying whitewash for the walls. Last October, they purchased a used refrigerator to keep their food fresh longer.
Building social capital
But beyond such material improvements something less tangible, but equally important, has been built here too.
Athhan gestures to the fields, the pond, the chicken coop. “Because we have done all this,” he explains, “we feel more confident in ourselves.”
Says Surinder Singh: “Working on the projects has brought us closer together. Each of us feels responsible; if others are working hard, then we should work too.”
“I always told the children they must provide for themselves and that with a project like this if they work hard, then it will give back to them and they will be able to take care of themselves,” his mother adds.
Surinder, who has been involved in the FAO projects for seven years now, also works off and on in construction, earning around 135 rupees a day.
“Because I have these skills on different sides, I am confident that I will always be able to find work and take care of my family,” he says. “Because of this, I hope that my son will get the best education possible. We’ll see what he can do then.”