Nutrition gardens offer hope and health to malnourished children in Rajasthan

Using MGNREGA funds, the Rajasthan government is creating vegetable and fruit gardens to enable malnourished children to eat better through its Poshan Vatika initiative.

Madhav Sharma
| Updated: September 2nd, 2020

Nutrition gardens promise to eradicate hunger in children.

Three-year-old Raj, from the Bilvan gram panchayat in Udaipur, Rajasthan, was so malnourished that he was even unable to walk.  “The doctors at a malnutrition treatment centre in Kotda treated him and he is back home and walking again,” Raj’s mother Bijani Devi told Gaon Connection. Raj and his family are now beneficiaries of a government initiative called Poshan Vatika (nutrition garden) launched to tackle malnutrition in the state. Rajasthan has one of the highest incidences of child malnutrition in the country.

“Just outside our house, the government has planted a garden for us with vegetables and fruits. We will soon have green leafy vegetables to feed our child,” said Bijani Devi.

As per the 2011 Census, more than 10 million children in Rajasthan are 0-6 years of age .Of these,40.8 per cent are stunted, 38.4 per cent weigh below average, 23.4 per cent are physically weak and 8.7 per cent very weak.

In 2011, the Government of India did set up Malnutrition Treatment Centres at district hospitals, medical colleges and Community Health Centres where malnourished children from villages were to be brought by Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) and anganwadi workers. But the measure was not entirely successful as severely malnourished children from small villages were unable to access these treatment centres due to the distance and requirement of staying at these centres for two weeks period.

Hundreds of families find themselves in the stranglehold of poverty and malnourishment.

Of the nearly 12,000 malnourished children in Udaipur district alone, most belong to the tribal community, and are unable to reach the health centres for treatment.  

So last November, the district administration moved these malnutrition centres to the gram panchayat level and set up special camps in the villages, which greatly improved matters. “We treated 2,968 malnourished children at the panchayat level through 113 camps from November 2019 to March 2020. Children were treated during the day and could go back home for the night instead of being kept in the hospital for fifteen days,” said Anandi, the then collector of Udaipur, to Gaon Connection.

“After the treatment, the families were provided three months’ ration through philanthropic societies,” she added.

But while this move saw more children being treated, it did not provide a lasting solution to malnutrition as once they were treated and discharged, the children fell back into the trap of malnourishment-poverty-malnourishment.  

The decision was then made to adopt the Poshan Vatika model to address malnutrition at village level. Poshan Vatikas were introduced in Jharkhand in 2014 to tackle severe malnutrition amongst women and children there, and was later replicated in schools in Chhattisgarh on an experimental basis. 

A sustainable initiative

The Poshan Vatika scheme plans to provide a permanent solution to nutritional requirements of children once they have been treated for malnutrition.  The initiative was launched as an experiment in February this year, across 112 gram panchayats of 16 panchayat samitis in Udaipur district. The pandemic did cause a setback, but the scheme has resumed now.

Fruit and vegetable patches being prepared to receive the saplings.

Vatikas or gardens are being set up in the homes of the 2,968 malnourished children who were treated at the health camps.  “They will have seasonal vegetables like okra, lauki, turai, brinjal, tomato, chilli, pumpkin, peas, radish, carrot, cabbage, fenugreek and coriander, as well as fruit bearing trees such as papaya, sahajana, lemon, guava and mango,” Deepak Mehta, assistant director in Udaipur Public Services, shared with Gaon Connection.

The Udaipur district administration will bear the expenses of maintaining the gardens for a year, after which they will be handed over to the respective families. So far, the agriculture department has distributed seeds to 40 per cent of the 2,968 households, he added. Labour to work on the gardens is being provided by the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).  

A nourishing scheme

Two-and-a-half-year-old Shashi had a distended stomach, large head, very thin limbs, and was always sickly. Her mother Kali Bai of Gogrud village in Udaipur took her to a health camp in her village, where Shashi received treatment for 15 days and then discharged. “We will now be able to find fresh vegetables regularly and our children will remain healthy,” said Kali Bai to Gaon Connection.

The initiative is yielding results. The district administration, the department of agriculture, ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) and other social institutions rallied actively under Kuposhan Nivaran Abhiyan, a mass campaign to raise awareness on malnutrition amongst migrant families, first started in Madhya Pradesh 2015.

“Though it is early days, the scheme is a promising one. What we are doing now along with the support of the administration is working. There were 2, 968 children who were treated for malnutrition and now, Poshan Vatika will ensure that they have a supply of nutritious food through the year,” said Sarfaraz Sheikh, a social activist running Adivasi Vikas Manch in Udaipur district. “The model should be implemented across Rajasthan. It is a sustainable remedy for the scourge of malnutrition in the country,” he concluded.  Names of the children and their parents have been changed.