Twice a week, there is one class that Shehnaaz and her classmates in the eighth standard at the Government Model Senior Secondary School, Sector 28, look forward to — their time with spades and shovels, with pots, mud and manure, at the designated green patch in the school. It’s one hour of their current favourite subject, a class in organic gardening, protected cultivation and irrigation systems, conducted by avid horticulturist and Fieldman Group’s Rahul Mahajan. Free of cost for the kids, and funded completely by Mahajan, the aim of this new subject, says Mahajan, is to catch them young and bring these children closer to the environment. Mahajan is one of the few people in Chandigarh who’s taken up voluntary teaching in a government school after an appeal made by the UT Administrator VP Singh Badnore.
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As Mahajan eagerly hands out literature on organic farming, empty bottles to plant seeds in and packets containing seeds of garlic, coriander, spinach, fenugreek, aloe vera and lemon grass to the kids to sow, he shares how he narrowed down on this particular school and his future plans for it. “This is a school where kids from economically weaker sections study, and I felt this was a subject that would not only strengthen their roots, but also give them a skill, something they can develop into a career later on,” says Mahajan, who chose a shabby patch in the school and has turned it into a kitchen garden. He has also initiated a tradition of gifting a tree when it’s someone’s birthday in school. A weekly class initially, it has now been converted to a bi-weekly due to its popularity with the students. His plans are now aligned with that of the Governor of Chandigarh, Kaptan Singh Solanki, to see Chandigarh as an “organic city”.
Mahajan, who curated and suggested the subject, wants to introduce the subject to other schools, and also create a greenhouse at the school. “I am planning to bring in a sprinkler irrigation system so that they also understand the science behind it,” he adds.
Diksha Suri is another soldier in the club. It was in Auroville, many years ago, that she got a close view and understanding of natural farming, and how it was an integral part of the lifestyle of people there. Back home in Chandigarh, 40-year-old Suri, who runs Nature’s Club, with more than 50 members of varied age groups, decided to research, study and understand more about this kind of farming, and put it to use in her Sector 9 home. Inspired by people she met at the Organic India Fair two years ago, she picked up containers, manure, seeds, and began growing vegetables in her terrace kitchen garden. Today, Suri, along with a few friends, teaches people how to utilise the space available to them to grow vegetables, herbs and pulses. “The idea is to use whatever space we have, and grow as much as we can. It needs some effort and patience,” says Suri, who guides people on integral matters about vegetables, seasons, how to prepare natural manure, compost pits, natural pesticides and practical ways to use the terrace for organic gardening.
The tribe of people opting for natural food for health benefits is growing fast, with many keen to learn to use their spaces for not just ornamental flowers, but also vegetables.
A crusader for pesticide-free food, Raman Mann, was among the first in the city to organise a group of farmers from across Punjab and Haryana to start Chandigarh’s first organic market, now a weekly affair near the city’s riding school every Saturday. Mann, who has a farm in Ropar, also grows vegetables and uses seeds and manure from farmers growing natural food. “It has been a long journey to make people aware of the benefits of natural farming. It wasn’t easy and in spite of a growing customer base we haven’t found a permanent place for our organic market,” says Mann. The response to the market, however, has been heartening. Regular workshops, discussions and informal interactions make the place abuzz with activity. “It’s not just about selling, but getting them close to farmers, and making them understand the need to grow and buy natural food,” adds Mann. The administration, says Mann, can play a part in promoting natural farming by giving subsidies to farmers and also providing a permanent space for organic markets and workshops by experts.
Inspired by Subhash Palekar’s zero budget natural farming, city-based Seema Jolly began growing vegetables on an acre of land five years ago. Visiting farms where food is grown sans pesticides, Jolly learnt about getting seeds from other organic farmers, manure from farms nearby and making her own vermin compost and also using natural insect repellants. Now promoting the organic market, and getting more farmers and people to join the movement, Jolly often consults friends and visitors on how to grow natural food in their kitchen gardens. She also visits schools, and talks to children about the health benefits of eating natural and healthy. “We now have an organic space in apni mandis, but the government and people must join hands to have awareness campaigns about the harmful effects of chemicals on the soil, air and water,” says Jolly.