Seeds of Change: Women in Bhalswa slums nurturing gardens 

- January 21, 2024
| By : Tej Prakash Bhardwaj  |

'Kyari to Kitchen' initiative empowers women waste-pickers to grow their own vegetables, turning adversity into green opportunities in the face of climate crisis.

TENDING PLANTS: Mufiza tending to the vegetable plants in her garden

Mufiza starts the day with watering her small vegetable garden. She meticulously observes it, uproots the unwanted weed and then puts some manure for the green spinach to grow. 

“This is the happiest part of my day,” says the 45-year-old.  

After tending to her small plants, she picks her big white plastic bag and starts climbing over the landfill to pick waste. 

She spends her entire day collecting metal, electronic parts, cold drink cans or even aluminium foil to earn a living for her family. A resident of Murga Mandi slum near the Bhalswa landfill, she has been picking waste for three decades now.

An entire day at the landfill helps her earn barely Rs 200. 

“Landfill is a dangerous place. Sometimes our hands and feet get cuts and bruises. Sometimes it suddenly catches fire. But I have to continue to sustain my family.” 

Mufiza says she started gardening with the help of Chintan Environmental Research and Action — an NGO working with the waste-picker community in New Delhi through its ‘Kyari to Kitchen’ initiative. 

“They asked me if I would be able to do it. Then I received some seeds, manure and farming tools among other things. I started growing different vegetables. It continued for a while and then I stopped buying vegetables from outside. My entire family feeds on this garden,” she adds happily.

“I started growing these vegetables around two years ago. My garden has methi (fenugreek), palak (spinach), soya, poi saag (Malabar spinach), and chillies. I grow my own vegetables and eat them during the season of Turai. It is very rich in nutrition,” she says while cleaning her small garden.

Mufiza and other women living near the Bhalswa landfill received seeds along with the training on how to grow them and cook them. The intervention was aimed at improving access to nutrient-rich food among women.

ON DUTY: Mufiza leaving for the Bhalswa landfill to collect waste

“This season I was able to sell the extra poi saag in the market. I earned some Rs 1,100 this season. However, this is a small garden. I can’t entirely depend on it for my family’s sustenance. Now I just buy onions and potatoes from the market,” says Mufiza.

Under the initiative, every slum has a ‘Climate Sakhi’, who identifies women needing intervention. These women conduct surveys, and understand the problems which need to be resolved in their locality.  Hema, from the Bhalswa Dairy, is one such ‘Climate Sakhi’. 

“I used to pick waste from landfill but now I work as a ‘Climate Sakhi’. I am responsible for issues people, especially women, face in this locality,” she says.

Every week they meet and discuss the problems to find solutions. Whether it is about waste burning in the area, excessive air pollution, sanitation or the changing climate. They try to find solutions with whatever little resources they have.

Chintan conducted a survey in February 2022 among 5,000 women in eight slum areas of Delhi and found that 79% of the women reported prioritising men’s food intake.

“The motive behind ‘Kyari to Kitchen’ initiative was to improve nutrition level among women. Although most women grow only for personal consumption, sometimes during a good season they can earn extra income by selling the produce in the local market,” she adds.

Anemia caused due to iron deficiency is a big issue among women here. That’s why we started with focusing on greens first, she adds.

The initiative recognises the problem that women eat the least nutritious food, eat the least amount and also eat at the last in the family. It started with the idea that if women can grow their own vegetables, they can meet their nutrition demands showing resilience to climate change and poverty.

The women were also given training on how to plant and cook green vegetables to keep the nutrition level intact. 

“We were trained to cook palak and other greens in such a way that it doesn’t lose nutrients,” she adds.

Mufiza is not the only one tending to small vegetable plants. Some 600 women near the Bhalswa landfill grow vegetables for their family consumption through the non-profit’s ‘Kyari to Kitchen’ initiative in 2021.

The initiative, however small, has worked for many families near Bhalswa. 

“There has been a lot of improvement in our diet. These vegetables are grown using clean water and are hence healthy,” adds Mufiza.

Working on landfill, the burning of waste and chemical fumes expose the waste-pickers to respiratory issues. 

“In fact, most women in the locality suffer due to iron deficiency resulting in low energy and poor health. Growing green vegetables and consuming them the right way have improved iron levels,” says Mufiza on how eating greens has improved her health.

Success has not been very easy. 

“The soil and water are extremely contaminated here. Unseasonal rainfall and leaches pose a big challenge for me,” she adds. 

Delhi has also been experiencing extreme weather conditions. The current climate crisis has a disproportionate impact on women. 

SEGREGATION: Waste collected and segregated from the landfill

Climate change is a “threat multiplier”, which intensifies socio-economic and political tensions and exacerbates existing gender inequalities, thereby posing unique threats to women’s health, livelihoods, and safety.

“I have spent all my life in garbage over landfill. I feel very good here. I come here in the morning to water my plants. I feel very good when I sit here. It has made a big difference in my life,” she expresses.

However, not everyone in the locality has space like Mufiza. Priyanka, a ‘Climate Sakhi’ working with the non-profit, says, “I do not have an open plot. So, I have grown vegetables in pots over the roof-top. It is not much, but enough for my family.”

(This story was produced with support from Narender Revelli National Media Fellowships 2023.)