A look at life in Niravu, a resident’s association in Vengeri, that swears by its organic produce

Walls are sparse here. Hop, jump, climb up, slide down and one has crossed umpteen plots, a few houses and many gardens; not prim, puny ones, but gardens where grass is unruly, foliage thick and free. Niravu in Vengeri may well be the most well-known resident’s association in Kozhikode. It is our flagship – for organic farming and community living. The media sets aside many column space for its initiatives, ministers throng it, to inaugurate, applaud and proclaim it as a model worth emulating. It is a tax-paying resident’s association with a membership fee of Rs.10.

Amidst the fuss and the media attention, life goes on quietly here. What continues is the hamlet’s quiet determination to keep working, unmindful of distraction. People are comfortable with the attention and are keen to teach, but their beliefs are firm-footed. From a community that grew vegetables it needed; executed stringent methods for plastic disposal and ventured into entrepreneurship that was eco-friendly, Niravu, and, consequently, ward 10 which houses it and the neighbourhood it belongs to, is dreaming big. Niravu is set to take its locally produced vegetables to a larger market. Steps for it began with the launch of an official website – www.niravu.com. Supported by NABARD, the Niravu farmer’s club will take their surplus vegetables to the market by Onam. The association has taken a building on rent at Tali where Niravu LED lights are already on sale.

New step

Niravu’s decision to be a market presence is another small step in a long journey. “We do not believe in sudden leaps, but small steps,” says Babu Parambath, project coordinator. The residents meanwhile, 117 households to be precise, of which 85 are actively into kitchen gardens, are getting ready to produce a larger volume of vegetables. Till now, they took home what they grew, gave neighbours and loyal customers the rest. As part of its new initiative, Niravu will also collect vegetables from farmers whose produce has been verified and confirmed to be organic. Rules are stringent, says Babu, “Every vegetable at the shop will have a slip with the farmer’s name and place. So customers can get the produce tested too.” Niravu’s vegetables have already been given a zero-pesticide certificate by the Pesticide Residue Research and Analytical Laboratory, Thiruvananthapuram.

On a regular working day, it is largely quiet in the Niravu locality. “About 50 per cent of the families are double income ones,” says Babu. The obvious query is immediately answered. “We devote just half an hour each morning and evening to the plants. Except for potato and onion, I don’t buy any other vegetables,” he says. Most households boast a small patch and one sees the last remnants of a recent harvest. At Babu’s house, long beans and bitter gourd creepers make a canopy. On it hang, stray, lonely vegetables, left to ripe. Each season is an experiment and at Babu’s house, under a rain sheet, is an army of mud pots in which spinach seeds are sown. “We are planning more rain sheets in the community,” he says.

According to Babu, the new initiative plans at generating income with vegetables. “We believe a family will earn anything between Rs. 4,000 and Rs. 10,000 a month,” he says. It helps that most families have their strengths. Though at Babu’s house one finds an assortment – long beans, bitter gourd, spinach, bush pepper, ginger and more – his specialty, he says, is tomatoes. For Ramlath next door, it is fat bitter gourds. For Reeja Sathyan, little away, it is coloccasia. For Aruna, the homemaker, it is broad beans, and for Geeta Devadas, the one-and-a-half-feet long egg plant.

A few hundred metres away, at Asha Gopalakrishnan’s house is a cowshed, where a Kasargod dwarf, a gift from the Jaiva Karshaka Sangham, rests. It is from here that the organic nourishment for the plants – dung and urine – is collected. Outside the shed, is a small collection of large cans filled with cow’s urine. “Not a drop is wasted,” says a proud Babu. While the urine is given to neighbours for free, a basket of cow dung comes at Rs. 50. “The money goes for maintenance; they need to keep the cow’s surroundings clean”. In turn, the cow grazes in the vast spread of green, munching pesticide-free grass.

The community farmers mostly rely on traditional methods to keep pests away. A popular one is a mixture of cow’s urine and garlic juice. The best pest control methods evolved on default. Ramlath’s plump bitter gourds were a result of a can without a lid. While others sprayed their garlic mixture, she kept the large can with the mixture covered by a mosquito net under the gourd creeper following instructions to keep it in the shade. With the strong garlic smell never leaving the surroundings, pests were always at bay and her gourds healthy and large.

With the vegetables in place, seeds are what Niravu is turning its attention to. Geeta brings out small, polythene bags and paper parcels with an array of egg plant seeds. The ripe vegetables collected from neighbours are diligently deseeded and seeds sold for approximately Rs. 20 a pouch. The collected revenue is distributed among those who supplied ripe vegetables. “Last time, at an exhibition, we sold seeds worth Rs. 12,500 in two days,” says Babu. “Here, we have no ego,” Babu explains the spirit behind Niravu. There are no fixed dates for the 21- member executive committee to meet. “Whenever a need arises – once, twice or thrice a week — we meet at somebody’s sit-out and discuss and take decisions over tea. It helps that no posts in the committee are permanent. The president and secretary are chosen for a year. If their performance is exemplary, they get one more. All our roles are well-defined. We are clear in our minds about how to go ahead,” says Babu.

The Niravu Story

Niravu’s story is of the commitment of a few individuals and the support of generous government and quasi-government bodies and educational institutions. It began with what is now a well-documented survey, of the 1,824 houses in Vengeri ward in 2006. It was found that of the seven cancer patients in the ward five were women. “More number of women, cancer patients set us thinking. Doctors remarked that women were more in contact with pesticide-laden vegetables. Each time they washed and cleaned them, traces of pesticides entered their blood stream through little cuts and scratches on their hands,” says Babu.

Thereon began a community’s attempt to reclaim a way of life they had abandoned. Senior citizens who had long left agricultural work were called back to guide youngsters with their traditional wisdom on agriculture. Though Niravu, the informal community, was around since 2006, it became a residential association in 2009. To get their first patch of vegetable garden, the residents ventured out wide and far. All those who married into and out of Vengeri searched for seeds in their new and old neighbourhoods. Many vegetables found its way back to the Vengeri gardens, so too four varieties that were not known to have grown here before – square beans, elephant-trunk okra, medicinal ash gourd and the one-and-a-half-feet long egg plant, now commonly known as Vengeri brinjal. At Niravu, now about 30 acres of land is set aside for organic cultivation. Spare patches of land are devoted to paddy. Niravu and Vengeri first ventured beyond vegetables, when they were lead by their councillor K.C. Anil Kumar to harvest paddy in a 12-acre out-of-use land. The naysayers were many, warning them about the impossibility of paddy without fertilisers, labour crunch and non-availability of seeds. But the councillor stood firm, unearthed old seeds from distant relatives and went to sow the seeds, recollects Babu. Labour came in from the girls of Providence Women’s College who got the land ready for paddy. “Seeing them, our own children couldn’t stay away. Old timers polished their old sickles and joined in,” says Babu. Niravu could always garner attention and support. District administration officials and cultural representatives have always espoused Niravu’s cause, making themselves present at all functions. It was so when they sowed and reaped their first harvest, so too when they found a novel way to oppose protesting Bt Brinjal — by growing one lakh saplings of their indigenous variety. In 2013, the agriculture department supplied to 27 families that cultivated vegetables on over two cents of land with requisites – buckets, spade, drums etc. The CWRDM pitched in with workshops: one on water and soil conservation and another on organic farming. Niravu’s Jalasree and Jaivasree project were commended by the Department of Environment and Climate Change. At Niravu, they moved beyond farming. They have a system in place to dispose plastic waste. Four times a year, cleaned plastic and bottles, segregated and stored, are deposited at a designated place and taken to the recycling plant at West Hill.