India: Smiles under the sun

Rebuilding lives of drug users through community farming

"Subz Baag" is a 18 acre vegetable farmhouse which lies on the outskirts of south west Delhi. As the iron gate of Subz Baag opens, one sees a vast stretch of furrowed land with rows of turmeric plants, green patches of lime trees and vegetables mellowing under the summer sun. At the far end of the farm, their backs facing the sky, a few workers dig the fertile soil while others plant seedlings that lie in their wicker basket. A few others stand knee high in thick vegetation looking for vegetables to be plucked. This appears to be a normal scene at any farmhouse. Only this is not any farm and these are no ordinary farmers. Subz Baag is a unique farmhouse which is owned and managed by drug users amongst whom some are HIV positive.

In January 2009 SHARAN, a Delhi based non governmental organisation (NGO), started community farming as a means to strengthen the rehabilitation for drug users in India through this pilot initiative. The concept of community farming was introduced by 'Nayi Zindagi' a NGO in Islamabad, Pakistan. Mr. Rajiv Shaw from SHARAN who manages the community farming project explains, "one of the main challenges of recovering drug users in overcoming relapse is their social reintegration and acceptance in their families and society after treatment and rehabilitation. To address this challenge SHARAN uses community farming as a way to productively engage with drug users not only to rehabilitate them but also to ensure that their social, economic and health rights are also met."

Mr.Shaw explains that in his 20 years of having worked with drug users, rehabilitation and reintegration of drug users into the society can only be successful if the drug users can economically sustain themselves. At most rehabilitation centres they are medically treated and provided with psycho- social support. However, once they are released they are expected to begin a new drug free life. Very few begin that life as in India and in most countries of South Asia, drug users have no job skills, face social inequalities, live in harsh conditions and face stigma. They find themselves thrust back to the streets from where they were rescued. Eventually they resort to drug use and peddling to cope with their insecurities.

To be gainfully employed, the drug users need to be engaged into jobs that are not too complex in nature so that they succeed at it most of the time. The feeling of succeeding promotes their self perception of being achievers. Farming was seen as a possible solution since it is therapeutic and the land will reciprocate to their efforts by yielding vegetables, fruits and other crop. Another effect of farming is stress relief. Emotional benefits of farming derive from the natural rhythm of life that plants and gardens impart. It can divert thoughts about oneself and one's situation. In the garden, one can create and control one's environment which is empowering for the drug users. Since most of the drug users came from rural areas, they quickly took to farming even though they had never tilled land or planted a seed.

One of the drug users extends his arm to a big vegetable patch and exclaims, "I was found on the streets worthless and today I  grow vegetables with care. This farm is my home and I feel respected and useful here. There is no special treatment or rules for us drug users. We feel we are like any other normal person." Another drug user still suffering from an abscess near his knee from injecting drugs shares, "We all get Rs 4000 (USD 80) every month. We are provided with shelter and food. I paid for my family's travel expenses to come visit me. They stayed with me at the farm. Today they look up to me with respect!"

Although this initiative is returning the smiles and increasing the chances of social acceptance of the drug users, the challenge remains in transforming this initiative into a self sustaining effort once the project ends. As a possible solution to this problem, each worker will eventually be provided with a small piece of land, which they will use to grow vegetables and plants. The money from selling the produce will be entirely theirs. Such initiatives may not make headlines in a world were there are more pressing news to broadcast. But this pilot initiative is silently transforming the lives of the 25 people who were forgotten by society.