If you work in any Indian metropolitan city, chances are that for long hours on most days, between you and the world is a pane of glass. The expensive ‘organic’ food you buy online likely comes to you three days old and cloaked in plastic film. You live in an apartment complex and if you’re fortunate to have a balcony, you can enjoy an hour or two outdoors on the weekend, with a view of more of the city's high rises.
But, an urban farming movement that’s taking root in Bengaluru’s Embassy Manyata Business Park could give office-goers an opportunity to reconnect with the land and enjoy better health and fresh, tasty food. As city-dwellers become more closely acquainted with the realities of depleting groundwater reserves and contaminated crops, questions plaguing Indian agriculture are making their way into corporate offices.
Workplace farming is nothing new - Japan and the UK have been successful in growing food on office rooftops and exterior facades and in indoor vertical gardens. Urban agriculture is known to raise property value by making productive use of unused real estate, make more nutrition available locally, get employees to appreciate the workings of the agricultural system and demand better food choices.
Spread over 110 acres, Embassy Manyata Business Park in North Bengaluru, one of the fastest growing hubs in the city regularly hosts a workforce of 95,000. The park’s landscape - mostly sprawling lawns and ornamental shrubs - represents a huge potential for urban farming, something the Embassy Services staff leveraged in June 2016 when it gradually began to convert 15 acres of available landscape into edible gardens for employees to tend and harvest.
The Urban Green initiative was the brainchild of Kiran D.T., Horticulture Manager at Embassy Services which manages the business park. He says, “Many of us come from agricultural backgrounds but have lost our connect with the land over the generations. Edible landscaping is a way for people to farm small areas of land and connect back with their food.” What began as a pilot project with 48 sixteen square foot plots outside one of the park’s 22 buildings quickly saw growing interest from employees and registrations far outnumbered the available plots. Today, the initiative covers 3 buildings with a total of some 170 plots growing fresh edibles that employees can take home.
Each garden grows six food crops: leafy and non-leafy, daily-use vegetables that make good companion crops and have relatively short growing cycles. Every three months, plots are re-allotted free of cost to employees and seeds distributed on a first-come-first-served basis.
"Edible landscaping is a way for people to farm small areas of land and connect back with their food.”
On a walk around the campus, I see formerly grassed areas abutting the internal roads now lush with baby corn, tomatoes, chillies, spinach, methi (fenugreek) and coriander. There’s even a patch of pigeon peas. It’s lunch break and people mill around the garden, examining eggplant blossoms and quizzing each other on the different plants they see. Others are kneeling in the patch, harvesting crops or looking for weeds.
All garden waste at Embassy Manyata Business Park such as grass trimmings and dry leaves are composted on site and used as fertiliser in the edible gardens. “We ensure that only natural inputs like neem oil and cow dung are used,” Kiran explains.
I meet Mallikarjun Reddy who works at Nokia and has a plot outside his office building. He says he registered for a plot because, coming from an agricultural family, he is only too aware of the state of Indian agriculture today and the rampant use of pesticides. “I know the value of good, fresh food,” he says. His first abundant spinach harvest left him with enough to share with neighbours and gardening staff. Hemalatha, another Nokia employee and also from a farming family in Coimbatore, shows off her freshly harvested methi. “My balconies at home receive no sunlight. I applied to be part of Urban Green so that I could do some gardening at work,” she says.
Employees visit their plots in their lunch breaks or after work and spend time during the week sowing, irrigating and harvesting. “We installed a drip irrigation system on a trial basis but the feedback was that it did not give people the connect with their gardens that manual watering does,” explains Kiran.
Everyone I speak to is unequivocal about the personal satisfaction the initiative has brought and the quality of produce grown. Satyaranjan of NetScout takes home a bunch of coriander everyday from his plot. He was lucky because his team of 5 got adjacent plots on which they farm a variety of food crops together. They harvest one crop or another daily and share the produce among themselves. He says, “There is a noticeable difference between the dhaniya we grow here and what we buy in the market. This one is greener and tastes much better because we don’t use any chemicals to grow it.”
Sachin, a software professional at NVIDIA mentions that he has seen nature’s cycle play out in his little plot without having to drive far out of the city to experience it. “Unlike tree-planting drives where one’s engagement level is low, nurturing the land, watching what you sow and being involved in growing your food is a long-term process. You immediately experience the result when you eat what you harvest,” he says, adding that he now knows what organic food really is.
"There is a noticeable difference between the dhaniya we grow here and what we buy in the market."
With the help of the landscaping staff, people are slowly learning the art of agriculture and experiencing the pains that come with it. Many I speak to mention that learning from the land has extended into their homes; they compost their waste for use as fertiliser in their terrace gardens.
Says Kiran, “Many people don’t know how food is produced, for example, they're unaware what brinjal seeds look like and are incredulous when I say okra doesn't grow on creepers. Urban Green hopes to bring people closer to their food because once they grow their own, they can be sure of its safety.” Because the plots are in public view, passers-by have a good view of them - a major reason for the rising demand for plots. The initiative has been a leveller of sorts with people of all designations working the gardens side by side, swapping seeds, exchanging tips on growing cycles and sharing their produce. The community gardens are also a space for people of different companies, otherwise disconnected, to meet over a shared interest.
“The idea was born because we have the space and wanted to let people use it as a stress-busting activity,” says Raj Gaurav Bhandari, Senior Manager (Corporate Initiatives) at Embassy Services. But the rate at which queries are pouring in from employees indicates a much larger potential for workplace farming. The Embassy Services team is piloting apiculture on site to increase awareness about the role of bees in pollinating food crops. Edible landscaping is a low-cost way to give employees an opportunity to go back to the land and incentivise the growing of safe food. Collective growing and sale of organic produce through regular urban farmers’ markets on the campus is on the cards once the programme scales, putting a real economic value to the gardens. “If, by using this idea, people are able to green their own homes or start their own kitchen gardens, that could be a solution to urban pollution at the individual level,” he adds.
As Indian cities turn into heat islands, there is a real case to be made for more open, green spaces. All the better if they take the form of community food gardens tended by citizens. Workplace farming is a great way for businesses to lower their carbon footprint, improve the microclimate of an area and encourage healthier diets. Environmental benefits aside, it is also be a way to engage staff in meaningful off-time activities and create an enriching work environment. Community farming could also be a potential conduit for increased off-the-job social capital formation leading to enhanced employee performance.
Maya is a social researcher by training. Her writing has appeared in Scroll, YourStory and The Alternative. She is the Founder of Eartha and tweets @Maya_Kilpadi.