How COVID sparked an urban farming boom in India

Gardens are sprouting across India’s cities. What comes next?

Ever since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, urban farming has undergone a surge in popularity across India. But why – and what can people and government leaders do to encourage this new crop of city farmers?

The world’s urban population has been growing for decades and will likely continue to do so. Unfortunately, many cities can’t feed themselves: instead, they depend on food grown outside city limits, often from the countryside or even imported from overseas. As most urban residents lack the space to grow their own food, they’re forced to buy food grown by farmers elsewhere.

With a rapidly growing – and urbanizing – population, India is home to some of the world’s most populous cities. Most notably, Delhi and Mumbai are the world’s second- and seventh-most populous metropolitan areas, with a combined population of over 50 million.

Yet urban poverty continues to endure in India, exacerbating food insecurity. The most recent National Family Health Survey found that nearly a third of the country’s urban children under the age of 5 are stunted, and over half of women aged 15 to 49 are anemic. Both of these conditions are often caused by nutritional deficiencies.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw millions of Indian urbanites confined to their homes.

“During the peak of COVID, people were locked inside their houses for almost two or three months,” says Sheetal Patil, a senior research consultant of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS). “There was a lot of speculation about how food from the market is not really safe, and so people started growing their own food to have safe and nutritious food for themselves and their families.”

During this stressful time, many also found daily solace in home gardening. Chandrashekhar Biradar, India country director at CIFOR-ICRAF, noticed that people were increasingly setting up gardens on their rooftops, balconies and kitchens for this reason.

“Urban gardening is not just about growing something green but about a connection with nature,” he says. “Nature really helps people feel good and also reduces a lot of chronic diseases and disorders that stem from a disconnect with nature.”

Urban farmers
Women farmers working on the outskirts of New Delhi. Subro Sengupta, Flickr

Not just food

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of urban farming is providing city residents with easier access to fresh, nutritious food – especially foods high in micronutrients like fruits and leafy greens.

But the growing sector offers plenty of economic opportunities, too. As small-scale farming is often labor-intensive, farms can provide jobs for the urban poor, especially if the produce is sold at local markets.

Urban farms can also provide much-needed greenery to battle India’s ferocious heat. One study found that the added plant cover could slightly reduce local heat in from urban and ‘peri-urban’ areas located immediately outside cities.

Biradar says rooftop gardens can also help keep rooftops cool on hot days, reducing the need for indoor air-conditioning because “if the roof is not heating, then the requirement for air conditioning goes drastically down.”

And just like parks and forests, urban farms can help prevent flooding by covering land with soil instead of concrete. This allows for more water to be absorbed into the ground like a sponge.

Urban farms have even been touted as a possible waste management solution: crops could be watered using treated wastewater rather than freshwater, and municipal organic waste can be used as compost, thus reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills.

A less tangible benefit that draws many people to urban farming is the ability to reconnect with nature, especially for city dwellers who may feel detached from the natural world. Spending time in nature has been shown to improve mental health, while community gardens can offer opportunities to socialize and build a sense of community.

Urban farm in Gurgaon
An urban farm in Gurgaon, India’s second-largest tech hub. Shashwat Nagpal, Flickr

Roadblocks

So, if urban farms bring such benefits to cities, why aren’t they already full of them? One major constraint is competition for urban spaces from other, often more profitable, land uses such as development. Soil and water pollution and water scarcity can pose similar obstacles.

And according to Biradar, some houses may not be structurally suitable for large terrace gardens. Some urban residents also struggle with a lack of gardening knowledge or concerns that they cannot produce enough crops for it to be worth their time.

Nevertheless, some local and state governments have introduced policies to encourage urban farmers, with varying levels of success. In 2008, the city of Pune launched a project to spur people to take up urban farming using allocated land, but it failed amid a lack of interest from top officials and local politicians.

Despite this, many community-level initiatives have been launched to help fellow urban farmers. A recent publication from the Indian Institute for Human Settlements showcases some examples. The Abhinav Farmer’s Club trains farmers in organic farming techniques and connects the 305 farmers in the Pune area with local customers, markets, and restaurants.

Meanwhile, in Bengaluru, the Garden City Farmers group promotes rooftop gardening by holding training sessions, running a quarterly fair and running a Facebook group for its members to share gardening tips.

Urban farmer in New Delhi
A young farmer at work in New Delhi. Subro Sengupta, Flickr

Sowing the seeds

Some businesses have even sprung up to ride – and hopefully nurture – the urban farming wave. For example, the Pune-based company Mrudgandh leases out plots of its land for city dwellers who lack the space to start gardens in their own homes. The pair of friends who run the business help customers select seeds, prepare the soil and feed it with manure.

The IIHS has also published an action agenda to promote Indian urban agriculture. It urges policymakers to recognize urban farming as a source of green jobs and provide certification courses for skills like terrace gardening and composting. It also calls on schools to integrate organic farming skills into their curricula and on cities to make vacant land available for community gardens.

“There are a lot of regulation gaps,” says Patil, “like how the space will be managed, who will have ownership, who will contribute in what ways, and who will take the produce. All those things need a little bit of formalization.”

Ultimately, Patil believes policymakers could lead the change by allowing some of the lawns around government buildings to be converted to urban farmland: “It could be a functional landscape where people find not only produce but also find mental peace.”

This article is focused on value chains in support of the work of the Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration Impact Program (FOLUR), with funding from the Global Environment Facility.

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