JAIPUR: For emeritus Prof Pushpa Srivastava, arrival of monsoon is not good news! "We can hardly cultivate spirulina' during this season, and our
income is the lowest in these months," she says. However, a second later, she adds, "Oh, don't get me wrong, our state is badly in need of monsoon, but spirulina cultivation is best possible in summers."
In its 10th year, the Manjul Spirulina Committee, under her guidance has been treating malnourished and anaemic women in the Burdhal village (Bassi) and also involving them in self-employment generation projects.
"It is interesting to look at how illiterate women are involved in a scientific project," Srivastava says. She has worked on a similar project for earthquake victims in the Saurashtra district in Gujarat.
The women, who work for three hours a day, belong to Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe category, and are paid Rs 1,500 per month during summers. "In rainy season, since the cultivation is less, I cut down on the number of workers as well as their salaries, but still we are barely able to recover the costs. There have been instances when I had to pay them from my own pocket," she says.
"We first gave 1 gm spirulina every day for three months to the women and children of the village. Some of them had haemoglobin levels at 4, where survival is impossible, but after they consumed regular dose of spirulina, their levels shot up to 11," Srivastava says with a twinkle in her eye.
Spirulina, an alga, is the richest source of protein available in the world. It also contains high levels of iron, and therefore, can cure malnourishment and anaemia in children as well as women, especially expectant mothers.
These women were later employed in the cultivation of spirulina in the village, and make spirulina tablets, biscuits, snacks and even papad' from it. "It is very difficult for rural women to move out of their homes and seek work. Therefore, when given a choice, I chose to work with them," she says. She recounts an incident which opened her eyes to the plight of these women.
"One day some women came to me and complained that one the girl is refusing to learn the name of the chemicals, which are used for the cultivation. When I asked her, she removed her dupatta' and showed me a deep wound on her head, told me Madam, I unable to recall my own name, how can I remember the chemicals' name," Srivastava says.
The project was initially funded by department of biotechnology, Delhi, but today it is an autonomous body run by Srivastava and the village women of Burthal. From a small cultivation pond, the cultivation work has now spread across an area of 230 sq mts.
The women first cultivate the algae in a pond with chemicals, which after 3-4 days is filtered, washed, dried into flakes and finally ground into powder form, which is then used to make tablets or other products. "I had purchased a drier to help these women dry the flakes faster, but as the village does not have electricity, it was of no use," Srivastava says.
Going back to the formative years of the project, Srivastava says, finding suitable land for the project was the most difficult part. "I had first approached the JDA, but nothing worked out, later somebody suggested that I should try and work in a village and study the feasibility of the project," she says.
However, convincing the village sarpanch was not an easy task either. "People were suspicious; they thought I was interested in seizing their land. It took me a lot of time, before I could convince them to allow me to work on their land and employ the village women. Many men raised their eyebrows, but the sarpanch was progressive so he finally yielded to it," a smiling Srivastava says.
Despite the project being a success, financial stability remains a major challenge for Srivastava and the women working under her. "We don't have regular buyers, and without a continuous flow of money, we cannot improve the infrastructure and expand the project, a few research students sometimes place bulk orders, but they cannot sustain us for a long time," she says.
"The biggest question that concerns me today is after me who will take over this work. I often think of closing down the project, but every time I look at the village women, I feel I cannot leave them in the middle of a sea," she concludes.