It has been over 40 years since the farmers of Vellakkal began sowing spinach seeds in sewage water. The lush green fields which provide the much needed iron content for the body have proliferated with time.
People are largely repulsed by the concept of ‘sewage spinach,’ yet the use of untreated sewage water for its cultivation has not discouraged farmers. Now, some of these farmers are making use of grey water from a sewage treatment plant located 100 metres away from Vellakkal’s solid waste treatment plant to make wealth out of waste water.
R. Paunthai (64), who has been living here all her life, says that the land that stretches to about 200 cents is filled with various types of keerai (spinach). “Arai keerai, pasalai keerai, murunga keerai, agathi keerai and Delhi palak grow in this area throughout the year in sewage water.
Earlier, the water was not treated but the Corporation officials now tell us that it is good for use,” she says. The best part about the crop is that it grows throughout the year with alternative rain and shine.
“Spinach cannot grow during intense monsoon season. If it shines immediately after the rains, the leaves will become pale yellow. We cannot sell these leaves. The weather in Madurai is good for us,” she says. Like Paunthai, several people across age groups in Vellakkal are engaged in spinach farming. Each cent of land requires the effort of four to six people. Thandu keerai grows best in this area and requires trimming every two months, says K. Muniamma.
R. Kasimagam, another farmer, says that after sowing, the leaves are plucked and dunked in sewage water to remove the sediment. “Though the process is repulsive, we continue to do it. It provides the necessary sheen and cleans the residual sand in the roots. The spinach also stays fresh,” he adds. Each farmer plucks and packs anywhere between 70 and 200 bunches of spinach each day as their day starts at 12 noon and ends at 6.30 p.m. The spinach is bundled and transported through goods carriers to various markets, including Mattuthavani’s central vegetable market and Paravai wholesale market.
J. P. Jeyanthi All, Chief Dietician of Meenakshi Mission Hospital, says that there is a stark difference in spinach grown in well and sewage water.
She says that many times, the spinach is not cleaned properly. This causes food poisoning, diarrhoea and stomach infections. She recommends organic products which are far more hygienic. “This may counter the opinion of experts but the true taste of good keerai comes when it is grown in sewage water,” quips Paunthai.