Chhattisgarh is one of the world's worst places to raise a baby, let alone be one. The state in central India has some of the worst health indicators in the country, including sky-high child mortality and extreme malnutrition.
For decades, aid organizations tried to improve the health of moms and babies in Chhattisgarh. Little made a dent. But then a garden of flowers rose up in the state.
In 2012, a group of tribal leaders worked with nonprofits and the government to launch the Fulwaris, which literally means "flower beds" in Hindi. Fulwaris are a network of nurseries run entirely by moms in the community who take turns feeding and caring for each other's children.
Each day, two mothers volunteer to make lentils, rice and eggs for babies, toddlers and pregnant moms in the village. The mothers also teach the kids lessons and create toys out of scrap material.
The impact has been clear. Malnutrition dropped by nearly a quarter among children in Fulwaris, the State Health Resource Centre of Chhattisgarh reported in September 2013. Maternal health also improved because volunteer moms had more access to nutritious foods and learned how to track their weight and their children's weight.
On a sunny January afternoon, the Fulwari in the Surguja district was buzzing with babies. While one snoozed under a mosquito net, toddlers waddled around, shaking colorful rattles made out of crushed bangles in old plastic soda bottles. A few 2-year-olds sat cross-legged on a rug, stuffing rice and egg into their mouths with impressive speed.
Eggs, leafy greens, lentils — these are the obvious benefits of coming to a Fulwari in a state where 1 in 3 children go hungry. It's enough to keep the kids, and the pregnant mothers, coming back.
"Sometimes it's hard to get the children to eat the vegetables, but they always love the eggs," says Brindavati, one of the young moms supervising the nursery that day.
But there's more to Fulwaris than filling up empty tummies, says UNICEF's Sheshagiri Madhusudhan, who has worked with the government to design the centers. The toys and social interactions also make sure kids get the stimulation they don't always get at home. Six months to 3 years old is one of the most important times for children in terms of brain and psychological development, he says.
"In most cases, what keeps parents from having a loving environment [in their homes] is the sheer need for survival and livelihoods," Madhusudhan says.
For 22-year-old Mina, a beautiful mother in the village of Jamkani, the centers have meant freedom to farm and collect forest wood while her child is safe. And her home has changed because of habits promoted by the Fulwari: The family now washes their hands regularly and puts healthy oil in their food.
"We want our children to be smarter than us and get a job," Mina says.
Another ripple effect of the Fulwaris is lower rates of alcoholism among the mothers who participate, says Santosh Patoda, who has been working with the state government to assess the program's health effects. The centers teach moms good habits, she says.
Fulwaris don't cost the India government much money. Taking care of and feeding one child each day costs about 6 rupees (about 10 cents). That's one reason the penny-pinching state of Chhattisgarh was willing to invest 200 million rupees ($3.2 million) in the Fulwaris last year.
Right now, the program reaches about 3,000 children through 300 centers. But it will expand and reach 40,000 children and 17,000 young mothers in 19 districts by the end of this year.
Fulwaris aren't foolproof. Funds often come in from the government weeks or months late. Mothers have to use their meager savings, or they have to shut down the nurseries, sometimes permanently, because they don't have the money to run them.
Even so, "flower beds" are cropping up across the state. And mothers, like Brindavati, are relieved that their children have somewhere to go. "We grew up without proper food, without a chance to stay in school," she says, nursing her 10-month-old baby under the folds of a turquoise sari. "Their lives are different."