Since the earliest phase of human existence, man has always been integrally associated with nature, and thereby with land and forests. Shifting cultivation, commonly known as ‘jhum’ is one of the most ancient systems of farming believed to have originated in the Neolithic period around 7000 BC. The system is regarded as the first step in transition from food gathering and hunting to crop husbandry and is still practiced in the hilly areas of the north eastern states and in certain other pockets of the country.
Jhum- Meghalaya Profile
Jhum remains predominant among the rural population of Meghalaya and the estimated jhumia population of Meghalaya is 13.87 per cent of the total rural population of 18.53 lakhs in 2001. Although a clear decline may be noted from a steep 40.91 per cent engaged in this form of cultivation in 1971, yet its lingering significant proportion even after 30 years indicates problems that are more deep rooted.
Rapid increase in human population has resulted in corresponding heavy pressure on land and the jhum cycle has reduced drastically over the last few decades to an average of below 10 years and in extreme cases such as that of Garo hills to as short as 3 to 5 years.
In due course, this cycle may be scaled down even further. Without a sufficient period of recuperation and consequent capacity of the soil to regain its lost fertility, the immediate consequence has been a sizable reduction in the productivity of the jhum system. This has resulted in increased food insecurity and associated problems such as acute soil erosion and fast depletion of the valuable fertile topsoil, loss of flora and fauna, reduced availability of water both for drinking and irrigation, siltation of lakes and rivers and consequent floods, loss of valuable forest species etc. If we were to convert the above physical degradation into financial terms, the figures will be stupendous, hundreds of thousands of crores of rupees, a colossal loss to the people and the country.
Reasons for Persistency
The Jhum cultivators have been practicing this form of cultivation for generations and the socio-cultural and religious significance in their lives cannot be ignored. The shifting cultivators generally care for and even worship the forests.
While the systems vary from tribe to tribe/region to region, yet the belief of a good burn for a bumper crop remains. Also, jhum is perhaps the cheapest method of tillage involving minimal land preparation and insignificant capital investments in terms of manure and fertilisers.
Energy input is the only requirement which is largely contributed by family members. In the absence of land ownership rights, as the land belongs to the entire community, jhumias are unwilling to invest in land development activities and at the same time are also unable to access bank facilities.
Moreover, the jhum tiller finds his plot more sustainable as he can grow multiple crops for the sustenance of the family. In comparison wet terraces usually support monocrops. The tiller argues that the presence of different crops in the same plot can serve as an effective pest management system; sequential harvesting of crops is an effective way of managing many species over both space and time and contributes to agro-ecosystem stability, besides showing better orientation of nutrient use efficiency.
The long isolation of jhumias by such constraints as terrain and topography, deficiency in infrastructural support, historical isolation, and unbalanced economic growth and inadequate delivery of social services such as health, education, etc., must end if they are to look for other rural livelihood option besides shifting cultivation. The severance of their natural markets across the international borders has also uniquely disadvantaged the jhumias from taking up competitive agriculture.
Although jhum tillers have begun to realise the deleterious effects (dwindling productivity, labour intensiveness, poor living conditions, deteriorating environment) of this form of cultivation yet the lack of alternatives entrenches them in these systems. The jhumias, conscious of the monetised economy, would like to respond to the interventions in the form of inputs and marketing, yet are unable because of the lack of location specific and need based programmes and solutions such as allotment of wetland terraces into assured irrigation particularly among paddy growing tribes.
Jhum is commonly practiced in the West Khasi Hills and Ri-bhoi Districts of Meghalaya. Among the Khasi people, this system of cultivation is known as ‘Thang shyrti’ or ‘Thang bun’.
The essential features of the cultivation system in this region conform to the standard procedures. A site is selected by individual tillers according to the needs and size of the family, usually by end November to mid December. The jungle is cleared by end January and the debris left to dry. Once dry, by about mid February or March, the cut foliage is set to fire. Great care is taken during this operation to avoid the spread of forest fire in areas not selected for jhum. The sowing and planting of various crops now follows, undertaken in an intimate mixture by the method of dibbling.
Upland paddy (hill rice) is the main crop grown in mixture with maize, millet, sorghum, tapioca, chillies, cotton, turmeric, pumpkin, etc. Broom grass (Thysanolaena maxima) are commonly grown along with other crops in Ri-bhoi district.
The soils on the slopes of Jaintia hills are very ideal for turmeric while ginger is the most productive crop in Ri-Bhoi District. The land is tilled for about 2 to 3 years after which it is abandoned, a new site selected and the process repeated. The pressure on the land today is higher than it ever was, as most of the community and clan-land have been fragmented into private property.
The hutments of the villages now remain at the same place in contrast to earlier days when the whole village also shifted to new site. Land preparation and cropping is undertaken with minimum tillage and no animals or large machinery are used by the jhum cultivators.
The only implements used are the chopping knife, sickle, dibbling stick, spade and hoe. Labour and seeds in usually sourced from within the household. The yield obtained from jhum fields at present is only a pittance and can sustain the jhumia families for only about four to five months in a year. Most of the jhumias here have been converted to Christianity – thus rites and rituals related to shifting cultivation are no longer being performed.
Some of the Jhumias have started to rear cattle as well as poultry besides jhuming, marking a transitional phase in the lifestyle of these cultivators. International Fund for Agricultural Development (FAD) has introduced many programmes to improve the living status of the jhumias here and the cultivators have availed many facilities offered by them. However, many cultivators, especially those in the Ri-Bhoi District were critical about the work of Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).
The Government of India through various prominent programmes have tried to immobilise the jhumias throughout the northeast. The last 30 years marked a proliferation of schemes through state as well as central governments aimed to stabilise the slopes and encourage terrace farming with assured irrigation. Introduction of plantation crops such as rubber, coffee, tea, black pepper, cashewnut, etc; afforestation programmes; land development schemes and many others were taken up to assist farmers to opt for an alternative settled cultivation.
Many jhummias have accepted these schemes and it is seen that the creation of wetland terraces with assured irrigation has attracted the jhummias particularly in the paddy growing areas. And with the jhummias becoming conscious of the monetised economy, the introduction of plantation/cash crops that assure perennial returns has had a tremendous response.
However, poor extension services, lack of dedicated officers to work in rural areas and the failure to ensure effective marketing linkages along with communication and transport network means that the jhumias continue to miss opportunities.
Modified shifting agriculture was introduced during the past decade with implantation of two development projects, Nagaland Environmental Protection and Economic Development (NEPED) in Nagaland; and North Eastern Region Community Resource Management Project in Meghalaya, Manipur, and Assam.
These projects have demonstrated that through multi-pronged external intervention, the productivity of shifting agriculture can be enhanced. Land development in the form of bench terraces with assured irrigation facilities have proved most effective in attracting the jhumias to settled agriculture.
Shifting cultivation of alder (Alnusnepalensis), as practiced in villages such as Khonoma in Nagaland is more sustainable, when the trees are cut but waist high stumps are left, (a practice called pollarding) which is proving to be indeed beneficial in the hill slopes. Cash and horticulture crop plantations undertaken under this scheme is also making an appreciable impact in the process of weaning away the jhumias from their age-old practice.
Many abandoned jhum areas have today been converted into permanent plantations of arecanut, cashew, citrus, etc. Creation of tea plantation has also helped to a certain extent. A three-tier system proposed by ICAR in which agricultural practices are carried out in the lower portion of the slope with support of bench terraces as conservation measures is also a fruitful prospect in the states of Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura.
On the civil society front, a group of Mizo farmers, technicians and people from different backgrounds got together in 1997 to form the All Farmers’ Union, a non-governmental organisation, to tackle the problem of jhum. They have come up with a solution called the compost pit system, wherein pits are dug perpendicular to the direction of the slope and agricultural residues buried. The leftover soil is used for contour bunding for the growth of nitrogen fixing crops such as soyabean.
Despite the success stories, our field experiences show an alarming trend. As ownership of land, a fairly new concept, is beginning to take hold of communities, the more influential and socially mobile individuals within these tribes are moving towards sedentary farming. The poorer are marginalised within the same framework to eke sustenance from the traditional method of tillage from ever shrinking shreds of land. This alarming trend is now giving rise to a new group of farmers, the ‘landless jhumia’