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Jhum Cultivation Must Stay With Us!!!

These days, Jhum cultivation also known as ‘slash and burn method of cultivation’, ‘shifting cultivation’ etc has been under continuous scanner for its productivity and ecological viability. This form of cultivation is followed widely in almost all the North Eastern States including the hill areas of Manipur. There are those who consider jhum cultivation as unproductive and ecologically disastrous so that people (understood as tribal people of the hill areas) who practice it remained poor and undeveloped. Some weeks ago, Nagaland Deputy Speaker termed jhum cultivations as ‘evil practice’ because its practice is leading to degradation of soil and plants. It is labor-intensive and not productive. It destroys ecosystem. He urges the ‘progressive farmers’ (favorite phrase of modern capitalists) to shift to cash crop cultivation. He wanted to eradicate jhum cultivation and replace with a new scientific approach. Saints and apostles of capitalism would be happy with this kind of statement including Union Minister for Agriculture, Sharad Pawar who in his maiden visit to Guwahati said that agriculture department will marketise herbal plants, orchids and other natural resources found in North East India to enhance economy. Few days back, The Sangai Express published an article “Pineapple cultivation for livelihood security” where the writer argued that Pineapple cultivation is the best alternative to jhum cultivation and hence the former should replace the latter. This, according to the writer, will ensure livelihood security of the susceptible tribal people and preserve forest wealth. The writer also says that it will generate income to meet daily expenses and improve the standard of living. I am apprehensive whether eradication of the age-old practice of jhum cultivation that has been the subsistence economy for the tribal people for years is wise. However, in this mad rush world, everything is measured in terms of money value.  Probably jhum cultivation is viewed as ‘evil’ because it supports ‘life’ but does not make much ‘money’.

It is believed that our fore-parents have been practicing jhum cultivation for centuries. It is this practice that moulds and shapes our civilization since then. Unfortunately those who still sweat and follow this practice are considered ‘uncivilized, backward and salvaged’ people—stabbing the proud age-old practice of our fore-parents right from the back. However, we were all cradled and brought up through the tradition of jhuming agriculture. It was part and parcel of tribal society from time immemorial. It was and is tribal’s culture (in fact the word ‘culture’ comes from agriculture). Hence this practice is not only the source of our livelihood but also the source of their culture. If we are to eradicate jhum cultivation many of these cultures would go away with it. It would be like throwing away the baby along with the bathwater.

Jhum field provides platform for tribal people to work together. Cash cropping needs only experts to take care of. In jhuming field, people worship gods/spirits—with many rites and rituals performed—for seed sowing, ploughing, and for harvesting. Can our people carry this ‘deep spirituality’ of jhum cultivation to cash cropping? In subsistence economy, people worship gods/spirit. In cash economy people worship money and the capitalist. In jhum field they sing song together while working. In jhum cultivation, people share the produce with one another (which can never happen with cash crop). Our people have a great sense of respect for nature. They have a well-guarded time-table for jhum cultivation giving enough time for nature to regenerate. The problem of food insecurity of today is not because of people doing jhum cultivation as many would have it nor because of population explosion but because of so-called ‘modern people’ who consume without limit (consumeristic culture). Should our farmers produce more to feed the already over-fed rich people who live in towns and metropolitan cities? The world with its population of little over 6 billion has enough food for 12 billion people today.

Food scarcity is mainly due to wrong policy of Government (influenced by capitalists embedded in consumerism) and not necessarily that because people still practice traditional form of agriculture. Gandhi once commented that ‘the world has enough for everybody’s needs but not for everybody’s greed.’

Many people (so called modern-educated people) wanted to eradicate jhum cultivation and replace it with a new scientific approach in order to gain high yield. This would enable farmers to come out of poverty. To do this, farmers have to get inputs (seeds, chemicals, fertilizers, production tools etc) from the companies.   But Genetically Modified (GM) hybrid Seeds, which Monsanto and other big seed companies are actively propagating, could be disastrous in the long run. Under neo-liberalization which gives free hand to market forces, farmers are losing seed sovereignty and are forced to totally depend on the Companies for seeds. Indian farmers are still fighting boldly against BT (bio-technology) cotton and BT Brinjal. As part of enhancing economic growth, Green Revolution was introduced in Punjab. Under this revolution, fertilizers, chemicals, pesticides, machines were intensively used to get high yield. Tractors replaced over traditional use of buffalo and ox for tilling the field. Power (electricity) was used to pump water from the underground well as most of the cash crops (crops produce for sale) requires huge amount of water. Machines replaced human labor. Those who owned land became very rich but the majority small and marginal peasants lost out in the race.  More food was produced but more people go hungry. A great division was created. Majority of the population became very poor and they felt neglected and cheated both by the State and Centre Government. This has led to arm revolution (Khalistan Movement)—a war between the few rich and the poor masses created by economic policy of the Government. Today most of the fertile agricultural lands along the coastal area of India are under threat due to intensive cultivation of shrimp. The intensive agro-business of flowers also consumes lots of agricultural lands. Flowers for exports are cultivated on a large scale. This brings in handsome income through international markets but destroys local food security. The signs of the times tell us that it is high time to seriously study the various traditional methods of agriculture practiced by our fore-parents for centuries and revive them. Traditional type of agriculture maintains biodiversity and ecological balance and ensured food security for everyone. In jhum field, varieties of crops are grown in a year. Whereas, in cash cropping, only one type of crop is grown. Which is better?

In the mainland India, those States that produce more grains are also the States with highest number of farmer’s suicide. Cash crops (scientific methods of cultivation) do not really alleviate mass poverty. It needs technical knowledge to handle. The climate has to be very suitable. The time of sowing, transplanting and harvesting must be done at the right time. It needs good storage, transport and market. Otherwise it would go waste. Cash crops need lots of fertilizers, pesticides and chemicals to get maximum yield. This gives huge burden to eco-system. It is labor intensive. Most of the cash crops have to be sold to certain company. Farmers have no right to ask for higher price. It is completely under the mercy of those Companies. Where is the freedom of farmers with cash crops? Loans and incentives are given to farmers to cultivate cash crops. When crops failed (for various reasons), farmers are heavily indebted leading to suicide. Well, we must not hurry to make everybody Ambanis, Bill Gates, Mittals, etc at an instant, for who knows that may force our people to commit suicide as is happening in mainland India.

Of late, Jatropha bio-fuel plantation—a supposedly green gold cash crop has been introduced in NEI to enhance the supposedly stagnant economy. This proved to be a total failure as there is no processing factory or market to sell. Both the Government and Company who encourages farmers to cultivate Jatropha are refusing to compensate the growers.

Rubber tree plantation is coming with great promise of enhancing the economy of the rural poor people. This can have big impact on the food security of the local people. In Thailand, the Government forcibly took the land of the rural people for rubber tree plantation. This destroys the livelihoods of the rural people. It has displaced thousands of local people forcing the womenfolk to involve in sex work in the metropolitan cities (esp. in the capital Bangkok) to support themselves and their family.

Crimes and other unwanted social problems will crop up if local food security is destroyed. Cash crops should not be introduced at random phase. It needs a sufficient amount time to be tested looking into the viability of local condition, environmental viability, market viability and farmer friendly. Cultivation of pineapple, lemon, orange, passion fruits, ginger, turmeric and other cash crops should not be cultivated at the expense of subsistence food crops especially staple paddy rice. Cash crop should be kept only to supplement subsistence food crops.

What would happen if we are successful in replacing the traditional system of agriculture with cash crop? Then everyone will have money at times but no locally produced food will be available. We have to import all food items from outside our State. This means loss of food sovereignty.

In the traditional system of economy no one goes hungry or dies of starvation. During the 68 days economic blockade imposed by Naga civil organizations in Manipur, the most affected groups are not the villagers but town dwellers. No serious effect was felt in the villages as there was enough food available. What will happen if we eradicate traditional system of agriculture in the villages? How will they survive in that situation if they were cultivating only cash crops? Why many town dwellers and educated people look down on villagers without knowing through whose labor they survive? Go and see the villagers living in faraway interior places. They lacked nothing as far as food is concerned although they suffer of modern education and medical facilities. This is because of corruption in the Government administration. If there is no corruption in the State’s administration so that all welfares schemes reach the villagers, they will not suffer for anything. If Public Distribution System (PDS) works well and reaches the targeted masses, the living condition of the rural masses would be enhanced.

Condemning jhum cultivation reflects the superior mentality of the rich people and educated class of our society. The government needs to give special attention to farmer’s security for they are the backbone of our economy. Corruption of all forms in government offices needs to be dealt with iron hand, so that local people’s food security is enhanced and maintained.

It is high time for government to do intensive research on jhum cultivation and not speak on hearsay. Jhum cultivation is not just an economic activity. It has social dimension where communitarian spirit is maintained. It has religious dimension where the relationship with gods/spirits is established. It has political dimension where land boundaries are demarcated. To eradicate jhum cultivation altogether is not possible. However, we can talk of ‘upgradation’ or ‘modernization’ of jhum cultivation.  Research has to be build on strong relationship between social actors and pooling of age-old local technical knowledge with new knowledge from science and technology. We can encourage the villagers to plant more trees in and around the jhum field (such as alder trees). A good lesson can be also learnt from Khonoma Villagers (Nagaland) whose villagers have been successfully practicing jhum cultivation for centuries without seriously affecting ecological health.

For any type of cultivation soil erosion and ecological degradation will be there but is lesser in jhum cultivation. Daman Singh, the Daughter of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in her book, “The Last Frontier : People and Forests in Mizoram” stated “that a jhum system in which the land is cultivated for a single year, causes less soil and water loss than modern systems of agriculture and horticulture. The relatively low extent and intensity of cultivation together with rapid regeneration, does not result in any climatic change due to deforestation in the jhums. The use of burnt vegetation makes far more economic and financial sense than the application of chemical fertilizer. The act of burning has many benefits other than building up soil fertility, and is an operation normally carried out with reasonable care”. I wished those who have negative attitude towards jhum cultivation read her Book in detail although sadly Prime Minister refuses to read his own daughter’s book till today, goading the Adivasis and tribal people to untold misery with his neo-liberal policies.

*The article is written by ZK Pahrü Pou.

*For discussion and suggestion, the writer can be reached at zkpahr@gmail.com

*You can read the CLARIFICATION here

(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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