Unlike many other parts of India, where even villages are in some way or the other connected to the capital markets, albeit through informal means, people in the rural hills of Northeast India for the most part engage in pre-capitalist sustenance activities, with surplus produce sold in nearby bazaars. The most important and widespread activity is shifting cultivation, of primarily the slash-and-burn variety along the hill slopes. This practice, called jhum, usually ensures enough grains and vegetables for the entire year.

Along the lines of the egalitarian functioning of most tribes in the region, this form of cultivation has men and women playing equally large roles, with women often even playing a dominant role especially in deciding the distribution of the produce and the selling of the surplus. Jhum is a livelihood generation activity for food sustenance, and constitutes a large chunk of the labour performed by rural folk in the hilly regions of the Northeast.

Jhum in Nagaland. Pic: author.

In recent years though, the system has been affected by the numerous ongoing conflicts in the region, causing immense hardship to those people dependent on it. In addition, questions have been raised about jhum's impacts of the practice on the local ecology, which need a brief examination. Behind the negative viewpoints expressed about jhum, lie vested interests, more often that not, as this article will show.

About jhum

Anyone who has done mountain hiking would confirm that trekking up a steep hill slope, even for fairly fit individuals, is tough work. Jhum requires far more hardiness and consists of chopping firewood along a tract of hill-land, clearing that tract through controlled fires for cultivation, cultivating on the land as per a tight seasonal schedule, and then carrying large bundles of firewood (often uphill) back to one's village in the evening for cooking fire.

This gives an idea of how, by sheer dint of hard physical labour, the rural poor find sustenance in the region. It's a cooperative system of production with a village or many villages cultivating one tract of land and then sharing the produce at the end of the harvest, completely devoid of feudal fetters.

The timeframe for jhum is fairly strict, especially keeping in mind the heavy rainfall in the area, requiring the land to be cleared and seeds sowed in time for the monsoons. The forest land is usually cleared in December and January by slashing at shrubs, and cutting trees, while leaving tree stumps and roots. The slashed vegetation is then allowed to dry for a month or two before burning the tract of land in March. In addition to clearing the land, the burning of the leftover vegetation returns nutrients to the soil through ash and the killing of microbes allowing relatively higher yields. Seeds are then sowed, which mainly consist of cereals, vegetables and oil seeds.

The practice is usually driven by sustainability and the village or group of villages practicing jhum on one particular tract of land continue until the soil is depleted of nutrients and then move on to another allowing the former tract of land to regenerate. In earlier times, with lower population numbers, the land would be cultivated on for 10-20 years, but now it rarely goes beyond three to five years, due to greater pressures on the land for food. The acute time-sensitivity of the cycle is important to note as this feature of the practice is most affected by the various ongoing conflicts in the region.

Effects of the conflicts

Large sections of rural Northeast India and their modes of commerce now function under the sway of Indian military cantonments, which have usurped expansive tracts of land and harshly affected rural livelihood activities. Furthermore the villagers often find themselves caught in between the military and the insurgencies. Thus the practice of jhum has started getting badly affected in many parts of the region due to the presence of the Indian army and the resulting conflict, which causes disruption in the cultivation cycle resulting in harsh insecurities for people depending on the produce to feed themselves.

Mokokchung in Nagaland is a classic example of military cantonments taking over prime land across Northeast India. Traveling with a senior academic and Naga human rights activist in the town, I witnessed the overwhelming presence of the Indian military. Central Reserve Police Force barracks built over beautiful forestland, and vast army campuses sprawled over the landscape were everywhere, cordoned off from the rest of the population. Many old structures in Mokokchung were torn down and now serve as official military offices. Vast tracts of hilly forestland that villagers would practice jhum on are now completely off limits, taken over, rather 'occupied', by the armed Indian state.

The villagers often find themselves caught in between the military and the insurgencies.

The practice of jhum has started getting badly affected in many parts of the region due to the presence of the Indian army.

The resulting conflict causes disruption in the cultivation cycle resulting in harsh insecurities for people depending on the produce to feed themselves.

 •  Jhum cultivation under sharper scrutiny

The hampering of rural modes of sustenance can also be witnessed in numerous rural areas in Manipur, Upper Assam as well as regions like the Garo and Khasi Hills of Meghalaya. Rural areas in these states also often face the brunt of the extraction industry, which, again, usurps or completely destroys land previously used for sustainable cultivation systems like jhum. Furthermore, with the Indian government's new 'Look East' policy with respect to trade and commerce, states like Nagaland, Assam and Meghalaya become critical as gateways to expanding trade-relations with Southeast and East Asian countries. As a result local modes of sustenance such as jhum get impacted.

Interestingly, the present disruption of rural modes of production in Northeast India has just been a continuation of pre-independence British policies. This form of agricultural production and organic rural commerce has faced a history of upheaval from colonial times onwards, when British colonisers effectively severed the region from its traditional trading partners, including present-day Burma and other parts of Indo-China. With the creation of the Northeast Frontier by the British in order to protect their Indian dominion, it effectively cleaved what was once an organic commercial pre-capitalist trading region, resulting in the loss of a bazaar-type commerce, and hampering cultivation practices; something which has continued till date under an Independent India.

Impact on ecology and differing viewpoints

Ecologically, the practice of jhum has had certain experts convinced that it has a deleterious effect on the local environment, while others have often thwarted those arguments and proved that jhum in fact is a sustainable form of agricultural production best suited for the specific ecology of the hill regions.

The arguments against jhum have included projecting it as an unsustainable practice that depletes the soil of nutrients, reducing the forest cover, causing landslides, etc. Arguments against jhum have come from state forestry departments, development ministries like DONER (Development Of North East Region) or trade promoting entities like the World Bank who lean towards utilisation of the region's forest resources for the benefit of national and private capital.

In addition, private entities wishing to utilise the land for specific profit-making ventures, like extraction industries, utilise these arguments to push the state to wean away local villagers from practicing jhum in order to lease the land. This has happened in the hill regions of Meghalaya and Assam where corrupt or otherwise, village councils leased out land to private and national corporations for extraction industries including coal, limestone, and uranium in the future. In addition, the paper industry has pushed for the growth of bamboo by villagers as a cash crop replacing an egalitarian cultivation system with one that has created a small mercantilist class controlling all bamboo production.

However, these arguments have been rebutted by many scientists, including studies by organisations like the Indian Institute of Science, Tata Energy Research Institute and UNESCO who have proved in different ways that jhum is indeed a sustainable form of agriculture best suited to the rainy hill regions of Northeast India, over other forms of agriculture such as valley or terrace cultivation. Studies have further proved that, contrary to arguments of soil infertility, the practice of jhum ensures that fallowness in the soil is not compromised on, and often rapid regeneration of the vegetation takes place once a tract of land is abandoned after cultivation.

Cleared tracts of hill slopes. Pic: author.

The connection between forest loss and jhum is tenuous at best as there are numerous other factors at play including areas where jhum is practised, the type of vegetation regrowth and fallowness of the land. The soil erosion argument too has been disproved as soil erosion would happen with any cultivation along hill tracts, and if anything is minimised with jhum due to the retention of strong roots when the land is cleared.

This is not to completely discount the actual arguments being made against jhum. There has indeed been a small reduction in the forest cover, and certainly the food pressures have increased in the region due to greater population. However it is the source of these arguments, their vested interests and the lack of viable alternatives provided that cause eyebrows to be raised. There is no guarantee that if jhum were to be stopped, there would be an increase in forest cover and soil fertility or a decrease in soil erosion. If anything, all these problems are likely to continue with even more intensity along with the added food insecurity of the local population due to the wrenching away of their primary mode of sustenance.

The arguments are all the more problematic because the region still continues to have one of the highest per-capita forest covers in the world, and its people are for the most part not found wanting for food, primarily due to practices like jhum.

Furthermore, it would be prudent to ensure the continuance of the basic level of food sustenance that the people in these regions have created for themselves through cooperative cultivation without any feudal fetters, rather than force the capital market upon them via land leases and cash crops, placing them in the precarious position many farmers in other parts of India often find themselves in.

Looking ahead

As mentioned before, the practice of jhum is intimately integrated with the socio-economic fabric of rural society in Northeast India. It's sustainable and generally accepted as a rather egalitarian mode of production, with women playing an important economic role, and almost completely lacking in feudal fetters. The practice plays a central role in uniting villages and clans, as well as integrating the people with local modes of commerce. Furthermore it provides food sustenance for the people, and prevents them from being subject to the whims of the larger capital market.

Ideally, state governments would need to work with local populations on jhum to mitigate the potential deleterious effects to the ecology rather than prevent shifting cultivation per se. Indeed, this seems to be the increasingly accepted viewpoint by state governments in Northeast India and other countries where the practice is widespread, and is certainly a positive trend. The governments of Nagaland, Meghalaya, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam have indicated at different levels that they would not like to suppress shifting cultivation, but rather work on ways in which it can be integrated with ecological and conservation concerns.

Among the more prominent of these initiatives has been the government of Nagaland pursuing a policy from 2006 onwards of procuring horticulture produce from people practicing jhum and training government extension staff in participatory mapping, the Meghalaya government stating in 2004 that it would examine ways in which jhum can be integrated with soil and water conservation measures, and the Tripura government initiating shifting cultivation development projects from 2007 onwards.

These are positive trends, and need to continue considering the importance of jhum to rural populations in Northeast India, as well as the central role it plays in ensuring food sustenance through an egalitarian cooperative mode of agricultural production.