Bomdo village from above with jhum field terrace plots and Siang river below Credit: Anirban Datta Roy

On June 11 this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the 95th annual plenary session of the Indian Chamber of Commerce in Kolkata over video and spoke of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’, which will make the country more self-reliant. There appeared to be a reconsideration of the existing neoliberal model of growth and a return to the socialist and protectionist approach of pre-liberalisation India. The immediate basis for this shift was the Covid-19 necessitated lockdown which had worsened the current economic crisis.

To be fair however, the government had been stressing on ‘swadeshi’ and ‘Make In India’ for some time, even if it hasn’t been particularly successful in its implementation. Now, we are faced with another factor – that of the clash with China and the sudden realisation of the inroads they have made into Indian markets. This is inevitably strengthening the ‘atmanirbhar’ voices with efforts already on to develop local versions of popular Chinese products.

Subsequently, special financial measures were announced under the ‘Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan’ for the agricultural sector to be more ‘vocal for local’ and ensure self-reliance at the grassroots level. It was declared that a new ‘cluster-based approach’ would ensure that each village and each district of the country became self-reliant.

This belated appreciation for grass-root level self-reliance, especially with regard to the agricultural sector, is difficult to believe if we consider the trajectory of recent agricultural policies. The need to achieve self-sufficiency in food production for the country had several decades ago led to the Green Revolution and the high yielding varieties of cereals that were promoted throughout the country.

In the hills of Northeast India, this led to the conversion of jhum (shifting cultivation) areas into settled cultivation through intensive attempts to increase the ‘productivity’ of land through development of minor irrigation, distribution of high yielding varieties of seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, tools and equipment at subsidised rates, often resulting in failed experiments of cash crop introductions. This quest for higher productivity has obscured the importance of traditional agricultural systems that have provided subsistence to countless upland farmers for centuries.

Jhum cultivation areas are still considered as ‘wastelands’ and frequently seen as areas which need to be replaced with more ‘productive’ and ‘commercial’ crops

Isolated jhum hut at the edge of forest

Shifting cultivation in Northeast India

Mountain communities in the eastern Himalayas have been practicing jhum for ages and continue to do so even though recent trends point to an overall decline across the world. The declining practice of jhum has been an inevitable consequence of the adverse policies of the state to eliminate it since the colonial times. Jhum cultivation areas are still considered as ‘wastelands’ and frequently seen as areas which need to be replaced with more ‘productive’ and ‘commercial’ crops.

In fact, scholars across the world have demonstrated multiple benefits of jhum that fulfil the social, cultural and livelihood requirements of mountain communities, apart from being important for maintaining biodiversity in such landscapes. One of the key advantages of jhum is that the only inputs required are labour and heirloom seeds from the previous harvest. This keeps the communities self-sufficient and enables them to adapt to the lack of connectivity with the urban markets due to various environmental hazards such as landslides, earthquakes, roadblocks and collapsing of bridges due to heavy rain.

In a way, these communities are well-prepared and well-equipped during isolation, since most of their farming and livelihood activities have evolved in such a scenario. Living in isolation has also prepared them to face diseases, often contagious ones.

Scholars across the world have demonstrated multiple benefits of jhum that fulfil the social, cultural and livelihood requirements of mountain communities, apart from being important for maintaining biodiversity in such landscapes

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Rice being dried in the sun before storing in the granary hut

Self-reliant communities

Indigenous communities living in far-flung villages have an excellent understanding of the need for distancing and quarantine during diseases. They have applied this in the past for communicable animal diseases such as the Foot and Mouth Disease among mithun. A video clip circulated during the early few days of lockdown and quarantine from Arunachal Pradesh shows a group of local village youth somewhere in the Siang valley manning a check post set up by the villagers themselves to stop the movement of people from outside.

In the clip, the youth refuse to let a Government vehicle pass since there were chances of the infection spreading. Similar local efforts to enforce quarantine and restrict outsiders have been reported from across northeast India. This is an indicator not just of the level of awareness among the people of the region, but also a reflection of their independence and self-sufficiency from centuries. Tribal villages in these regions are independent units that have evolved subsistence agriculture and local institutions that have maintained a systematic utilisation of natural resources.

In ‘A philosophy for NEFA’, anthropologist Verrier Elwin remarked on the ‘self-sufficiency of food’ among the villages of erstwhile NEFA, and marvelled at the diversity of crops and natural resources produced in harmony with the landscape they inhabited. Even about 60 years back, many villages in Upper Siang maintained completely independent and self-sufficient lives. Their food requirements (which are simple in any case) were supplemented only with salt which they obtained through barter trade with Tibetan areas towards the north.

The key to this self-sufficiency lies mainly in the practice of jhum and the associated system of dynamic land use which leads to the matrix of agriculture, fallows and forests around the village. For centuries, villages have practised mixed cropping to plant a variety of indigenous hardy crops that include cereals, legumes and vegetables, among others, which sustained them throughout the year. Specific crops are cultivated in certain locations in the field and in certain soil types.

For instance, the Adi community in Bomdo village, Upper Siang, recognise nine types of soil based on their colour, location, texture and fertility and grow crops in accordance with soil fertility management, which include 16 varieties of rice and up to 30 different vegetables. The adjoining forests and fallows were hunted and trapped for their protein needs and also served as areas where their prized mithun roamed free.

Shifting cultivation and policies

Government agencies in developing countries have been especially keen to eliminate shifting cultivation. The most recent policy pertaining jhum in India, ‘Shifting cultivation: towards a transformational approach’ drafted by NITI Aayog in September, 2018, recommends that land under shifting cultivation, even under the fallow (regenerating) stage, be categorised as ‘arable regenerating fallows’ rather than ‘wastelands’ or ‘unclassed forests’. While this is a welcome move, the word ‘transformation’ in the title is a throwback to previous policies that failed to accept jhum as is, instead suggesting more ‘productive’, ‘profitable’ or ‘viable’ alternatives.

In south and southeast Asia, shifting cultivation lands have largely been replaced by monocultures such as rubber and oil-palms. Upland farmers are enticed and even coerced to grow market-friendly crops and convert their shifting cultivation fields into permanent terrace fields and a variety of horticulture and cash crops.

Eventually they are left at the mercy of a struggling infrastructure network and vagaries of the global market. In the absence of staple food crops in their fields, villagers also become increasingly dependent on the Public Distribution System rations, which have been infamous for financial irregularities and malpractices. This trajectory of agricultural transformation and the disintegration of subsistence capabilities is common across virtually every shifting cultivation society.

Our experience in Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, which we observed closely as part of our PhD research over the last decade, provided some important insights into the role of jhum in this changing landscape. In spite of the overall decline in area under shifting cultivation and the growth of terraces, a majority of households (upto 90%) continue to practise it for the advantages of mixed cropping and the communal nature of agriculture, which improves their social capital. The cultural aspects associated with jhum acts as a powerful unifying agent, that is especially helpful during periods of stress. The current Covid-19 lockdown has been a time of stress for communities across the world, but those with shifting cultivation in their repertoire appear to have fared better.

Adi women in front of the fireplace of a typical Adi hut

A case study of a mountain village

In the Adi village of Bomdo in Upper Siang, where we spent many years studying the livelihood and cultural practices, the lockdown hasn’t led to the hardships seen across most of the country. Like many other villages in the Siang valley, the local institution (kebang) enforced quarantine and lockdown rules even before the government declared it. People are currently forbidden from going to the nearest town, Yingkiong, 35 km away with a fine of Rs 5000 being the penalty, while entry of outsiders is also prevented.

Adi people are no strangers to similar movement taboos (nyodung) which accompanies many jhum festivals and rituals in the village, and while outsiders are not being allowed into the village currently, there are no restrictions related to interactions between households within the village.

Mixed cropping of jhum has ensured that plenty of vegetables and leafy greens are available in their fields and home gardens. Each Adi household has a small separate granary hut where they store rice, maize and millets among other things with enough grains, legumes and cereals to last them 2-3 years. While rice and millets from the current crop is yet to be harvested, maize is almost ready for consumption.

Most of the households also have home gardens, from where they harvest a variety of vegetables. The villagers also keep a stock of smoke-dried meat and fish for lean periods which can be consumed in addition to fresh meat from sacrifices of domestic animals during festivals. There are no restrictions on fishing from the streams and rivers nearby, ensuring adequate sources of protein in their diet.

The fallows around the village where most of the hunting and trapping happens is also not out of bounds, although there is hardly any hunting during the monsoon. People are also free to make fermented millet beer and rice wine in their houses for personal consumption. There are still a few who miss their tobacco and non-local alcohol though that can hardly be considered a necessity in a remote village.

But what if the disease still manages to make it to the village? Generations of experience with infectious disease outbreaks among the domestic animals have taught people how to self-isolate too. Every two years, each farming household builds a small hut near their jhum fields where they stay for the duration of the agricultural season.

Perched on a steep hill and far from the village, this hut is also the perfect place for isolating domestic animals like chickens and goats when there is an outbreak of disease in the region. People in Bomdo have already been discussing the possibility of using these huts as quarantine homes, with some of the older people already living there due to the current agriculture season.

The choice of whether to continue shifting cultivation or to take up other forms of cultivation should be left to the community themselves, and not coerced by an external agency, especially given their self-reliance or ‘Atmanirbharta’ during stressful times

The past is the future?

Multiple studies across the world have found that transitions from long-fallow shifting cultivation have negative consequences on the livelihoods of upland farmers. In a recent review, Dressler et al. (2017) found that shifting cultivation provides important contributions to the livelihood security and ecosystem services of communities, even while the process of agricultural transformation forces them towards commodity production such as palm-oil, rubber and teak.

A study by Shimrah et al. (2015) in some of the remote villages of the Siang and Dibang valley districts found that most of them were largely dependent on jhum cultivation. In spite of the remoteness, the villages were self-sufficient in food and other essential requirements for survival on one hand and rich in biodiversity and ecosystem functions on the other. The lesson that emerges from such studies is clear – do not force communities to turn their back on traditional systems of agriculture and natural resource management which have provided them the resilience to adapt and survive for long. In Arunachal Pradesh, many communities have managed to hold on to such traditional knowledge and practices, in spite of repeated efforts by the state to discourage them.

Ultimately, the choice of whether to continue shifting cultivation or to take up other forms of cultivation such as settled cultivation or cash crop cultivation, should be left to the community themselves, and not coerced by an external agency, especially given their self-reliance or ‘Atmanirbharta’ during stressful times. The current scenario during a pandemic in which, the more local the resources the better, signifies the importance of the communities continuing their practices as they have done for ages.

(Anirban Datta-Roy is a conservation biologist with a special interest in the biodiversity and communities of the eastern Himalayas. For his PhD, he studied the subsistence hunting and agricultural practices among Adi people of Arunachal Pradesh.

Karthik Teegalapalli is a plant ecologist, interested in ecological restoration and organic farming. He has earlier studied the ecological and social aspects of the shifting cultivation system of the Adi community in Upper Siang, Arunachal Pradesh)

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