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Demystifying the Myth of Shifting Cultivation

Overemphasis on modern agronomical practices has led to the belief that jhum (shifting cultivation) is a primitive method used in north-east India. This has also meant the superimposition of an alternative model without any appreciation of the traditional knowledge system of the indigenous people or any effort towards improving the existing method within their cultural framework.

Demystifying the Myth of Shifting Cultivation Agronomy in the North-East

Overemphasis on modern agronomical practices has led to the belief that jhum (shifting cultivation) is a primitive method used in north-east India. This has also meant the superimposition of an alternative model without any appreciation of the traditional knowledge system of the indigenous people or any effort towards improving the existing method within their cultural framework.


The notion widely held that the shifting cultivation is responsible for large scale erosion needs to be effectively dispelled and declared boldly that a correct approach to the problem of shifting cultivation lies in accepting it not as a necessary evil, but recognising it as a agricultural practice evolved as a reflex to the physiographic character of the land.

– (M D Chaturvedi, inspector general of forests to the government of India after doing an investigation on the problem of forests in Assam, 1951.)

omanticising shifting cultivation also called ‘Swedish’ or ‘jhum’ as it is popularly known in north-east is not my prerogative.1 Verrier Elwin a close friend of Nehru and an expert anthropologist whom Nehru always trusted, was appointed advisor for tribal affairs in the North Eastern Frontier Agency (NEFA), present day Arunachal Pradesh in the early 1950s. Elwin’s pronouncement reflects his paternalistic and welfare oriented concerns towards the tribals. The basic thrust of this prescription was that modern science should help the tribal economy without destroying it.2

Elwin sowed the first seed of contradiction. How could modern science fit in with a local knowledge system that has been deeply entrenched in the artefacts, sociofacts and manti facts of the tribal way of life?3 In the decades that followed concerns of environment got coupled with issues of development for academicians and policy-makers. Their studies tried to combine arguments for improvements in the ‘jhumias’ “quality of life” with a concern for the “quality of the environment” for sustainable growth. The research in this direction aimed at informing state policy and influencing government action through development model. The studies were not descriptive but analytical and the researches often employed the use of quantitative techniques to enrich their findings.4 In reality agricultural universities like Agricultural Engineering Research Centre (AERC)-Jorhat and government organisations like the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR), Barapani, and Shillong did modelling, laboratory test to disprove the efficacy of jhum.5

As the policy prescription has been to create an alternative landuse and agrarian system and subsequently rehabilitate the jhumias to these lands, ‘jhumming’ has attracted lot of criticism from agronomist, economist, policy-makers and even geographers. This is also because there is little understanding of the complex system that jhum supports – the jhum calendar, the practice of collective work and collective ownership (community owned land that maintains the egalitarian structure of society), mixed cropping that diversified foodgrain choice and most importantly, self-sufficiency. The new dimension added to it is the role of the market economy that is based upon the trade of surplus generated. Shifting cultivation has naturally come to disfavour because this form of agriculture is based on the Asiatic mode of production where the concept of surplus and the question of trade in surplus do not arise. The whole economy revolving around jhum is based on self-subsistence. The intervention of the state in the life and economy of the jhumias has been a colonial legacy. As early as1883 Baden Powell a British policy-maker of the raj strongly advocated the absolution of jhum in the following words, “the fact is that this cultivation is so wasteful that somehow or the other it must be put to a stop, just like ‘seettee’ or any great evil. It consists of destroying a large and valuable capital to produce a miserable and temporary return.”6

Obviously this observation had an impact on the colonial policy towards treatment of the jhum land and the perception of the state towards such agrarian economy was vindicated. Some of the aspects of jhum cultivation reinforced the bias of the officials against it. In the north-east, the land revenue department could not make a great deal of revenue from the prevalence of jhum. This was because the upland areas under colonial domination were subjected to a house or ho-tax rather than a land revenue assessment. Usually the need to encourage the extension of permanent cultivation collided with the forest department’s obsession with forest conservation. The land revenue officials were as sceptical of the extension of jhumming as were the foresters. This fact imparted an added confidence to the forester’s point of view that saw jhum as a wasteful form of cultivation.7 This official policy of the British raj was carried forward after independence by the Indian state without taking into account the relevance of jhum in the hill economy of the tribal communities.

The government after independence through various five-year plans has embarked on a policy to commercialise Indian agriculture that would weed out all forms of self-subsistence farming including jhum. The ecologists and demographers on the other hand have developed an anti-jhum discourse on the presupposition that short jhum cycle has led to loss of sustainable agriculture in the hills. They blamed the burgeoning population of the tribes practising jhumming, and their so-called primitive practice of “slash and burn”, for making them vulnerable to survive on it. But, in reality a more nuanced approach is required to justify

Economic and Political Weekly November 25, 2006

these claims. To paraphrase the whole problem, we need to look at it from a political ecology perspective, to find answers to these questions. Recent researches have shown that jhum helps to maintain ecological diversity and does not cause widespread destruction of the top soil as was originally perceived.

The agencies that were assigned the task to constantly monitor the status of shifting cultivation in the region like the ICAR, since its inception till date have found the tribal guilty of their ageold practice. In its all comprehensive report on shifting cultivation in the north-eastern region paraphrased jhumming to be primitive, uneconomical and more curiously “a non-scientific practice”. The question of scientific valid claims has evolved with the politics of power and states interest. Who decides what is scientific and what is not? How can we claim that contemporary developments in agriculture technology supersede the ones that have been time tested? It is the appropriation of particular kinds of sciences by the state that legitimises technological choices and farming practices.8

My argument in this paper revolves around few questions concerning the perception of the state vis-a-vis the jhumias on the prevalence of jhum.

  • (1) How does the state perceive jhum cultivation as a farming system and frame its policy discourses to find alternatives?
  • (2) How has the policy prescription been looked by the jhumias and what has been their response to it?
  • (3) On what firm conviction did the government develop alternative models of farming for the rehabilitation of the jhumias?
  • (4) How have these programmes worked and what has been their net outcome?
  • Shifting Cultivation a Necessary Evil

    The paraphrasing of the term “shifting cultivation a necessary evil” has great demonstrative value for policy framers as it creates a new reality about a particular agrarian practice which had evolved over millennia without conflicts but has suddenly become the root cause of all problems associated with hill economy circumventing the question of sustainability, development, quality of life, carrying capacity of land and so on. With the use of quantitative mechanism – (results from field trials and statistical data generated by agronomist) the state has pushed forward its interest (to increase the base of land revenue collection already mentioned in the preceding paragraph and to link the selfsubsistent economy with the market economy) undermining history as to how this agrarian practice evolved over time and space and in a particular socio-cultural and ecological context.9

    In the contemporary socio-cultural life in the north-east the stress is more on modernising the traditional practice of cultivation by way of introducing new scientific methods. But before we go deep into the efforts as initiated on the field, we have to see the traditional practice in historical perspective. In the context of “reflexive sociology”, the genesis of this age-old practice can be traced to the evolution of a practice of cultivation in different hilly terrains as a reflex action to the surrounding ecology.10 It is a practice grown out of a work ethic which is primitive in nature and compelling in pattern due to a variety of reasons.11 Historically speaking the practice of jhum cultivation marks the beginning of a civilised way of life in the matter of food. It symbolises the social change in the development of human society from crude primitive to enlightened organisation.12 With jhumming, an organised cultivation or an agricultural practice started for producing food. The hunter-gatherer life was cribbed and was confined to a territorial space which led to organised practice in procuring food – a new process was born. It was an agricultural operation of slash and burn which involved field rotation, and the land tenancy system demanded community ownership. There was no concept of private land. Every jhum field was a common resource for the clan members and the “democratically” elected clan leader or the tribal chief was responsible for the redistribution of land to his clan members. In the absence of more settled ways of cultivation in the hill areas because of peculiar topographical reasons jhum cultivation continues to remain the main agricultural practice of the hill people.

    But the satire (jhum being intrinsically bad) that has been created in the public domain by the state’s systematic intervention in the tribal way of life makes these historical realities naive and rhetorical. The government perceives the problem from the perspective of the “other”. There is no anthropocentric (culture specific) understanding of the problem, rather it is based on empirical facts and quantitative deductions that are formulated by the instruments of the state at the centre – (centre here denotes the centre of policy-making, the Yojna Bhavan, or it can be the state legislative assembly or the North-East Council which has been created by an act of Parliament to look into the development programme for the north-east). What is viewed and planned by the state machinery gets appropriated with the help of expert knowledge that claims the results to be true as they are scientifically proven facts. While the opinion of the people, the jhumias in this case get shelved to be non-scientific and hence irrational. The people who are engaged in this farming have practical and tacit knowledge of their surrounding environment as they live close to nature and observe its phenomena. The experts work in their laboratories and are completely in the dark of the ground realities and do not know their customs and practices that make jhum more than agriculture. As many anthropologists including Verrier Elwin have said, “it is a way of life”.13 The failure of government policies in the past has been primarily an outcome of its rigidity in accepting jhumming as a valid system of farming which till date has no viable alternative, rather the alternative lies in local innovation in farming technology which the state


    States Aims and Efforts

    Assam Purely a soil conservation scheme to settle the farmers on a permanent agriculture of varied form. Manipur and Nagaland Settling each shifting cultivation family on one to two hectares of wetland terrace for permanent agriculture. Mizoram and Meghalaya. Allotment of dry as well as wet terrace land with some sloppy land for horticultural purpose to each shifting cultivation family. Tripura and Arunachal Prasesh In forest sector shifting cultivation those engaged as wage earners in rubber plantation are to be settled on forest land in small

    colonies with provision of basic civic facilities like schools, sales department, etc. In agriculture sector, the cultivators are to be settled on a new area far away from their jhum fields with allotment of developed tilla land for agriculture and horticultural crops. Reclamation and development of land for permanent cultivation with assured irrigation facility. Watershed management schemes with integrated programme of agriculture, horticulture, forestry and animal husbandry on the basis of land-use classification.

    Source: D N Borthakur, et al (1983), Shifting Cultivation in North-East India, ICAR research complex for NEH region, Shillong, Meghalaya.

    Economic and Political Weekly November 25, 2006 is reluctant to support. Also the alternative to jhum cannot be a monolithic land use model. The failure of the ICAR’s threetier model (agrihorti-silvipastoral land use system) is a good example to learn from the follies of the past.14 Such nonparticipant and anchronistic steps of the state have bluntly reverted all government programmes to rehabilitate the jhumias.

    State Intervention: Trials and Tribulation

    The state has been actively engaged in intervening in the tribal way of life since independence in the name of improving it by diffusing modernity and benefits of science and technology. To the policy-makers, shifting cultivation acted as an impediment towards economic development of the region. Hence after independence, the problem of shifting cultivation (as it was developed by the official discourse) received adequate attention and in the 1950s the first attempts were made by the then Assam government by way of introducing plantation crops, such as rubber, coffee, black paper, and cashewnut to encourage shifting cultivators to take to these crops. These efforts were strengthened in the Fifth Five-Year Plan with the following programmes:

    (1) Soil conservation scheme in the state plan, (2) centrally sponsored schemes of pilot project for control of shifting cultivation, and (3) regional river basin schemes for the control of shifting cultivation under the North-East Council plan.15

    The objectives and programmes incorporated in schemes in various states are briefly presented in the table.

    Mathur (1979) reviewed progress of the states’ own programme of soil conservation that include contour bunding, land reclamation measures, afforestation including plantation and the development of pastures. Terracing and the provision of irrigation facility have also been included to give the programme a jhum preservation bias.16 Out of the 10,000 families in Mizoram who had joined the programme only 300 families gave up jhum. The others used the terrace for cash crop cultivation and practised jhum for food crop. Most of the farmers who gave up jhumming had more than four hectares of land and were located in close proximity of large towns. These farmers have now become new affluent elites in the society and employ hired labour to cultivate their terraced fields, while they themselves have taken other vocations, such as, dairying, pig rearing, etc. Thus the new agronomy created class division and the social stratification was glaring in an egalitarian system. The position in Meghalaya and Tripura was similar and out of the 3,000 families in Meghalaya only150 have given up jhum practice, while the corresponding figure for Tripura was 7,500 and 250. Absence of irrigation with declining fertility in dry terraces was considered the main reason for their dependence on jhum for food crops.17

    The ICAR itself recognised its follies in not adopting an anthropocentric approach towards mitigating the problem. It broadly outlined the drawbacks as mentioned under: (1) The new settlements cut into their socio-cultural life abruptly. (2) They are not used to cultivating in terraces/using bullocks/implements.

    (3) They find the production too low in the newly built terraces during first year due to the removal of top soil at the process of development of terrace. (4) The production technology for terrace is also not properly developed for the region. (5) Extreme dearth of trained and dedicated persons.18

    To sum up, these high end technologies did not prove to be “culture specific” and hence failed to attract the jhumias as it cuts into their socio-cultural life, that includes community livelihood, egalitarian social structure, diffused authority and barter exchange among kinsmen. Thus technocratic solutions to an artificially conjunctured problem did not work. It proved that the policy directive needs rethinking and retribution.19

    Role of Government Institutions

    The rapid involvement of the ICAR and other state agencies like the state horticulture, agriculture, soil conservation and irrigation departments, towards finding an alternative system of settled agriculture for the jhumias has been instigated by a chain of events that was generated by a policy directive that presupposed jhum to be a “necessary evil” an impediment towards “development” of the hill people.20 Inherent within it were more coercive agenda of the state to collect revenue that was not possible under jhum tenure of community land ownership. There was also an inherent need to link the somewhat self-subsistent, semi-nomadic barter economy with the market economy.

    This desire was overarched by the paradigm shift that was taking place in Indian agriculture with the ushering in of the green revolution and its success in averting famines that were widely forecast by economists the world over in the 1960s. This created new enthusiasm to apply “expert knowledge” that would only look into scientific ways of improving yield (productivity) through the practice of intensive farming and use of high yielding variety (HYV) seeds with agriculture extension facilities – like agricultural credit, store housing, irrigation among others. Green revolution never touched the north-east but the use of fertilisers, canal irrigation, and integrated watershed management was popularised among the jhumias to persuade them to do settled farming – primarily to adopt wet paddy cultivation along terraces.

    The second impetus came from the state policy for hill area development. Tribal development programme started from the Second Five-Year Plan with special emphasis on the rehabilitation of the jhumias.During the Sixth Five-Year Plan, the Integrated Tribal Development Programme was implemented to trickle down the benefits of development to the hill perople.In the Eighth Five-Year Plan a scheme of Watershed Development Project for Shifting Cultivation Areas (WDPSCA) was launched in several north-eastern states with central assistance to the state plan. The scheme aims at overall development of jhum areas on watershed basis.21 These programmes clearly vindicate the state’s attitude towards jhum and the whole argument against it is given a logical consistency based on empirical statistical data on productivity, run off, and nutrient loss; and not based on practical success stories in the farmer’s field.

    Third, the agriculture scientists who are studying the agriculture system of the jhumias are the specialists in their own fields of agriculture and, base their research findings on empirically derived facts and from feedback of other experts of allied fields (statistician, economist, demographers and hydrologist) who do not take into account or are incapable to prospect the politics behind the great game of policy framing and directives of the state. Thus they try to project a more apolitical prospective of the problem.

    Fourth, the researchers could not perceive other cultures in relativist terms. They presupposed that the tribal system of subsistence is always inferior to the modern system of agronomy developed in agricultural research institutes. Inherent in this assumption was lack of consideration for the tribal way of life

    – their land tenure system which was diverse from peasant economy, their redistribution system, and their attachment to land, their customs and code of conduct of the community. The

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    experts developed models which were monolithic and universal that would homogenise the diverse socio-cultural and economic contours that shaped an agrarian system. These alternatives were in conflict with the “little tradition” of the jhumias – particularly the jhum calendar.22

    Nearly three decades after the publication of the bulletin on shifting cultivation in the north-eastern hill region, in 2005 a seminar held at the ICAR complex, Barapani on shifting cultivation held the same views – that alternative systems of agriculture practice has to be perceived by the tribal communities in order to redeem them of their miseries.

    The solutions suggested are one and the same: abandon shifting cultivation and endorse alternative system. Studies by independent researchers and NGOs have shown that alternative structural measures to control loss of top soil (such as bund, bamboo hedges, gully plucking) in Khasi and Jaintiya hills where potato cultivation is prominent has led to stagnation of water at the roots of potato plant that destroys the crop. As the land is prepared to contain top soil loss the drainage is affected, leading to crop failure. Agricultural engineers are engaged in modelling the landscape in order to protect the loss of valuable nutrients and the fertile top soil that they claim take million of years to form and are washed away by a single jhum cycle. But the alternatives suggested are not “culture specific” (as they do not suit the individual demands of a particular region) and are too expensive to be adopted by the poor farmers. These technocratic solutions often bring more hardship to the jhumias than finding solution to their peril.

    When the agriculture department of Meghalaya embarked on a programme of terrace cultivation in the Garo hills the results were disastrous for the farming community which led to the abandoning of these fields. The field trials under controlled conditions showed good results but when they were transplanted in the farmer’s field things went terribly wrong. The construction of terrace led to a complete turn over of the top profile. The top horizon, which is the most productive horizon, went underneath the lower horizons. The inevitable outcome was crop failure. Similar incidences of miscommunication between the farmers and the technical experts can be gathered from various parts of the region.

    In one of the field studies done by the geography department, North-Eastern Hill University the field interviewers found out that the farmers of Mawtneng village-Ri – Bhoi district in Meghalaya that lies very close to the ICAR complex, Barapani, complained about the fall in productivity of ginger cropped under the programme of the soil conservation department. The state soil conservation department, that has trained the villagers how to control run off from their jhum fields did not turn up to assess the progress of their programme for the next one decade keeping the farmers in dilemma with the new system in place.23 These policies of the state have given the jhumias a culture shock as they are not able to fully emancipate themselves from their ageold farming practice while the new methods of farming often do not keep up their promise either because of the inherent flaws in the system – corruption, bad science, bad planning or due to communication gap between traditional knowledge (TK) and formal knowledge (FK).24

    According to P S Ramakrishna, one of the strongest critics of the development of alternative settled farming system in the north-east, “any development strategy for the region has necessarily to be centred on jhum in the absence of a viable alternative. Besides, jhum is inseparably linked with the socio- economic and socio-cultural aspect of the life of the tribal population. All previous attempts to replace jhum in the region have failed. Terracing suggested as an alternative, requires heavy inputs of petro-based fertilisers that are costlier and difficult to procure. The leaching losses get exaggerated under terracing resulting in poor efficiency in fertiliser use. The tier system (with upper part of the slope left forested, mid portion of plantation crop, and lower part being terraced) of ICAR may have only limited application because it is too rigid a system that would intervene and would conflict with social organisation of the tribes”.25

    Thus, in the context of north-east and in many other situations elsewhere, attempts to find a solution to jhum has eluded a satisfactory outcome, since the alternatives based on modern agricultural technologies could not find acceptance from the local communities. Organised farming on terraced hill slops suggested as a solution to the problem has not been able to take off for ecological, economic and socio-cultural reasons. Hence, the realisation now that the solution to the problem of jhum has to be based on “incremental build up on traditional ecological knowledge” rather than on the failed “alternative pathways” as suggested by the performers of formal knowledge (agricultural scientist). It is increasingly recognised now that the solution needs to be based upon an appropriate balance of the “traditional” and “formal” knowledge system. The Nagaland Environment Protection and Economic Development Project (NEPED) in collaboration with Indo-Canadian Environmental Facility was modelled on the appreciation of traditional knowledge system of the jhumias based on the cultivation of Nepalese alder that effectively checked nutrient loss under short jhum cycle. The Angamis of Nagaland have perfected the technology of accommodating the Alder tree in their jhum field so much so that it had become “socially valued”, and hence it did not disrupt the socio-cultural contours of the jhum economy. It did not turn out to be a true success story not because it had not addressed the problem of relating the proposed solution to the “value system” of the jhumias but because of the problems associated with funded projects – (target specific goal achievement, top-bottom approach, external exigencies of resource crunch and related nuances). But such small steps are important milestones in re-establishing the relevance of jhum in the life of the jhumias.

    At present jhum remains one of the most disrupted forms of agriculture practice in the north-east. Conservationists and ecologists as what is more important: culture or ecology in light of failing sustainability and low subsistence under jhum agronomy. I would say both. By creating alternative models of agricultural practices the homogenisation of the environment is taking place. It neither would nor does help conserves biodiversity in the long run. In situ measures of conservation of forest and captive breeding of wildlife have not helped in eliminating the threats to endangered species of flora and fauna. Modelling alternative systems of agriculture has the backing of a strong state policy but it may lead to a more serious ecological hazard for the future because we cannot artificially create biodiversity as natural is an open system that cannot be regulated by human intervention. The best way is to develop a symbiosis with nature. To brand shifting cultivation as a primitive form of subsistence is to disprove the ingenuity of other culture. It is also an acknowledgement of bad science because the present knowledge system is still to disprove many facts of nature and is in a nascent state to understand the dynamics of nature. Moreover, no knowledge system is perfect and to claim the validity of one system

    Economic and Political Weekly November 25, 2006 over another on the basis of some statistical inputs is a gross misnomer.

    In an era of globalisation and a neoliberal world, shifting cultivation as a system of least economic exchange finds no place to fit in the market-based economy as it betrays the very logic of economic exchange. This subsistence form of farming generates minimal or even no significant surplus for commerce that in the neoeconomical discourse is the most unproductive economical activity like (Kula and Potlatch) that needs to be abandoned irrespective of its holistic cultural framework that supports tribal communities’ dependent on it.26


    The growing difficulty in combating poverty and food insecurity because of the limited development potential offered by the agriculture resource endowment under jhum cultivation needs to be interrogated. How valid is this question? Were the jhumias originally poor? How is poverty depicted under the official discourse? How does a policy prescription that wants to transform nomadic farming practice into settled one define “inefficacy”? These are broad questions that need to be deconstructed by a rigorous analysis of the available literature on the question of quality of life, sustainability and validity of jhum agronomy.

    Jhumming has certainly witnessed infinitisimal change with the passage of time. The jhum cycle has declined from a healthy 20-year cycle to just five-year cycle and even below it, in some places. There are certainly genuine concerns over increasing pressure of population on land and forest resources and it remains the moot question to be resolved. But, has the state looked into resolving these impasse that the jhumias are destined to confront? Rather the state has found a more easy way out for itself, by claiming the age-old tradition as defunct under the rubric of state power that is exercised by the forces of market and “big science policy” inspired by technocracy and “expert knowledge” of modern science. Local innovation has brought transition to conventional practice of jhum like bund cultivation, which essentially upholds the key component of jhumming, i e, “slash and burn” with changes in the geometry of land-use (i e, change in preparation of field from along the slope to across the slope leading to substantial soil loss retention achieved without heavy inputs of modern technology).27 But, the sad part of the story is that, the state is not responding to these “appropriate technology” of the jhumias that are urgently needed to make jhum relevant in the present context.

    The whole issue of “sustainable development” of jhum-centred land-use system has to be viewed from a variety of different perspectives: population pressure on land, social organisation and function as part of a given cultural landscape, conservation and management of biodiversity linked natural resources, and land degradation issues. Arising from these concerns are problems of food security based on current available agriculture technologies, traditional foresters’ perception of forestry practices and perception of local communities on forest management, energy choices for sustainable land-use practices, and the needed institutional changes to ensure community participation in all these efforts.28 My analysis is only suggestive of the view that shifting cultivation or jhum in the north-east cannot be seen within a narrow framework of econometrics and profitability ushered in by technocracy and the need of market. It is not only a livelihood problem, but exemplifies the cultural know-how attached to the socio-economic life of the jhumias which they have practised since ages and lived in symbiosis with their surrounding.




    [I am thankful to P S Ramakrishnan, Department of Environment Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, who is an expert on the problem of shifting cultivation and issues of sustainable development in the north-east for his valuable comments on an earlier draft of this paper.]

    1 This form of agriculture is practised mainly in regions which have relatively high temperature and abundant rainfall and in areas where the topography is not suitable for settled farming such as the highlands of Africa, South America, and south-east Asia. It is known by different names in different regions. For example, it is called Berbaco and Coamile in Mexico; Conuco in Venezuela; Derrubadas,Quemadas and Oca in Brazil; Milpa in Central America, Chitenens and Mosale in Central Africa; Tavy in Malagasy; Ladang in Malaysia; Djuma in Sumatra; Huama in Java; Kiangin in Philippines; Tamrai in Thailand; Ray in Laos; Tuangin in Burma; and Chena in Sri Lanka. In India shifting cultivation is known by various names in different parts of the country such as, Jhum or Jum in north-east, Padu, Dabi, Koman and R ingan in Orissa, Kumari in Western Ghats, Watra in south-eastern Rajasthan, and Pe ndu, Bewar or Dahia and Deppa in different parts of Madhya Pradesh. In this type of agriculture the farmers usually clear the field for planting in part by slashing the vegetation and burning the debris. Thus, shifting cultivation is sometimes known as slash and burn agriculture. On the cleared land the farmers grow crops only for a few years, and then, leave it follows for many years and moves on to another land. Cultivation is done with very “appropriate technology” such as, machetes stick, hoes, or ling knives which are least capital-intensive. Clearance of the forest by burning process provides the necessary nutrients for the soil. In this farming practice there is rotation of fields and, the crops are sown in calculated intervals, often between other plants, so the harvest can be staggered to provide food all the year round.

    2 Malik Bela, 1991, ‘Hill and Forest Economies in North-East India – Mid19th Century to Early 20th Century’, unpublished MPhil thesis, CHS, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

    3 Julian Huxley coined the terms sociofacts, manti facts and artefacts. 4 Ibid…2. 5 See B N Borthakur et al (1983), A Comprehensive Review on Shifting

    Cultivation in North-East India, published by Baldeo Singh on behalf of Indian Council of Agriculture Research complex for north-eastern hill region, Shillong, Meghalaya. In this edited work the Indian Council of Agriculture Research team of agriculture scientist have tried to mystify jhum as bad, irrational, outmoded, nonscientific and non-productive neolithic farming system that needs to be systematically replaced by alternative land-use and agronomical practices developed by the agriculture experts of ICAR – (The ICAR model of three tyre land-use in the hillsagri-horti – silvi pastoral system). But these mechanical solutions to a perceived problem by the policy-makers have bitterly failed, as farmers have shown little interest for these high end technologies created by the lobby of ‘Big Science Policy’. As these technological innovations to control jhum are nor culture specific they cut into the socio-economic life of the jhumias and have become unacceptable.

    6 See S E Peel, ‘The Necessity of Jhuming’, IF, Vol 9, 1983, p 224.

    7 Jhum was judged by the official according to a hierarchy constructed by them. In this hierarchy permanent cultivation was accorded a higher status. In a period where a premium was laid on intensive and permanent forms of production, jhum was derogatorily labelled as temporary and nonintensive. Second, jhum entailed a communal form of cultivation and ownership of land. In the official; logic this form of ownership led to a lack of individual initiative which constrained increase in output and productivity. Finally, the British officials found it difficult to subject the jhumias to colonial control due to certain political vicissitude of colonial regime. See Bela Malik MPhil thesis on ‘Hill and Forest Economies of North-east India – Mid-19th Century to Early 20th Century’, Unpublished, CHS, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, for further details and interrogating analysis.

    8 Steve woolger in his seminal work What Is Science?, tries to unveil the politics attached to scientific claims and reopens the corridor of uncertainty,

    Economic and Political Weekly November 25, 2006

    that what is proven to be a scientific fact may not be universally true and can be falsified.

    9 Bela Malik in her research argues that shifting cultivation has to be defended against the charge that it is a lazy form of tilling. Both “work” and “leisure” has to be redefined keeping the sensibility of the specific group in mind. The work cycle in jhum was different from plough agriculture in the plains. This itself should not be taken to mean that it was inherently “lazy”. Similarly, jhum has a defined notion of time and space which has to be reconstructed to do away with the still persisting biases against it.

    10 This farming system is believed to have originated in the neolithic period around 7000 BC, see T C Sharma (1976), The Pre-historic Background of Shifting Cultivation in North-east India, North-east Indian Council of Social Science Research, Shillong.

    11 The use of the term primitive only connotes an age-old practice which by no means is defunct or obsolete. The politics of big science policy and the nexus between technocrats and policy-makers of the state have created this notion in order to put forward their agenda of development which only benefits the core at the expense of the people occupying the periphery.

    12 See, M P Hazirika, ‘Shifting Cultivation: A Perennials Problem in the North-East’, Journal of the North East Council, Vol 9, No 3, July-September, 1998, p 17.

    13 See, Verrier Elwin’s work The Baiga, in which he identifies jhum to be the best practice and the most productive system in the particular ecological setting.

    14 This three-tier model of land-use developed by the scientist of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research to serve as an alternative to jhum did not take into consideration the tribal land tenure system, their redistribution system. In fact it is a mechanical approach that cuts into the socio-cultural life of the jhumias and has till date been highly unacceptable to the farmers.

    15 Soil conservation schemes under state plan were implemented by the respected states/union territories in the north-east region. While the later two were being executed with the assistance and guidance of the central government. However, all these schemes were designed for the overall common objective of control of shifting cultivation with certain quantitative and qualitative differences in various components incorporated in them. The schemes provide also other kinds of incentives to the farmers, such as assistance to purchase bullocks, farm machinery, construction of houses, etc. Besides, these the post reclamation assistance was made available to the farmers settled under various schemes.

    16 The farmers take up the programme in their free time from jhum cultivation; therefore jhum was not given up at the time when the programme was undertaken. It was considered that the farmers would give up jhum cultivation after the terrace stabilises. The inherent logic behind the plan was that it requires two to three cropping season for the newly developed terrace fields to stabilise as the soil horizon is disturbed and hence the farmers were told to do cropping in their free time. But the programme failed miserably because of its rigidity and technocratic involvement of high end technology which could not be easily adopted by the jhumias.

    17 See S Mathur (1979), Shifting Cultivation in the North-East Region, proceeding of the agro-forestry seminar held at Imphal on May 16-17, organised by ICAR.

    18 See Borthakur et al (1983), Shifting Cultivation in North-East India, published by Baldeo Singh for ICAR research complex Shillong, Meghalaya.

    19 Foe further details see P S Ingty and N Goswami (1979), Shifting Cultivation on NEH Region – A New Approach to the Problem. Proceeding of the agro-forestry seminar held in Imphal on May 16-18. Organised by ICAR. Also see Bela Malik’s MPhil thesis on ‘Hill and Forest Economies in the North-Eastern Region – Mid-19th Century to 20th Century’. Her research highlights the fact that Swedish (jhumia) groups have never constituted a lobby in the process of official dictions making. It is now apparent that the problem associated with Sweden hold little meaning for the jhumias. They are only problems pertaining for policy-makers and anything operating with a certain theoretical presupposed framework.

    20 The Fucodantal discourse understands the term “development” from a different perspective. The Nehru Ian metaphor “dams as temples of modern India” which became the policy prescription to bring about development in the country brought pain and dissolution to a lot of people at the expense of a few. Today the question is often asked, development at what cost? And development for whom? The mainstream discourse and understanding of the notion of development does not fit in with the hill people perspective of development.

    21 During the Ninth Plan up to March 2002, the state claimed 1.5 lakh hectares has been treated with an expenditure of Rs 82 crore (against the approved programme and unspent balance of Eighth Plan). The new guideline of the scheme on the basis of new watershed to common approach has been effective from November 2000 in the revised cost norms of Rs 1,000 per hectare on net treatable area basis with additional activities and improved institutional mechanisms. During Tenth Plan, an area of 0.4 lakh hectares has been treated at an expenditure of Rs 40 crore up to 2003-04. For further details look into India 2005, published by the director, publication division, New Delhi, p 69.

    22 The concepts of “little tradition” were first used by Robert Redfield. The concepts were proposed in his book Peasant Society and Culture (1956) and were used in his studies of the Mexican communities. Primarily meant to analyse social change in a distant region, Milton Singer and Mc Kim Marriot have applied this conceptual framework on the Indian cultural setting as an approach to analyse cultural change in Indian society. Little tradition is mostly oral and is followed as mere beliefs not necessarily based on rationality; these are mostly localised and related with rural, unlettered, folk, tribal and peasantry. They are believed to be usually unorganised, haphazard, and ambiguous, transmitted orally, through oral literature. The “crop calendar” of the jhumias is part of the “little tradition” that they ardently follow and around which their social life revolves. Settled farming would intervene into these little traditions of the jhumias and their whole social life will be interrupted. As has been already discussed in the case of Mizoram, settled terrace cultivation led to the evolution of a new class of agrarian elites who had more than four acres of land. It generated economic inequality and changed the egalitarian tribal social order. For better understanding of “little” and “great” tradition see Nadeem Hasnains (1991), Indian Anthropology, Palika Prakashan, New Delhi, pp 176-95.

    23 See Debojyoti Das unpublished project report on ‘Human Impact on Landuse Pattern: A Case Study of Mawtneng Village, Ri Bhoi District, Meghalaya’, submitted in partial fulfilment for the masters in Geography, Department of Geography, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong.

    24 It must be remembered that expert knowledge does not provide solution that are culture specific, decentralised, participatory and ethnocentric. Also it should be recognised that the communication between the experts (agriculture scientist, fieldworkers) and the jhumias are not well established because of the apathy and bureaucratic style of working of the experts and administrators who implement the programmes.

    25 See P S Ramakrishna, ‘An Inventory of Forest Resource of the North-Eastern Region’ in Forest Development in North-East India (ed), M Das Gupta et al (1988), Regency publication house, New Delhi.

    26 Kula and Potlatch are two examples of reciprocity in tribal society where economic exchange is the least important. According to the neoclassical economist this is the most unproductive and wasteful non-economic exchange. R S Melinoski in his seminal work Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), coined the term Kula after studying the life of the tropical Trobitanders in the Polynesian archipelago. In the practice of Kula the tribal chief of one island goes to the other with Red Shell necklace and gets reciprocal return from his compatriot from the other island, a white shell arm band. In this non-economic reciprocity prestige, personal relationship stands above trade and commerce. Potlatch practised by the native Americans of the north-western coast was first documented by Kwakiutl Franc Boas (1934) and was later interpreted by Ruth Benedict (1934). In this Boas examines the redistribution system of the tribal chief who often burns their produce to establish prestige in society. This is not meant to state that they produced enormously that they had to destroy it. But to establish prestige and to earn respect among his kinsman it was necessary. Here again we see that economic exchange had no value. Similarly in jhumming the main idea is not to produce surplus for the market but to grow crops for the farmer and his family’s subsistence all round the year.

    27 Bund cultivation as a replacement to jhum is widely practised in the hills and plateau region of the north-east where the slope gradient is not too steep. It is considered a transition (intermediate) from jhum to settled farming but retain most of the age oil practice. It is a part of local innovation which the jhummias have adopted feeling the constraints of limited agriculture land due to their increasing population pressure and the state control over forest resources.

    28 See P S Ramakrishnan, R Boojh, K G Saxena et al (2005), One Sun the World and Ecological Journal, Oxford and IBH publication, New Delhi, p 2.

    Economic and Political Weekly November 25, 2006

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