Jhum cultivation: Strategies for North East India

-Jamkhogin Lhungdim
Assistant Professor of Agronomy
Central Agricultural University, Iroishemba, Imphal)

Agriculture, the main occupation with more than 70% of workforce in India, has been in a low ebb even after Independent India. With the advent of Green revolution in the later 60’s, there has been a sea change in agricultural production particularly in cereals and oilseed crops. The quantum of grain production has led to self sufficiency though there was no surplus in the country. Scientific cultivation system of crops began during this era, though not to the status of other developed western and European countries.

Northeast and its crop scenario

Almost 80% of the states in the Northeast viz, Manipur, Tripura, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Meghalaya except Assam have a large chunk of areas under hilly tracts or terrain. These regions are mainly cultivated with only few cereal crops like rice, maize, etc and oilseed crops like rapeseed and mustard, Soybean etc, cash crops like potato, sugarcane, etc and a number of vegetables. In plain or valley areas, irrigated rice, pulses & oilseeds, rabi vegetables etc are the main crops. There is imbalance proportion of area under crops in rabi and kharif seasons. Lack of irrigation facilities, cattle menace and sparsely distributed rainfall during winter (rabi) season are the main reasons why all the available land used during kharif /Summer seasons are not fully utilized during rabi. Upland rice in the jhums through shifting cultivation systems inter-cropped/mix-cropped with maize, pulses etc are the main crops in the hills. There are restrictions of modern or scientific cultivation of every crop due to the natural topography or geographical situations in the hill slopes.

Composition of the virgin hill soils

Shifting cultivation or Jhum/jhoom or slash and burn method of crop cultivation is the system where farmers shift their fields after taking one crop in a single season. The field after harvest is abandoned for at least 5-10 years during which, the field regains its fertility due to various factors. The main factors for fertility restoration during this period are diverse. The leaves, twigs and other plant parts falling to the soil get decomposed which later acts as good feed to numbers of beneficial micro-organism thriving in the soil under a congenial soil environment. The earthworms, regarded as “friends of the farmers” are the major role players in regaining natural soil fertility by enriching the soil with their castings. Bird litters, animal droppings, biotic activities of flora and fauna, decomposed plant debris acting as natural mulch contribute to soil health building. Hence, the soil composition with fair amounts of major nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potash besides, creating a good soil structure makes the soil virgin in a cycle of -10 years period.

Harmful effects of Shifting cultivation

Slashing or felling down of trees, herbs and shrubs in Jhum cultivation reduce oxygen generation, burning down of the sun-dried vegetation pollute the air with carbon-monoxide, nitrous oxides and many other harmful gases. Various emissions from burning the fossil fuels including the dry vegetation contribute to the depletion of Ozone layer (a layer in the troposphere which protects the ultraviolet rays from the sun). Not only these, destruction of forest trees, flora and fauna, animals, birds and all other living beings in the forest are against the law of the Forest, Environment & Wildlife Department/Ministry of the Govt.

Destruction of the natural habitats of these living organisms that brings ecological imbalance in the ecosystem is also forbidden by the forest laws and acts. Soil erosion and top soil degradation is the direct outcome of the clearing the natural vegetation. However, the system of field operations after sowing of crops involves no use of synthetic chemicals. Cultivation under Jhum is done with “no tillage” or “zero tillage” where heavy machineries are not employed causing air pollution. Synthetic fertilizer, weedicides, insecticides, fungicides and other plant protection chemicals are not at all used. The Jhum cultivation is hence eco-friendly with less cost of cultivation, but comparatively low in yield or productivity.

Abolishing Shifting cultivation : Is it feasible?

The destruction of natural vegetation in Jhum cultivation is alarmingly on the rise. The natural topography compels the people in the hills of the Northeast India to adopt the age-old traditional cultivation which is the only means to sustain a living. The risks before the Jhumias are to be considered before taking a step to ban it. The Govt. of India’s policy to abolish the jhum cultivation and replacing it with growing of horticultural crops is in one sense, a good gesture towards the economic development of the people and saving the environment.

However, the change of one’s occupation over night is something which is not feasible on the part of the hill farmers. Provisions of funds and food to feed the farmers and their families till reaping the fruits of the newly adopted horticultural crops cultivation in lieu of the jhum cultivation would only motivate the farmers to switch over to the new methods. This is the reason why many farmers are not willing to change their profession of cultivation in the hills of the Northeast. Hence, a swift changeover from shifting cultivation to any other forms of cultivation under the present conditions would be something impracticable for the poor farmers of the region including Manipur.

Role of the Government

The Govt. should be trust-worthy to the farmers. The scientific systems of cultivation should be imparted to the farmers and fulfill the promises which were laid before the farmers. Special incentives should be provided to the farmers of Jhums to change their cultivation to a scientific method. Crop insurance should be implemented in toto. Food stock and essential items should be available to the farmers who adopt the Government’s policy of new Agricultural technologies. The farmers should be compensated properly against any natural calamity.

Replacing shifting cultivation and adopting an alternative cultivation system would then be a success.

Tips to farmers

Farmers in the hill region should be aware of the new technologies emerging from time to time. Uneconomical practices of hill agriculture should be avoided while selecting the crops. Adequate cropping systems should be adopted to boost their income and maintain a sustainable self sufficiency in the household. Use of certain synthetic plant foods to replenish the vanishing food reserve in the soil should be adopted but with an adequate quantity or dose. The modern systems of plant protection and care should be given priority to harvest a bumper yield. Continuous cultivation of the once selected spot can be cultivated/tilled year after year with such amelioration of the soil. Soil amendments should be done where nutrient reserve is limited due to continuous cultivation through organic matters, mulching etc. The expertise of concerned authorities/personnel should be gained to tap the potential of the region. By doing these, however, the environmental sanctity should not be at stake.

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