Arunachal's green could soon turn brown

Acquiring prime forest land near town and highway and then selling it at an exorbitant price has become routine in the state

 
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

What was once a lush green hil (Credit: Anil Agarwal /CSE)TRAVELLING north through the Brahmaputra valley, you come to a diversion to Tejpur and a three-km bridge, the second spanning the river. On the north bank, a national highway goes all the way to North Khimpur. You pass by tea gardens standing in disciplined rows and you are overwhelmed by the abundance of green beauty all the way to Bandardeva and the paradise of Arunachal Pradesh.

Whatever the political party in power, it is nature that rules this state, which is densely forested but still displays a certain orderliness about it. Occasionally, an Apatani tribal youth greets you and though armed with traditional weapons, a friendly smile splits his face. Native simplicity, however, is proving a mixed blessing in Arunachal because it has promoted a silent invasion of the beautiful region -- with jhum cultivation as the conqueror.

Only 10 per cent of Arunachal Pradesh's 83,580 sq km is urban. The remainder is under forest cover that is being seriously threatened by jhum cultivation, which involves completely denuding a select portion of its forest cover. Trees are cut down and the stumps, grass and shrubbery burned. The scorched earth is not ploughed, just dug up a little and the seeds are sown. The crop grows and is harvested. The next season, another part of the hillside is selected, cleared similarly, cultivated and then left fallow. Having lost its tree cover, the cleared area suffers extensive soil erosion. During the rains, the uprooted soil reaches the Brahmaputra and silts up the river. Thus, jhum contributes indirectly to the floods that occur regularly in the plains.

Although Arunachal Pradesh is still sparsely populated, for its size, its population is increasing steadily and this is aggravating the jhum problem. In earlier times, the vicious circle of jhum cultivation took longer to complete -- eight to 10 years for forests to be cleared, cultivated once and then left fallow. Now, with the growth in population, the cycle has shortened.

Growing urbanisation has added a disturbing dimension to the problem. During February and March, one can see forest fires burning around Itanagar, Naharlagan and Nirjuli, but these fires are just another means of grabbing land. As the practice in the state is for land to belong to the tiller grabbing land by scorching it and then claiming that it is one's farmland is not at all difficult. Acquiring prime forest land near town and highway and then selling it at an exorbitant price has become routine.

More harmful are the actions of some government officials seeking to promote their vested interests through collusion with timber merchants. Their actions are aggravating the problem of forest destruction because one commercial tree is worth Rs 1 lakh and this makes it very much worthwhile to continue jhum cultivation.

While it's true that this ancient method of farming is the mainstay of agriculture in Arunachal Pradesh and integral to its culture it's not just tradition that is responsible for jhum cultivation. The difficult mountain terrain, inadequate transportation facilities and other circumstantial factors have made jhum farming convenient for the Arunachal Pradesh farmer. It's biggest advantage is that it permits more than one crop to be harvested from the same piece of land in one season. This ensures self-sufficiency because the cultivator does not have to go in search of other farm products.

Jhum cultivation does have points in its favour. For instance, forest burning increases soil fertility in a region where the soil is deficient in potash, burning destroys harmful pests and, finally, because jhum requires expensive manual labour, the whole family gets work.

It is perhaps because of all these reasons that official efforts over 15 years have failed to dissuade people from resorting to jhum. Bureaucratic hurdles and a lack of political will have not helped, either. A seeming lack of coordination among the various departments tackling the problem has been compounded by dearth of accurate statistics on how far jhum cultivation has been contained and how much forest land has been laid bare because of this method.

Some official attempts to discourage jhum have borne fruit. For instance, the forest department's "Our Forest" scheme seems to have been well-received. This scheme requires ownership of forest land to be rotated so that jhum land does not lie fallow for years. The department also is encouraging farmers to grow commercial crops such as tea on this land -- a measure that has proved extremely successful in Tirap district.

Unfortunately, these success stories are far too few and unless jhum is brought under control, Arunachal Pradesh will rapidly lose its green cover. Indeed, a day may soon dawn when the living green of this paradise may resemble the lifeless brown of the bare hills of Maharashtra.

Vinay Sahasrabuddhe is a member of the senate and executive council, University of Bombay.

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