The NITI Aayog report recommends doing away with the practice of having divergent approaches towards shifting cultivation
In the uplands of northeast India, shifting cultivation continues to be a dominant mode of food production. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The “inconsistency and incongruence among policies of various departments” of the Central and state governments regarding shifting cultivation needs to be done away with, says the latest NITI Aayog report on bringing transformative changes to shifting cultivation. “Central as well as State government departments of forests and environment, agriculture and allied departments often have divergent approaches towards shifting cultivation. This creates confusion among grassroots level workers and jhum farmers,” the report observes.
In the uplands of northeast India—Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura—shifting cultivation, locally known as jhum, continues to be a dominant mode of food production and the economic mainstay of many rural households.
Policy contradictions and their cause
Shifting cultivation lands fall under the purview of agriculture when they are in the cultivation phase, but the same lands come under forests during the fallow phase. Thus, the same piece of land is subjected to different laws, regulations and management, which become self-contradictory. It affects upland farmers, restricting their control, decisions and investments on such plots.
“This ambiguity needs to be addressed and shifting cultivation lands with long fallow cycle should be categorised as a distinct land use, thus removing their categorisation as ‘abandoned land’, ‘wastelands’ and ‘Unclassed State Forests’,” the report recommends.
According to the report, the fundamental characteristic of shifting cultivation—two different types of land use on the same piece of land—has never been considered while formulating policies on managing shifting cultivation. The oversight has led to the present policy incoherence and contradictions in the management of shifting cultivation.
Forest vs Agriculture
The Forest Policy (1988) considers jhum lands as forest land and it discourages shifting cultivation. Forest departments want to ‘rehabilitate’ the jhum lands through social forestry and energy plantations. However, agricultural development programmes promote agriculture, horticulture and cash crops on jhum lands as such lands are perceived as arable agricultural land. Multiple Central and state government agencies target jhum lands for cultivating cash crops like timber trees, tea, coffee, and rubber.
Categorising shifting cultivation lands
Shifting cultivation fallows must be legally perceived and categorised as ‘regenerating fallows’, which may, if given sufficient time, regenerate into secondary forests. The government has to realise that the practice of shifting cultivation could increase forest cover through the regenerating fallows. “This fact must be duly recognised and due credit accorded to the practice,” says NITI Aayog report. “The forest cover and forest cover change assessments, in future, need to acknowledge the additional forest cover resulting from regenerating fallows,” the report recommends.
According to NITI Aayog, a review of all relevant legal regulations and frameworks should be initiated immediately to develop a solution that respects the rights of access and management of the recognised tenure holders.
Road map for transformation of shifting cultivation
A range of enabling programmes and policies is needed to provide the right environment to support communities to overcome the challenges. On this note, the government’s policy think tank recommends launching “Mission on Shifting Cultivation: Towards Transformative Changes” under the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers' Welfare. “The mission should set an institutional mechanism that ensures inter-ministerial convergence, particularly with the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region, as well as with other related ministries/departments at the centre and NE states,” it argues.
While facilitating transformations in shifting cultivation, the government needs to adopt a ‘landscape or systems’ approach and not a crop-based approach as mountain agriculture has a landscape approach that links agriculture, animal husbandry and forest. Integration of various land use elements at the landscape level is fundamental for the success of the transformation of shifting cultivation in northeast India.
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