Talking about tradition, one would automatically link it with the tribal society, where traditions and customs are ingredients in their life and livelihood. Jhum or shifting cultivation was one such practice that became the way of life and traditions of the tribal people.
Tribal families go to the field every day, man and women, while children, who are too young and weak elders, were left behind in the house with the cattle. Beginning of clearing the forest area to sowing of seeds and till the harvest, it involves the family and community. Cultural festivals, marriages and other social activities were in one way or the other weaved around this jhum cycle.
Shifting cultivation is one of the earliest forms of food production practice by human beings. It is popularly called ‘slash and burn’ form of agriculture. In this system, people move from one area of cultivation to another in a period of a year or more. Since time immemorial shifting cultivation was meant for family consumption alone. Production was never meant for export or commercial purpose. The land for cultivation depend upon distribution and system of administration that prevail in that particular place, as in Manipur hills under community ownership, village council or a Chief /headman. In the whole cycle, the forest bio diversity regenerate back and the ecology was maintained. Sadly this was not a documented fact.
This jhum cultivation practice till today by the tribals was said to be a major cause that led to ecological and environmental destruction, thus, the blame being discreetly shouldered upon them. While there is no denying in its contribution to the growing problem, the exaggerations as the major cause and labeling of jhum cultivation as a ‘threat and a backward practice’ makes one wonder who actually increase CO2 in the greenhouse, what endanger the world’s bio diversity and how nature balance was distorted. In terms of population, tribals constitute only 6 % of the total world population. In India tribal population is around 8 – 9 % and in Manipur it is approximately 35 %. Tribals in Manipur inhabit the hills, which is 90 % out of the total area of 22327 sq. km of the whole state. Only 3 % of these 20484 sq km hill areas are under cultivation.
Environmental degradation, global warming and the recent world wide talks on climate change are due to various factors, propagated by human activities. Level of CO2 at the advent of industrial revolution in the 19th century was 280 ppm, that reach 380 ppm today and will hit 525 ppm by 2100. Burning of fossil fuels, coal, oil and other natural gas contribute 80% increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. Two billion cars are estimated to be on the road by 2057. Vast forest and agricultural lands are being taken over for mega projects like dams and other multipurpose plans. Not to forget the images of the remains of Atomic bombing on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and gas emission from blast that occurs every alternate day.
Major reasons provided for the need to shift from shifting cultivation were due to this environmental issues and low productivity. Looking at Jhum cultivation as a factor in terms of endangering the environment per se, practice by the tribal people thereby is vague. An abstract of Analysis study ‘towards a tribal population policy’ by Jaiswal HK says that India which has the 2nd largest tribal population in the world, in its Census data of 1961 and 1971 on tribes shows a declining trend in their rate of growth from 31.96% in 1951-1961 to 25.59% in 1961-1971. Therefore passing on the blame to this small component of the world’s human population would not solve the global issue. Instead the whole issue of rural agricultural systems and policy, land use – this will include land holding, and resource management are an emergency at hand, which is related to productivity as well, particularly in the hills of Manipur.
Suggestions and alternative for shifting cultivation have been experimented, most of which were not successful like terrace farming, alternative cropping etc. In the hills of Manipur, if permanent cultivations were to be initiated, the issue of land holding would be the first confrontation, input and market would follow if cultivations were to focus on export oriented production, which will be another major vulnerability for the tribals. In any case whether the practice is backward or is of less productivity, it is evident that shifting cultivation has become irrelevant in the present context and situation. Well aware of the fact, departing from traditional practice has caused a knee jerk among the tribals, which transmit in the form of conflicts and violence. This process of moving towards a new livelihood would require time and practice, most of all the confidence and participation of the tribals in the whole cycle of change.
The Imphal Free Press , July 2008