Dangers of shifting agriculture

The government is reported to be formulating a new policy that would lend legal recognition to shifting cultivation as a form of agroforestry to enable nomadic farmers get bank credit and agriculture-related subsidies. While the objective of this move is good, as it is unfair to deny government sops to those engaged in this age-old farm practice, its consequences are likely to be disastrous. Shifting cultivation, known also as slash-and-burn agriculture or jhumming, involves clearing of forests, burning the stubble and cultivating the land for a few years before moving to another plot, leaving the old patch for regeneration. This mode of farming , once fairly common in many parts of the world, has gradually given way to settled agriculture to stave off its ill-effects on ecology, biodiversity, habitats and other natural features. It also causes loss or deterioration of forest cover leading to soil erosion and degradation of catchments of rivers and other water bodies. In India, this pernicious practice is still in vogue on an estimated 1.73 million hectares, largely in the ecologically fragile hilly terrains in the Northeast. The other states where this primitive system of agriculture still persists in some pockets are Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh.


The National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog, which had mooted the idea of redefining jhumming land-use as agroforestry in a report in 2018, has its own logic for doing so. It is based on the contention that shifting farming is essentially a method of putting land to two distinct uses alternately — agriculture, when it is under cultivation, and fallow forestry, when it is left untilled for revival of forest. While this plea seems well founded, what cannot be disregarded is that with growing population pressure on land, the time given for renewal of forests — just three to four years — is usually insufficient for that purpose. This phase used to be as long as 10 to 40 years in the past. The green cover now rarely comes up to the level where it can be deemed as secondary forest.


This aside, it is also true that the farmers engaged in jhumming (jhumias) are themselves fed up with this kind of nomadic life. They want to move beyond subsistence farming to take up market-linked agriculture. A recent study conducted by the Mizoram University’s School of Earth Sciences bears this out. As many as 95 per cent of the respondents felt that jhumming was economically unviable. They wanted opportunities for higher income from farming and non-farm employment, education and medical facilities and other civic amenities apart from access to government schemes, which they are unduly denied in the absence of land titles (pattas) in their name. They also do not get many of the benefits provided under the Forest Rights Act. At present, they are treated neither as farmers nor as forest dwellers.


A key conclusion of this study, which holds the clue to a viable policy to curb shifting agriculture, is that if financial assistance is made available for terracing the hill slopes where jhumming is practised now, the jhumias would gladly shift to permanent farming. This, indeed, is not a tall order and should be complied with to put an end to the socio-ecological curse that shifting farming has virtually turned into.


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