Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

David and Usha Gandhi extending a helping hand

As Jhum Fields Grow Unproductive, a Pune Couple Joins Battle in Tamenglong to Introduce New Farming Way

All of 237kms from Imphal is Aben, a village tucked away in the remotest part of Tamenglong, a district of Manipur infamous as the landlocked state’s most backward district, plagued by inhospitable roads and much of it still deprived of even the most basic modern amenities of electricity, potable water, education and healthcare. Thanks to the efforts of a couple in their mid-50s from Pune – one an accomplished agricultural scientist with over 30 years of field experience and his wife, a committed educationist, Aben is now a centre of a climate-change smart, sustainable method of agriculture.

David Gandhi and his wife Usha have been living in Aben, Tousem sub-division, for almost two and half years, working with the community in search for an alternative, sustainable cultivation to the age-old practice of Jhum, the slash and burn technique, which has not only become a dangerous method of cultivation for the environment but an unsustainable agriculture but is still regarded as the only means of cultivation in this part of the country by the marginal farmers. Staying in the remote village with the community, depriving themselves from even the basic amenities of modern existence, living in a small tin cabin and mostly without electricity, all this to offer better lifestyle for villagers by evolving a practical and sustainable form of cultivation amidst the global climate crisis is what the couple from Pune is doing in Aben.

Cabin villagers built for David and Usha

Sloping Agriculture Land Technology or Small Agro-Livestock Land Technology or SALT in short, is what they have successfully introducing in Aben with encouraging results, leading to increase productivity of the hill farmers and enhancing their income by introducing integrated farming.

David Gandhi who travelled to the North East region in the mid 2016 as a part of team to assess the rural development activities in Manipur and Nagaland on an invitation by the Rongmei Naga Baptist Association (RNBA), was struck by the beauty of Aben and the survival challenges faced by the villagers. Given the remote location and inhospitable terrace and transportation bottlenecks, commuting to and fro was not a practical option. David and his wife decided to request the village leadership for permission to make a home in Aben in order to live and work with them to find solutions to the challenges.

“We moved to Aben in Oct 2016 and settled into a small wood and bamboo cabin built for us by the community. We have witnessed first-hand how good natured and resilient they are, living without basic facilities like dependable power supply, water supply, health clinic, education, motorable roads, market, bank, post office and so many other conveniences which we in the cities and developed areas of the country take for granted. The community has been very welcoming and willing to share their meagre resources with us. We have a small solar unit for power supply and collect rainwater from the roof.  We eat the food grown in the Jhum or shifting cultivation. I work on agriculture and natural resource management issues while my wife works to improve the quality of education at the school in Aben and other villages,” narrated David Gandhi.

Sharing his experience in agriculture, Gandhi said that the main livelihood of the people is from Jhum cultivation. He added that it an ancient system of subsistence farming, wherein each year a patch of surrounding jungle is manually cleared of vegetation, which is allowed to dry in the sun and then set afire.  With the onset of the rains, seeds of upland rice, millets, maize, hill vegetables are sown directly into the ashes, which provide the nutrients for plant growth. The people are occupied over the next 3-4 months in weeding the fields otherwise the crop will be suffocated by bamboo and thatch. This is a very difficult job, involving trudging to the distant fields along treacherous mountain paths, working full day in the rain and sun getting bitten by numerous insects and leeches. Harvest begins from September onwards and is a time of rejoicing and the people look forward to having sufficient food till the next year. Sadly, this isn’t the case most of the time. “Yields from the Jhum fields have been declining in recent years and we have observed that by December itself many families have run out of rice to eat and are going to the jungle searching for edible leaves, mushrooms, roots and tubers,” David Gandhi revealed his field findings.

The agricultural scientist says that the reasons for the decline in Jhum production are many and points out that the weakening of the natural resource base is foremost. As a result of soil erosion, the land has lost its capacity to sustain the crops. Earlier there used to be wood to burn for ashes to provide nutrients, now there are only hollow bamboo stems. The sloping land cannot hold the rainwater and the soil dries easily. Naturally, the crops on these degraded slopes cannot compete with the weeds, which grow rapidly and the women are hard pressed to keep up with weeding. Gandhi further added that there are social reasons as well. “Jhum farmers are mainly elderly people, since most of the younger generation has left the villages for education or employment in the cities. Hence, the labour is not sufficient to maintain the Jhum fields and many are neglected or abandoned after sowing.” The scientist further explains other reason as well. “Today we’ve a cash economy. Jhum being a system of subsistence farming does not generate cash income. Hence, the younger generation prefers to migrate to cities for employment.  This is leading to weakening of the tribal society and culture.”

Throwing light on how he along with the community are trying to develop a climate smart alternative to shifting cultivation in the hill regions, Gandhi said, “Jhum cultivation is impacted by and also impacts climate change. Erratic weather has adversely affected Jhum cultivation.  In recent years, burning of the Jhum in Aben has been delayed by up to 4 weeks due to cloudy weather and wet spells during summer months thereby affecting timely cultivation operations. Production is also being affected by excessive regrowth of bamboo due to incomplete burning during wet summers. Burning of the Jhum fields contributes to increased CO2 emission and air pollution.”

Natural forests, which are very effective in carbon sequestration (storage), have been replaced by dense bamboo thickets, which cover the land as a result of Jhum cultivation over centuries. It is a fact that in the age of global climate change, resource use and management practices that rely on the use of fire and thus emit carbon are coming under increased pressure. This is particularly true in the case with shifting cultivation, practiced widely across the North East region. SALT (Sloping Agriculture Land Technology or Small Agro-Livestock Land Technology) has been successfully demonstrated in south and southeast Asia as a sustainable method of cultivation for sloping lands in high rainfall areas. It is being tried in Aben with reasonable success revealed Gandhi.

The approach involves creation of vegetative barriers (hedgerows) of nitrogen fixing plants along the contours to control soil loss and surface run-off of rain water while improving soil fertility through nitrogen-fixation. Hedgerows are pruned regularly and the clippings are applied to the inter-row strips as mulch. Field crops, vegetables and tree crops are cultivated on the strips in between the hedgerows. Small livestock such as goats are incorporated into the system. Leguminous fodder species cultivated as fodder banks are periodically harvested to feed the animals. Animal dung is also composted and applied to the soil to maintain soil fertility.  Apparently this system is less labor intensive, requires low external inputs, provides food for the family, marketable produce for income generation and is a sustainable and climate friendly form of settled agriculture.

Stating that the focus in Aben is primary to help farmers to adapt to climate crisis by adopting a sustainable agriculture in place of the subsistence level farming they are currently practicing and at the same time harming the environment, Gandhi said, “Our work in Aben has demonstrated that SALT can be a viable alternative, which can meet the needs of the people. Today of the 75 households in Aben, 70 are experimenting with SALT. In 2018 and 2019, area under Jhum has reduced by 50%.  The elders used to question me, ‘if we don’t do Jhum, what will we eat? ‘ They were reminding me that the upland rice cultivated in the Jhum fields was the main source of food.  I reasoned with them that in any case the Jhum harvest in recent years was only sufficient to feed them for only 4 -6 months in the year. Most families have to purchase rice from nearby town of Jiribam and many families actually go hungry during the remaining months. I told them there was no need to discontinue Jhum cultivation immediately and encouraged them to experiment with SALT. We have also introduced bee-keeping and upland fishery, vaccinations for livestock and poultry in order to supplement the income from SALT.  The SALT model will provide vegetables, fruit and meat for home consumption while providing cash income from sale of produce to enable households to purchase rice from the market.  We’ve also introduced primary processing such as drying of turmeric, converting bananas to banana chips in order to make it easier to transport produce to markets.”

Jhum or Shifting cultivation is still prevalent among indigenous communities of northeast India. This method of cultivation involves clearing of forest area by burning it down and cultivated it for few years. Initially this process result in high yield but continuous cropping causes decreased in soil fertility. Once the soil fertility affects the yields drastically, the farmers then shift to a new forest area and repeat the process. Traditionally, a cultivated area is left fallow for 50-60 years allowing it to replenish soil fertility. But this gestation period has reduced drastically with the increased in population. Farmers are now compelled to return to the same site within 3-6 years even though the period is insufficient for the soil to regain its fertility and for the forest to grow. This system of farming has been widely disputed as environmentally destructive and economically unfeasible. This is where David Gandhi and his wife’s initiative gains significance as the State governments of this region along with environmentally concerned NGOs have been trying to find a viable cultivation method to replace shifting cultivation with little success.

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