In the Himalayan region of the north east, the agricultural practice of shifting cultivation also known as jhum cultivation or rotational agro-forestry, prevalent since prehistoric times, is being carried out by traditional tribal societies even today. Over the years, many of these societies got pushed into employing distorted versions of shifting agriculture. Vested interests are using these distortions to press for outlawing the traditional shifting cultivation. However, efforts to wean farmers away from shifting cultivation have not been very successful, and the predominant line of thinking to have emerged is that a change in policy is required keeping in mind changing requirements.

What is shifting agriculture and why has it earned a bad reputation?

Shifting agriculture involves clearing a patch of forest land, but retaining useful trees and plant varieties, cultivating it for two to three years and then abandoning it for 10-20 years to allow the natural forest to grow back and the soil to regain its fertility. The cycle of cultivation, leaving it fallow and coming back to it for cultivation, is called the Jhum cycle. Traditionally, a village community owns/controls the forest land and decides on such rotational cultivation pattern. Thus the community cultivates land for its livelihood while practising conservation and taking care of the ecological balance.

Jhum photo feature: Dr N Upadhyay, Director, NIRD – NERC, Guwahati

Cutting of vegetation for clearing the land is the beginning of agricultural operations in shifting cultivation; Phailengkot village, Manipur


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However, with the population pressure, communities wanting to grow more food have cleared greater chunks of forest lands and returned to the fallow plots much sooner than 10-20 years. The length of the fallow phase between two successive cropping phases has come down to even two to three years in some places. This has resulted in soil degradation, fall in yield, lower returns, and reduction in green cover.

It is this change in traditional practice, arising out of changing conditions, that has given jhum agriculture a bad name. Separately, forests are being exploited for timber and hills are being flattened for soil and stones. Often, this denuding of the forest too is blamed upon jhum cultivation. The state government has come out with various schemes to provide the jhumais with alternate means of livelihood and wean them away from jhuming. However the needs of the jhum cultivators have not been assessed rightly and these schemes have met with limited success or have completely failed.

It is important to state here that shifting cultivation should not be confused with slash-and-burn. Slash-and-burn is a mere land clearing method used by many people around the globe to open up forest land and use it for permanent agriculture. On the contrary, shifting cultivation is an integrated farming system involving forestry, agriculture and strong social organisation on the part of the communities.

No clear policy

There has been so specific policy regarding the rights of farmers in north east India to practice shifting cultivation. Instead, in existence are myriad rules, regulations, policies and government programmes by various ministries that 'allow' or inhibit the practice. Influential factors are the land classification, tenure regulations, and the status of peoples as Scheduled Tribes or their areas under the 5th or 6th Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Government authorities most concerned with shifting cultivation and related aspects include the Supreme Court, the National Planning Commission, the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, including the Department of Development of North Eastern Region (DONER) at central level. Additionally, the North Eastern states have their own governments, departments, and regulations.

The length of the fallow phase between two successive cropping phases has come down to even two to three years in some places.

This has resulted in soil degradation, fall in yield, lower returns, and reduction in green cover.

 •  North East: Apex court rules
 •  Ecology for the people

The Indian Forest Act of 1927, which classifies forests including protected areas, excludes the forests of the North East, which are community controlled. These communities have maintained these forests to serve as fallows. However, the management of these forests and their custody has changed in more recent times because of policy. This includes the conversion of large forest areas into reserved forests or protected areas, changes in ownership of forestland, unsustainable logging and development of other land use systems, including the expansion of settled agriculture and cash crop plantations. Combined with population increase, all this has led to reduced availability of fallow forests and resulting reduction of the fallow phase in the shifting cultivation cycle.

Research & Interventions

The scientist community in India as well as international agencies such as International Development Research Centre, Canada - Indian Council of Forestry Research (IDRC-ICFRE), International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), and the World Bank are researching various aspects of jhum cultivation. The Government of India has also appointed several task forces to estimate the magnitude of the problem and to suggest steps for weaning the people away from the practice. The MoEF appointed one such task force in 2005. However, like in other development matters, despite three decades of extensive studies and various interventions, the situation has not changed much.

At a workshop in September this year 'Shifting Agriculture, Environmental Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods in Marginal Mountain Environment', at Guwahati, researchers and scientists from India, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, and Japan presented papers on diverse aspects of shifting cultivation. While propounding the traditional knowledge, they also highlighted the adverse impact of shifting agriculture and suggested some remedial measures.

However, the experience of all these countries by and large confirms that the state intervention to rehabilitate shifting cultivators has not achieved intended results and in very many cases, jhumias were turning back to shifting agriculture. A number of papers and studies presented at the Guwahati workshop bears testimony to it.

Classifying shifting agriculture

B K Tiwari, a professor at North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, classifies shifting agriculture into four types: traditional, distorted, innovated and modified. This classification aids in understanding how jhum has changed over the years and what is going wrong with newer practices of jhum.

Traditional shifting agriculture is mostly found in villages which have not experienced much pressure of population increase. It is sustainable but may not fulfill all the needs of a modern society. It helps conserve forests as the pattern observes a long fallow period followed by a short cropping phase.

In land scarce villages, for reasons such as population increase, fallow periods are reduced and shifting agriculture has got distorted. Elsewhere the jhum has spread to lands with steep slopes due to non-availability of lands with lesser degrees of slopes. In Mizoram at places less than 1000m altitude, the distorted shifting agriculture has converted much of the subtropical evergreen and semi evergreen forests into scrub and bamboo brakes.

In the third type, i.e., innovated shifting agriculture, the farmers have switched to newer methods of cultivation which are more adapted to the current availability of resources (for example green biomass, technology and labour) and present day societal requirements (for example cash). In some cases they have also introduced new crops, (for example Kolar Beans in Nagaland, Pisum in Meghalaya) which help maintain fertility and also have good market.

The fourth type – modified shifting agriculture - got introduced during the past decade with implementation of two development projects. These are Nagaland Environmental Protection and Economic Development (NEPED) in Nagaland, and North Eastern Region Community Resource Management Project (NERCORMP) in Meghalaya, Manipur, and hill districts of Assam. While NEPED has improved livelihoods through promotion of tree husbandry and cash crops, NERCORMP has done exceptional work in institution building and microfinance. These projects have demonstrated that through multi-pronged external intervention, the productivity of shifting agriculture can be enhanced.

In the final analysis, Tiwari concludes that the emphasis should be on controlling distortions or retrogressive developments rather than on controlling shifting agriculture itself.

Other studies

The ICIMOD paper states that forced conversions from shifting agriculture to permanent forms of agriculture have been counterproductive, alienating the poorest farmers from their land and forests and causing degradation. Hence there is a need for policy change and a new perspective that shows that the bias against shifting cultivation is largely undeserved.

Mizoram Universtiy's paper concludes that lack of proper assessment of the requirements of the people, the need for alternatives and participatory approach have resulted in the failure of government schemes to wean away the jhum farmers.

Government institutions do not adequately provide follow-up and support for developing agricultural production and improving agrarian conditions. A more integrated and location-specific approach in relation to the land-allocation programme is necessary.

The experiences seemed to vindicate the learnings in India in part, and were insightful. Koji Tanaka's study in Laos concluded that the national target to stop shifting cultivation by 2010 will not be achieved. Kanok Rerkasem from Thailand observed that shifting agriculture is being rapidly displaced by intensive monocropping of cash crops and length of cultivation cycle has been reduced to only three to five years in recent times.

The conference also presented new experiments being tried out in shifting cultivation. One paper concluded that though the Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh are practicing wet rice cultivation, valley cultivation and jhum cultivation and animal husbandry, it is not sufficient for their subsistence livelihood. The intensive land use has degraded the systems ecologically which has affected the energy and economic efficiencies of the systems. Similarly, Baharul Islam Majumfer, following his study of different crop management aspects of jhum farming in Tripura, recommended that in place of chemical fertilisers, application of biofertilisers recorded better yield and sustainable fertility.

The acceptance of Jhum

In April 2006, the Government of Meghalaya agreed that it would no longer try to suppress shifting cultivation and would instead examine ways of integrating soil and water conservation measures within it. Earlier in 2004, the Shillong Declaration on shifting agriculture in 2004 was extensive in its coverage of jhum agriculture and several governments in the participating countries have placed it on their agenda. In India, many developments have been taken up, both at the central and the state government level. The recommendations have been advocated during important policy meetings and in reports, including the Farmers' Commission Report on North-East India, and an initiative on participatory forestry. The MoEF has set up a task force on 'Rehabilitation of Shifting Cultivation (Jhum) Fallows'. The state government of Nagaland has trained government extension staff in participatory mapping and the Government of Tripura is looking for opportunities to initiate shifting cultivation development projects.

What can be done

The National Forest Commission has included in its advice to the Government of India ICIMOD's recommendations stating that security of land tenure for shifting cultivators for both the agricultural and fallow phases should be increased. This can be done by reconsidering the classification of shifting cultivation areas and categorising them as agricultural land with adaptive forest management in the fallow period.

The commission also asked for strengthening and capacitating customary institutions for improved local level governance, management of tribal, community-based natural resources, and tenurial access and control. Existing credit policies need to be reoriented to be sensitive and proactive to situations where common property regimes apply and coordination among different government agencies must be encouraged that have responsibilities for aspects of shifting cultivation. It also accepted ICIMOD recommendation of propagating medicinal plants and bamboo which is the most versatile crop of the North-East.

The need to for better regulation seems of utmost importantce. Farmers should be allowed to clear the fallows when it is time for the cropping phase, and the species selection should be adjusted towards soil conservation as well. The timber trade should be regulated in such a way that the farmers can sell the timber when they clear it.

Existing common property regimes should be strengthened, to avoid capture of the land and improved fallows by elites from within the communities. Overall, tenure security should be increased, as well as access to credit in those situations where common property regimes apply. Policies and programmes should be put in place that better acknowledge the role of customary institutions in the community management of the resources, in controlling the burning, and protecting forest resources against the timber mafia and elite capture.

Also, in recent years, the joint forest management concept has come into vogue for combining the state and the people in the forest management. The current programme is not appropriate, however, because farmers are supposed to be the owners of these forests, whereas in JFM they would have to share ownership. Moreover, the forest departments focus on policing and controlling the forests. If they were more adept at training farmers and working with communities, they could play a major role in mobilising them to improve and enrich their fallows by growing forests there.


Professor P S Ramakrishnan, noted authority on shifting agriculture and professor from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, sums up the issues as follows:

• A meaningful solution to the problem of jhum has become critical, not only from the point of biodiversity conservation, but also for productive agriculture in the region. The solution to the problem of the shortening fallow cycle lies in strengthening this already weakened agro-forestry system, through fallow management using appropriate tree species, rather than imposing an alien technology from outside the region. Nepalese Alder (Alnus nepalensis) and bamboos are examples amongst many others to be selected through intense community participation.

• Scientifically analysed TEK (traditional ecological knowledge) available with local communities is a powerful tool to redevelop jhum as part of a short-term strategy, and as a component of a more comprehensive landscape management plan. We can design hybrid technologies bringing in text-book based formal knowledge system only to the extent that will be acceptable in the given socio-ecological context.

• A variety of other opportunities exist to redevelop land use systems other than jhum, such as valley wet rice cultivation, through appropriate designed traditional water harvesting and soil fertility management technologies. The strengthening of this land use could be also seen as a means to take away the pressure from jhum itself, to the extent possible.