Agrarian economy in Tripura

Print edition : December 06, 2019

Manik Sarkar, former Chief Minister. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A Reang tribal couple sowing paddy in their jhum field in Dhalai district of Tripura. A May 2019 photograph. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

A bird’s-eye view of society, the economy and the polity in Tripura and, for specialists, helpful guidance on designing and conducting field studies.

FOR those of us who live in “mainland” India, the north-eastern States are more like an attachment that has to be opened separately. What the book under review does is to click open that attachment showing us something of the terrain and, more importantly, the lives and livelihoods of the people there.

The volume consists of the findings of studies conducted in three villages in Tripura under the Project on Agrarian Relations in India (PARI) of the Foundation for Agrarian Studies. The three villages represent three distinct agrarian systems in the State: a resettled forest village characterised by the traditional jhum cultivation; a village practising upland agriculture; and a third village dominated by lowland agriculture. The villages, not surprisingly, are distinct with respect to tribe and caste structures as well. Much of the book consists of the technical aspects of the choice of these villages, designing and conducting the field studies and the conclusions drawn from them. These will be of special interest to research scholars and field workers and the book is strongly recommended for these specialists.

However, there is a great deal in the book that will benefit general readers, too, especially because books in English on Tripura are rare. Manik Sarkar, who was the Chief Minister of the State for many years, in an interview to one of the field workers, gives an account of the changes that have come about in the State during the past seven decades or so. Tripura was for long a princely and feudal State but merged with the Indian Union in 1949. Its economy depended almost entirely on traditional agriculture. After the merger, some attempts were made to improve conditions, but not much was achieved.

A Left Front government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) came to power in 1978 and was in office for a decade, and then again from 1993 to 2018. Major socio-economic changes were brought about during these years. In many parts of the State, there were no roads, hospitals and schools, electricity and even drinking water. Addressing these problems was given priority. Tribal lands that were taken over by others were restored to tribal people, and this formed the basis of radical land reforms. Emphasis was also given to local self-government, and elections to panchayats were held. Schools for elementary education were started in many parts, and the children were provided with biscuits and bananas. A food-for-work programme was also started.

Attention then turned to attaining self-sufficiency for the State in the production of foodgrain. This was not an easy task considering that 60 per cent of the land was hill or forest. Irrigation had to be improved to enable multiple crops. Fertilizers, better seeds and credit had to be made available to farmers. Diversification of cropping was the next step.

Once agriculture was put on a sound footing, the task was to develop infrastructure—roads and electricity—to form the basis for industrialisation. With these changes, the threat of insurgency was largely curbed. Women’s participation in the workforce increased significantly. Equally important was the rise of a middle class that used the new economic, educational and other opportunities, thus creating greater purchasing power for themselves. This section turned to banking, insurance and other non-traditional activities, enjoying new lifestyles and higher incomes. These changes, not surprisingly, had an influence on politics. Sarkar admitted that the expectations of the rising middle class were a major factor in the fall of the Left Front government in 2018 and the poor performance of the Left parties in the 2019 parliamentary election.

With that we can turn to a brief discussion of the surveys themselves. To understand the nature of agrarian classes in the countryside, households were classified on the basis of means of production, the labour power they employ or sell in the course of production, the surpluses they produce and the incomes they earn. Specifically, the households were classified as landlords and big capitalists, peasants and manual workers.

Of the three villages, Khakchang is illustrative of the tribal-dominated forest village. The village domain is predominantly hilly with over 40 per cent of the land under forests and just a little over 10 per cent comprising lowlands. The traditional jhum cultivation (essentially moving from one area to another) using family labour was practised over more than 50 per cent of the gross cropped area. Incomes were low, but it was not difficult to manage because hired labour was cheap.

Lowland cultivation accounted for less than 40 per cent of labour, mostly male, but weeding and transplanting brought in females as well.

The second village selected, Mainama, is something of a contrast with about 40 per cent of the agricultural land under plantation crops, primarily rubber. Of the rest, some 30 per cent is used for paddy and vegetable cultivation by marginal cultivators. Homestead cultivation is the distinct feature of the village with over 90 per cent of the households owning their house sites. However, wide variations in income were noted.

The third village, Muhuripur, has distinctive features of its own, being the settlement of immigrants, that is, Bengalis. Owned land was the special feature of the village, accounting for over 90 per cent of its agricultural land. With public irrigation available, cultivation was intensive. Use of machines in agriculture was also significant. There were prominent inequalities in both ownership and holdings. These inequalities, however, did not translate into inequalities in income, as most households had different sources of income.

The volume, thus, provides for the general reader a bird’s-eye view of society, the economy and the polity and for specialists helpful guidance on designing and conducting field studies.

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