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Promising harvest

Print edition : Apr 11, 2008 T+T-

Government intervention in Tripura ensures food security for jhum cultivators.

in Ambassa, Dhalai district

WITH a rangbwtang (necklace made of silver coins) round her neck, Koyati Reang, clad in the traditional attire of a Reang woman a rignai (a wraparound from the waist down to the knees), a riha covering the chest, and a rikutu covering the upper half of her body did brisk business at the roadside market at Machuraipara near Ambassa, the headquarters of Tripuras Dhalai district. Areca nuts, large size ash-gourds and vegetables, organic, tasty and fresh from her jhum fields, sold like hot cakes within an hour.

A few feet away, Gasaram Reang, Paresh Reang and Manidra Debbarma were among other jhum cultivators selling organic vegetables and other produce from their jhum plots in the market along National Highway 44. With the cash they got from the sales they bought dry and fermented fish and household goods that traders from the plains had brought to the market.

Improved jhum cultivation, made possible by the intervention of the State governments Agriculture Department, has made a difference to their lives. Agriculture Minister Aghore Debbarma said: Until this intervention was made, tribal jhumia families of Ambassa and other areas of Tripura were gripped by food shortage as they could not raise enough crops to last them for more than six months because of the fall in the jhum cycle which led to a decline in soil fertility. Now they not only get enough food crop from their jhum fields to last them for at least nine to 10 months, they can also make money by selling some of their produce, completely organic and tasty and in high demand in the market.

Of the 20 gram panchayats in Ambassa, 17 fall under the jurisdiction of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) and the villages are inhabited by various tribes Reangs, Debbarmas, Mog, Halam, Hrankhwal and Tripuri. Reangs have been identified as the only Primitive Tribe Group of Tripura by the Government of India.

Tripura is a hilly and landlocked State with a geographical area of 10,49,169 hectares, 60 per cent of which is high land. More than 70 per cent of the people are dependent on agriculture. Small and marginal farmers constitute about 90 per cent of the farming community, but there is hardly any scope for bringing any more land under food crops because of the ever-increasing population.

Tripura has 19 different tribes. Tribal communities constitute 31.05 per cent of the States 31.99 lakh people. Tribal people formed the majority in the princely state of Tripura, ruled by tribal kings until 1949. The partition of India led to a large-scale influx of non-tribal people from what is now Bangladesh, resulting in a demographic change that reduced the tribal people to a minority. In Dhalai district, however, the tribal people constitute the majority, accounting for 54.02 per cent of the population.

In traditional jhum practice, tribal people produce different varieties of paddy, oilseeds and vegetables in a pattern of farming that leaves the land fallow for a long time, followed by short periods of cultivation, which allows the land to regain its fertility. The size of jhum plots vary from one hectare to two hectares. Earlier, the land would be left fallow for 12 to 14 years. But now, the jhum cycle has been reduced to three to four years because of the pressure on land and the increasing population. With the fall in the jhum cycle, production has fallen, too.

The governments intervention, however, has started to show results. Hiralal Debbarma, Agricultural Officer, Satya Ram Choudhury Agri Sector under Salema Agri subdivision in Ambassa district, said: The improved method of jhum cultivation was introduced to increase the production of jhum crops such as paddy, maize, arhar, cotton and mesta through the supply of production inputs such as improved seeds. Horticultural crops such as pineapple, papaya and banana were introduced. The results are very encouraging. The production of jhum rice has gone up from an average of 500 kg a hectare to about 900 kg a hectare.

Pointing to a patch of NDR 97, a high yielding variety of upland paddy that has been introduced recently in Machuraipara, in Gasarams jhum plot, Debbarma said the introduction of the high yielding variety was expected to increase the production of jhum rice to at least 1,200 kg a hectare. Traditional varieties of jhum paddy include Beti, jhum malati and maimi.

Apart from providing improved inputs such as high yielding variety seeds and biofertilizers, the department has been motivating jhum cultivators to carry out weeding at least three times. When jhum cycles are shortened, soil erodes faster, fertility declines, and the increased growth of weeds affects production. More frequent weeding is expected to make the traditional practice of jhum economically and environmentally sustainable. A large number of jhumia families have now settled down on the same plot and given up the practice of migrating to faraway places in search of new plots. This has brought down environmental degradation, the official said.

Initially chemical fertilizers were used on an experimental basis. However, we found that there is a high demand for jhum produce in the market only because it is organic. To maintain the organic character of jhum crops, biofertilizers have been introduced as part of the planned improvement in jhum cultivation, he added.

Debbarma said that of the 6,561 tribal jhumia families of Ambassa, about 70 per cent are hardcore jhumias who often shift from one location to another in search of jhum plots. It was really a challenging task to motivate hardcore jhumia families to adopt improved methods of jhum cultivation. They would not like to try the new varieties until they had seen one of their own adopting the new variety and getting positive results, he said.

Gasaram, who has benefited from the governments intervention, said: Earlier the produce from our jhum fields barely met our food requirement for six months. Life was very harsh for the remaining six months of the year. We had to go out in search of work on a daily-wage basis. Following improvement in jhum cultivation, the production has gone up and we get enough food for about nine to 10 months and we also earn cash by selling some of the produce. For the remaining two to three months we manage on earnings under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

His son and daughter study in residential schools at Kamalpur. I have nothing to worry about the education of my children. The State government provides them food, free board and textbooks. My wife Bhagyati helps me in the jhum field and with the improved jhum method we now raise enough crops to live a comfortable life, he said.

The Tripura Human Development Report 2007 states that in 1961, about 25,000 jhumia families in the State were dependent on jhum cultivation for their livelihood. A benchmark survey in 1978, conducted by the first Left Front government in Tripura, found 46,854 families, constituting a tribal population of 2.59 lakh people dependent on jhum. This estimate was revised to 55,049 families (2.88 lakh people); 44,000 were in areas falling under the TTAADC. In 1999, the Department of Tribal Welfare estimated that 51,265 families depended on jhum. The largest concentrations of jhumia families were found in Dhalai and South districts. In 2007, the Forest Department completed the first-ever census of hardcore shifting cultivators and found 27,278 families, comprising about 136,000 people, dependent on jhum.

The State government has been rehabilitating and resettling tribal jhumia families, motivating them to raise rubber plantations and grow various horticultural crops and spices, pursue pisciculture, and take up crafts such as weaving as alternative sources of livelihood. The government has also set up residential schools where children of jhum cultivators and other tribal families are provided free education. Food, lodging and textbooks are all provided by the government.

The number of jhumia families has declined, but they still constitute more than 10 per cent of the tribal families, which is a matter of concern for the government and TTAADC authorities. Aghore Debbarma said: The successive Left Front governments have initiated a number of steps for the protection of the rights and interests of the tribal people in Tripura. The result is very encouraging. It has not only helped increase the productivity of jhum cultivation but has also helped tribal families preserve their rich culture and heritage intricately linked to jhum.