In the lap of nature

Print edition : July 30, 2004

A HORTICULTURE technique, some 10,000 years old and forerunner to the systematic cultivation of food crops, is still practised by tribal societies living on hills and mountains the world over and the hill areas of Visakhapatnam are no exception. Known as slash-and-burn cultivation, or Podu in Visakhapatnam, it involves clearing the jungle on the hill slopes, burning the trees and growing crops on the ashes. This method does not require fertilizers, chemicals, pesticides or insecticides. Organically grown, the products are naturally flavoured.

The Samanthas or the Khonds of the Visakhapatnam tribal hill areas are one of the few traditional horticultural communities that have made the Eastern Ghats of Andhra Pradesh and Orissa their home. In the past, they cultivated a plot of land for six-seven years and then moved to a new slope, leaving the earlier plot fallow for some 10 years. But the restrictions on slash-and-burn cultivation and the growing pressure on land have reduced the fallow period to two-three years.

For the tribal people, slash-and-burn cultivation offers certain advantages over settled cultivation: the management is simple and farming requires no special inputs or implements. All that is needed is a hoe and human labour. Crop productivity is low but so is the cost of inputs - around Rs. 600 a year for three crops, less than one-tenth the amount needed to raise a single conventional crop. However, the tribal people do not set much store by either productivity or profits and are satisfied with what they get. The most remarkable feature of Podu cultivation is that almost all varieties of cereals and vegetables are grown in one plot.

THE tribals have a strong sense of community living. Whether it is festivals, farming or funerals, everyone in the village is involved. Slash-and-burn cultivation is in itself a ritual for them. Most festivals are connected with either farming or collection of minor forest produce. During festivals, every household contributes its share in accordance with the decisions arrived at by the village elders. Families celebrate festivals such as "Itika Pongal", the hunting festival in April, by performing the traditional Dimsa and Mayur dances.

In February, during "Biccha Parbu", the seed festival, the Samanthas worship the village goddess "Jakiri Penu" by sacrificing animals. Most tribes believe that sowing seeds mixed with sacrificial blood will propitiate nature. It is only after this ceremony that most tribal people begin sowing operations.

Besides Podu, some tribes also cultivate on flat land. After the monsoon, they plough the field two or three times and then broadcast the seeds, mainly of dry paddy, ragi, and minor millets.

Some tribal people also practise terrace cultivation to grow wet paddy. Though the monsoon is the main source of irrigation, at many places streams have been diverted by raising walls of stones. Seedbeds of wet paddy are raised in May. In early July, the plots are ploughed twice and the water is allowed to stagnate in the field for a week. Then, after ploughing again, the paddy seedlings are transplanted.

All families cultivate horticulture crops such as chillies, tobacco and vegetables on small patches. While some families have pattas for the land, others have "D-form pattas", which proclaim their temporary ownership of the land, and quite a few cultivate land "illegally". Women and children collect a variety of minor forest produce such as edible and herbal roots, tubers and creepers, leaves and fruits. They sell most of these products at the shandies to buy kerosene, oil, salt, tobacco and clothing. Every tribal household has stocks of cereals, pulses and minor millets and never goes hungry throughout the year.

The commercial sense of the market is alien to tribal people. Their economic activity is interwoven with their religious life. Their pantheon of gods and goddesses symbolises various forces of nature and they believe in the absolute surrender of the human spirit to these forces. The availability of food in the jungle, the fertility of the soil, the rain and the outbreak of epidemics signify the bounty or the wrath of the gods and goddesses. Whenever an epidemic breaks out in the village, the Samanthas propitiate "Ruga Penu", the goddess of disease. After worshipping the godess, they ceremonially send her out of the village. The oneness with nature is characteristic of the tribal lifestyle, which is as old as the mountains.

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