Translated from Kokborok by Sentu Debbarma
Jhum cultivation, also known as the slash and burn type of agriculture, is the process of growing crops by clearing the land of trees and vegetation and then burning them before plantation. The burnt soil contains potash which increases the nutrient content of the soil. Tripura’s tribals have been practising Jhum cultivation for generations now and it is a dominant mode of food production in the state. Although the number is reducing, many tribals still practice jhum cultivation in Tripura’s tribal areas.
Mr. Bidi Bosun Debbarma, one of the jhum cultivators of Ujanimai Para, has been living in the jhum fields, cultivating and supporting his family with this farming for a long time. He doesn’t have a proper house to live in and works hard to provide for his family. Every day as the sun rises, he goes for cutting and burning trees and bamboo to make a suitable place for paddy plantation. He has been watching his grandparents and parents since he was a kid, observing how they go about their farming activities. Today, he applies the same methods.
“I have been cultivating jhum since I was a child, and I do this on my own, I don’t get any kind of help from anyone. Even the government hasn’t given us any kind of facilities or help. Many people I know have died of starvation and nobody seems to take any notice. I have 3 kanis of jhum land and the Government people just visit the farms and leave, and don’t provide any help to make our lives easier. I am scared for the future; I don’t know how long I can continue doing this and how we will survive when I grow old.”
Speaking about the unfair market price and the inability to cover costs, Mr Debbarma adds, “Planting of Paddy seeds in hilly jhum land is very difficult as it needs to be cleaned up before plantation to make a suitable place for paddy seeds to grow. Right now it is the season of mamita rice grain cultivation. When we harvest this rice and go to the market to sell it, we don’t get a fair price for them. Sometimes I feel like my hard work just goes in vain as the money we receive by selling the rice grain is not sufficient enough to recover the money that we paid to the labourers during cultivation. Nowadays, the daily wages of a male and female labour is rupees 350/- and 250/- per head respectively and for cultivating 3 kanis of hilly jhum land, I need a minimum of 12-13 workers.”
The planting of paddy seeds on the hilly jhum land starts within 2-3 days right after cutting and burning the trees and bamboos from the hilly forest land. The women workers then slowly and gradually climb up across the hilly jhum land planting paddy seeds with the help of their wedding knife.
Along with paddy seeds, in jhum cultivation we can grow different types of fruits and vegetables such as melon (monphol), cucumber (dorompai), pigeonpea (Muimasing), brinjal (phantok), chilli (moso) and pumpkin (chakamura). The Paddy seeds that we use for jhum cultivation require less water, which is why these seeds are planted on high hills. Jhum cultivation starts from the month of February and by the month of June or July the crops are harvested. Jhum cultivation is a completely organic form of cultivation and we don’t need to use any kinds of chemical fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides in the process. The most important thing that we need to do is just to keep the cattle and wild animals away from the cultivation areas.
Rice grain, fruits and vegetables that we receive from jhum cultivation are completely organic and healthy food, and have helped tribals here maintain good health. Nowadays, however, very few people practice jhum cultivation as it doesn’t wield much profit for the cultivator. Some of the jhum landowners have also started rubber plantations on their land to earn maximum profit.
The government should turn their attention to tribal farmers in Tripura and help them received fair prices for their hard work and harvest. They provide food to all of us, they should not have to suffer for food themselves.
This article is created as a part of the Adivasi Awaaz project, with the support of Misereor and Prayog Samaj Sevi Sanstha.