HomeNewsIndigenous people left landless as traditional farming wanes in northeast India

Indigenous people left landless as traditional farming wanes in northeast India

Tribal people in northeastern India are increasingly becoming landless and poor as their traditional farming practices are abandoned in favor of commercial plantations, indigenous experts warned.

“Jhum” is the practice by tribal groups in the northeastern states of rotating land use for temporary farming, resulting in parts of forest land being cleared and cultivated to grow food.

After three years, the cultivated field is left to regenerate while another area is cleared.

Much of the land in the northeast has traditionally been owned and managed by tribal communities and clans without formal tenure or titles.

But in recent years, some states have introduced individual tenure that has led to communities abandoning jhum to establish plantations, said Fabian Lyngdoh, a former tribal councillor in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya state.

This has damaged the region’s biodiversity and led to increased poverty and landlessness, he said. 

“When the land was managed by the community, they could not sell the land, and decisions on its use had to be taken jointly,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of a conference in Shillong.

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“But with individual titles, they can grow anything, or sell the land,” he said.

About 76 percent of rural households are landless in Meghalaya, according to census data, while in nearby Mizoram state, the figure is nearly 80 percent. The national average, by contrast, is 56 percent.

The seven northeastern states are among the most heavily forested and resource-rich areas in India, with vast reserves of coal, oil, natural gas, and minerals.

Four of these states with large indigenous populations have special constitutional rights to protect their land and resources.

But many state governments are diluting laws to gain greater control over land for mining, dams, and highways, said Patricia Mukhim, an indigenous rights activist in Shillong. Authorities argue they are prioritizing jobs and higher incomes for tribal groups.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that indigenous people in Meghalaya — which is covered by constitutional protections — have full rights over the land and its resources, and that only they can grant permission for mining.

But even within tribal communities, power rests with chiefs or elites, while women — who do most of the farming — are left out of the decision making, said Mukhim.

“With jhum, women grew a mix of paddy, vegetables and greens, so food security and proper nutrition was ensured,” she said. 

“With more terrace farming and palm oil cultivation, we are seeing malnutrition and poverty that is pushing some women into commercial sex work and begging,” said Mukhim.

The practice of jhum can be helped by improving irrigation systems, better land-use planning, tenure security, and access to credit, according to a 2018 report by Niti Aayog, a government think tank.

With greater pressure on land and younger tribal members opting out of jhum, modernization is needed, said Vincent Darlong, vice chancellor of Martin Luther Christian University in Shillong.

“That way, jhum can still be practiced as a way to preserve indigenous customs, as well as to manage the land and forests in a sustainable way,” he said.

Reporting by Rina Chandra for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change.

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