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North East Perspective: The way forward

[Remarks delivered at Pinewood Hotel, Shillong, Oct. 8, 2004, on Shifting Cultivation Regional Policy Dialogue Workshop for the Eastern Himalayas.]

Mr. Taori, Mr. Dazeley, Dr. Campbell, Dr. Sharma and friends at ICIMOD, IFAD, Moses Chaki, the teams from Lead India and Missing Link who have facilitated this conference.

Let me express my gratitude to you for inviting me to this workshop and learning from it. It is always good to come to Shillong, my home town, although the weather has been a little wet these past days ?but I think it’s is still enjoyable and contemplative.

These days together have been rich. They have been enriched by the experience and vast knowledge of participants from five countries – India, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan: the eastern quadrant of the Himalaya, natural neighbors and regions. Yet, we know so little about each other. These are the natural neighbors of our landlocked North East, which has communities and ethnic groups from all these countries represented in our region, groups which have come and migrated over

Tibet and China are unrepresented here but they will be there in future forums. As someone associated with the Kunming Initiative, and one who has traveled extensively in Myanmar, South West China, Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan as well as through the North East, we have to see our region in the perspective of “looking east through the North East” and the challenges and opportunities that this opening up will bring.

This is Asia in miniature where different races meet and mingle. Where oral traditions count as much as recorded history, where the word of a person – in a world of relative innocence – is as important as an written agreement. It is but natural therefore that jhum should grow and develop here in a region as varied in its peoples as its ecosystems. But it is under pressure and it needs to respond to these pressures of market and other agricultural systems with improved methods, better stability and a scientific approach.

What we see through the Shillong Declaration is an assertion. The NE (a clumsy political construct in terms of phrasing) is too often known for all the wrong reasons. And I say that as a journalist who has covered South Asia and this region for decades. Today, through this statement it is seeking to tell a different story which we see in the policy themes and recommendations of the workshop..

The North East is saying: through this forum, listen to us, hear us, heed us. Do not make the mistake as you have done time and again of dismissing us or ignoring us: the costs across the region in terms of not learning, listening and hearing are visible in terms of conflict and tragedy.

You have drawn together government officials and NGOs, foresters and academics, farmers and researchers, media and politicians, professionals and bureaucrats. This process seeks to be a bridge, no matter how sharp the disagreements are, between policy, research and field reality. Since it is a process, it must continue at a steady yet strong pace, which is dictated by stakeholders as much as by government and research, by traditional institutions and by new interventions. It is a process which began two years ago and must continue in smaller country groups to enable specific policy changes to take place, at the level of each state.

I am not a technical person or environmental scholar. That is why I have huge respect for those of you who worked on the papers of the workshop, who facilitated the steps on the road ahead.

One of my first experiences of jhum was driving through the forests of the Garo hills on the way to Tura: walls of fire, fields aflame. That was at the ground level. Then when you see it from the air, from a helicopter in Arunachal Pradesh, it is a completely different perspective, of burning fields, of balding hills and renewal.

One thinks of rotating agro-forestry as a way of life, as part of the web and cycle of life, of a web that is sometimes torn and destroyed, but always if given the opportunity renews itself with new strands, revising and revisiting the area of its birth.

The voice from here represents as much those in this room as well as those outside of it, the real players of this drama. It is a signal that it is time to change the policy and philosophy that jhum is bad and that we must search for alternatives, a position that has gone on for over a century. It is a wakeup call to governments in this region, a call for change. To get the Government of India to accept this will be a major task and a major step forward to address the sensitivities of our region

At the same time, we cannot romanticize jhum or the life of the jhumia as unfortunately the film the other evening tried to do. Shifting Cultivation (SC) may have a record of better conservation and land management than other techniques in the areas where they are functioning. But even here, we have heard concerns about the impact on animal species although jhum’s role in conserving the commons, fallow and encouraging plant diversity is also acknowledged.

We are aware that jhumias remain among the poorest of farming groups across the region. Indigenous, yes, but also indigent. Subsistence levels of incomes surely cannot be acceptable any longer. How do you develop income generation, not just livelihood generation? SC groups need access to micro-credit and financial facilities, which are in tune with their needs: perhaps along the lines of SHGs or Grameen in Bangladesh. They need access through better connectivity of roads and IT through IT kiosks to rural markets and businesses, cold storage facilities to name just three. They need sound scientific inputs and research to be more effective. In addition, we must tap the intellectual and social capital in SC so that it is part of policy and implementation.

We also need to see shifting cultivation in the light of major policies, which have been drafted or are in place: including the forest policy for the NER and the draft policy for tribals of the GOI. This is especially relevant to our region. The tribal policy is one of the most insensitive documents that one has read in a long time and as we are aware there has been a strong reaction to it by Adivasi, indigenous and tribal groups across the country, rejecting this draft policy and demanding policies which are inclusive, accept the rights of traditional settlers and tribal groups and customary systems as far as forest and land use is concerned apart from other concerns, such as displacement. It is a good thing that the Government of India has agreed to review it and respond to the outcry from across India.

There are offensive remarks about Primitive Tribal Groups and their practices, which must be changed.

Returning to jhum and the new proposed policies, any policy to be effective needs a time frame and a review mechanism which must include stakeholders as well as government and research institutions. This must be part of a participative process which we need and which must be set up by Government of India and the states. Without this, nothing will work.

The world is changing around us. jhum too will change. The world is coming to Shillong, to Thimpu, to Mandalay and Yangoon, to Lhasa and Biratnagar. We cannot stand aside and that is why jhum needs to be integrated with better scientific processes and connectivity if it is to survive and sustain the lives of millions of people as it has in the past.

In the North East as well as in most of South Asia, we are excellent dreamers and good designers. We are terrible at delivery, except in a few cases. The key is delivery. Without that the door of opportunity, which we talk about, the world of change which the Shillong declaration proposes may not come to pass.

Traditional institutions must become more open and inclusive, especially with regard to the role of women, and in every sense of the word. That is how they will can more democratic and effective by changes from within. This is a crucial component of jhum and its institutions.

When I think of SC and the cultivator I am often reminded of the Prayer of St. Francis, which never fails to move me, as I am sure it moves you. And let me quote a few lines from that as we close, for they reflect on the power, the solitude, the difficulties, the misunderstandings and the warmth of traditions in SC, of the cycle of life.

Where there is darkness, may I bring light
Where there is hatred, may I sow peace
May I seek not so much to be understood
As to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
And in forgiving that we are forgiven

The jhumia have been discriminated against for long enough. It is time to change that without making the mistake of romanticizing the jhumia way of life. Life is all about change and adapting to change, personally and at a larger level. The changes we seek must come not just in law but in the mindsets of people and policy makers especially, of media and image makers, of research and government. We need to walk many paths to progress, toward ecological and economic equality, based on dialogue, realism and a practical vision for the future, validated by relevant experiences and the wisdom of the past and supported by continuing, continuous public campaigns for all round change.

Thank You.

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