- The New Land Use Policy (NLUP) scheme of the Mizoram government distributes funds to the farmers to take up alternative livelihood and give up the traditional shifting cultivation practice of jhum. The scheme has got mixed reactions and results.
- As the state goes to polls this month, the currently ruling Congress party in the state is banking on the scheme to clinch power for the third consecutive term in the agrarian state of Mizoram and has prioritised NLUP in its election manifesto.
- Jhum cultivation is a traditional farming practice in Mizoram where farmers clear a patch of jungle by burning it. The ashes left behind become the fertiliser and burnt area is used for the cultivation. However, once the produce is harvested, the land becomes barren and cannot be reused until a decade or so has passed and a new patch of land has to be cleared and burnt every year.
This is the first article in a two-part series on the role of environment in the upcoming elections in Mizoram. Part Two examines the issue of pollution of the Chite Lui river flowing through Aizawl in the state elections.
Hrangthangmawia has been a farmer at Aibawk village in Mizoram in northeast India for the past 30 years. The sixty-year-old owns two hectares of land in the village where he practised jhum cultivation for growing rice for his livelihood, up until a few years ago. He then took up the New Land Use Policy (NLUP) scheme, the flagship programme of the state government that promised to distribute funds to the farmers to take up alternative livelihood and prevent the destruction of the environment by burning the forests which is part of the jhum cultivation practice. Despite being an ardent Congress supporter, the ruling party in Mizoram, he is highly displeased with the scheme and wants to return to jhuming, the practice of shifting cultivation. His two sons are likely to do the same to earn their daily bread.
“The major problem is the delay in receiving the funds allocated to us (farmers). I took up broom making as an alternative livelihood but the delay in receiving funds coupled with lack of market for selling the product has made it difficult for me to continue with NLUP. I am planning to return to the traditional method of farming that my ancestors had done,” he says while sitting in a single room of his bamboo house that has been partitioned with a curtain to accommodate five members of his family, including a daughter.
A few metres away, another farmer, Biakthean Sanga is a happy man. The 56-year-old farmer has managed to buy a two-wheeler and some accessories for his farm from the money he received under NLUP scheme.
The much-hyped NLUP project of the state government has evoked a mixed reaction among the farmers in the state that goes to polls on November 28.
Political parties cannot ignore farmers in Mizoram, a primarily agrarian state with around 70 percent of the total population (1.09 million as per census 2011) involved in farming. The farmers have been practising jhuming (also called the slash and burn method) cultivation for ages under which they clear a patch of jungle by burning it. The ashes left behind become the fertiliser and burnt area is used for the cultivation of main staple rice and other subsidiary crops such as tobacco, cotton, chilli and vegetables.
The problem with jhuming is that once the produce is harvested, the land becomes barren and cannot be reused until a decade or so has passed and a new patch of land has to be cleared and burnt year after year.
As a result, Mizoram’s lands have, over the decades, lost their fertility and wooded areas to an alarming degree. This has resulted in drying up of springs and rivers and depletion of underground water reserves and loss of precious fertile top soil. During the recent years, the fallow period of shifting cultivation has been reduced to 2-3 years from the previous 15-20 years thus decreasing the per hectare yield of crop.
NLUP gets priority on Congress party’s manifesto in Mizoram
According to India State of Forest Report (2017), the state spread over an area of 21,087 sq km had 91.6 percent of forest cover till 2011 that dropped to almost 86 percent in 2017. The sharp decline is attributed to jhuming, encroachments and development activities.
With an aim to minimise the impact of jhum farming and save environment, the Congress government came up with NLUP when it acquired power in 2008. It had tried to implement the similar policies during its previous two tenures from 1985-1992 and 1993-1998 but without much success.The NLUP was implemented in 2011 with some modifications and a better framework following the suggestions from the Government of India that envisaged a five-year-project with a staggering budget of Rs. 2,800 crores (Rs. 28 billion).
The major objectives of the scheme were to provide sustainable income to farming families by weaning them away from the destructive and unprofitable shifting cultivation practice and the protection and restoration of environment.
Around 1,33,000 families were selected who were to be paid Rs. 100,000 each in instalments for adopting alternative livelihood that comprised mainly of rubber plantation, broom making, oil palm and automobiles among others. A marketing cell under NLUP Implementing Board (NIB) was also created to find buyers for the products.
Cut to the present, the Congress terms its pet project as highly successful and is banking on it to clinch power for the third consecutive term in Mizoram.
In fact, it has accorded top spot to NLUP in its election manifesto, “We have covered over 76 percent of the households in the scheme. We promise to amend the guidelines for its better implementation and quantum of assistance will be enhanced to take into account the challenges of inflation if voted to power again,” assured Lallian Chhunga, spokesperson of the state Congress.
The NLUP Implementing Board (NIB) cites statistics to back their success story. They claim that the area utilised under jhum cultivation came down to 19,851 hectares in 2015-16 from 40,792 hectares in 2008-09.
As per NIB, the numbers of families practising jhum have also decreased from 68,433 during 2010-11 to 48,417 during 2015-16. “The project has been a huge success. We have almost covered all the eligible beneficiaries and have distributed the money allocated to them. Most of the farmers have stopped jhum and have taken up alternative livelihood but it would take at least a generation to totally curb the traditional practise as some crops take time to grow and also it would take more efforts to change the mindset of the farmers and shift them to other means of livelihood,” pointed out James Lalrinchhana, secretary of NIB sounding visibly happy with the project.
He even claimed that the total area under rice cultivation, the main staple crop of the state, including jhum during 2015-16 was 37,153 hectares out of which 15.68 percent was contributed by NLUP. Subsequently, the total rice production in Mizoram that stood at 47,201 metric tonnes in 2010-11 jumped to 62,089 metric tonnes in 2015-16.
Environment issues play an important role in Mizoram state politics
The importance of environment issues in Mizoram and its affect on state politics can only be understood from the fact that the Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla launched a Rain Garden Scheme (RGS) to preserve community reserve forests (locally known as Zotheihuan) on October 1, 2018, nearly two months before the scheduled polls.
V.L. Bela, the president of Mizoram Environment & Forest Consultative Forum (MEFCOF), a non-profit working for the environment that has been supervising the RGS scheme says that the aim is not only to protect the biodiversity but also to train people about ways to protect the water bodies for their better utilisation.
The political opposition, however, has been terming the NLUP and other efforts by the state government for environment as a gimmick to gain votes and expand its vote bank. “The NLUP has been a big disaster for the farmers and the beneficiaries have been mostly the voters of the ruling party. The funds have been misused and distributed mostly to the Congress party supporters. The chief aim was to save the environment but farmers are going back to jhum after feeling cheated by the scheme. We are raising these issues among the voters during the campaigns,”said H. Rammawi, former state agriculture minister and senior leader of Mizo National Front (MNF), the main opposition party in Mizoram.
Similar sentiments are shared by the All Mizoram Farmers’ Union (AMFU), the biggest non-profit working for farmers, who has been staging protest accusing the state government for the shoddy implementation of the NLUP. “The success rate is just 10-15 percent with most of the farmers unhappy with the scheme. The NLUP has not at all been conducive for the environment. It has helped the Congress to gain power and will now facilitate its exit from the state,” said Zion Lalremruata, the general secretary of AMFU.
Even Lalkhama, a retired IAS officer and former state chief secretary considered to be an architect of NLUP has also expressed its strong displeasure with the scheme. “The project was envisaged to help farmers and save environment and everything looked so good on the papers but the implementation has been unsatisfactory. The farmers would certainly switch to jhum if the funds are not given on time. There has been a gross misuse of funds as people used money for buying vehicles and other items. In some cases, beneficiaries were paid based on their political affiliations and lack of markets made farmers unenthusiastic towards it,” said the octogenarian who enjoys a sharp memory despite the advancing age.
Professor V.P. Sati, head of department of geography in Mizoram University advocates a strong necessity to save the environment as the temperatures are soaring. “We found a 0.4 degree rise in the temperature till 2015 in our study done for the past 26 years of the state. The rainfall has decreased by 1.4 percent on an average during the same period as the state normally gets 2400 mm of rainfall every year. The climate is changing and becoming warmer now with rains turning erratic.”
He concluded that the need of an hour is to strongly implement the environment related policies so that Mizoram remains the abode of scenic and breathtaking hills.