Jhum: shifting opinions


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OVER three decades ago, P.D. Stracey listed a number of problems caused by slash-and-burn shifting cultivation or jhum as commonly practised by indigenous tribes in North East India. This ‘primitive’ form of agriculture, according to him, resulted in serious environmental problems: loss of forest cover, erosion of topsoil, desertification, and declines in forest productivity.1 Others have also decried jhum as an inefficient form of agriculture, an impediment to progress of forestry, and an agent of destruction of biodiversity.2 Such beliefs have been widespread since British times, and have even resulted in forcible suppression of the practice, oppression and relocation of tribals in Central India and other hill regions.3

In contrast, studies by ethnologists have tended to view shifting cultivation favourably. It is considered a diversified system, well adapted to local conditions in moist forest and hilly tracts.4 Others have argued that traditional shifting cultivation may not be as destructive as modern forest exploitation for timber. Clearance of small patches of forest with long fallow periods may even enhance biodiversity in the landscape due to the creation of a variety of habitats.5 Amidst such contrasting views, there is a clear need for reliable empirical and scientific data on the nature and ecological impact of jhum.

Shifting cultivation, variously known as rotational bush-fallow agriculture, swidden cultivation, or slash-and-burn cultivation, is an ancient form of agriculture still commonly practised in many parts of the humid tropics. Within India, shifting agriculture or jhum is practised predominantly in the hill tracts of eastern and North Eastern India. At least 100 different indigenous tribes and over 620,000 families in the seven states of North East India depend on jhum for their subsistence.6 This article makes a reappraisal of some of the widespread beliefs, myths and opinions regarding jhum as practised in North East India.

Although the pattern and details of shifting cultivation differ in different places and tribes, there are broad similarities. Jhum cultivation usually involves cutting of second-growth bamboo forests. Since old growth or primary forest is less extensively available and is more difficult to clear, they are cultivated infrequently. The clearing work usually begins in January-February. The slashed vegetation is allowed to dry on the hill slopes for 1-2 months prior to burning in March-April. Crops are sown with the first rains in April in plots that are 1-4 ha in area. Usually, inter-cropping of one or more paddy varieties with 15-20 other crops (vegetables, maize, chillies, gourds, cotton, arum, and mustard) is carried out.



The economics and efficiency of shifting agriculture has been studied in Meghalaya and other states of North East India by a team of scientists led by P.S. Ramakrishnan.7 These studies showed that, far from being primitive and inefficient, jhum is an ingenious system of organic multiple cropping well suited to the heavy rainfall areas of the hill tracts. The economic and energetic efficiency of jhum is higher than alternative forms of agriculture such as terrace and valley cultivation. This is mainly because terrace and valley cultivation needs expensive external input such as fertilisers (which often get leached or lost in the heavy rainfall hill slopes) and pesticides, besides labour for terracing. Monetary output-input ratios (rupees/ha/year) range from about 1.8 for jhum cycles of 5-10 years to 2.1 for a 20-year jhum cycle. This is higher than the values for settled terrace cultivation (1.43) and valley cultivation (<1.3). Energetic output-input ratio (MJ/ha/year) in jhum is twice that of valley cultivation and over five times that of terrace cultivation.8 Even gross returns (rupees/ha) from jhum are about 1.9 times higher than for terrace cultivation.9



It is commonly believed that jhum was a sustainable system in the past when fallow periods were long, but with increasing population pressure jhum cycles have declined and become unsustainable. The evidence for this is weak. In a review, Singh10 has pointed out that: (i) there is often no strong relationship between population pressure and jhum cycles, (ii) villagers choose to cultivate at cycles of 5-10 years even when longer fallow periods are possible, and (iii) that population density would impinge on jhum cycle only after some critical threshold of high population pressure is crossed. The duration of the fallow period is influenced by the ease of clearing the vegetation and soil fertility levels following the slash-and-burn operations. The burning of slash returns nutrients to the soil through ash and kills microbes allowing relatively high yields. Yields decline as the soil is depleted through one year of cropping and cultivation is rarely carried out for more than a year. When fields are abandoned, there is rapid regeneration of bamboo and other plants. After ten years, the vegetation and soil properties recover to levels that can support another round of jhum cultivation.11 In some areas with better regrowth of bamboo, even shorter fallow cycles may be feasible and sustainable.12 Where fallow cycles are less than five years, jhum cultivation may be stabilised using modern technical inputs,13 while concurrently developing alternative village-based occupations.14



The superiority of jhum cultivation over some forms of sedentary cultivation partly explains the persistence of this form of agriculture in North East India. Other reasons include the economic security provided by jhum and its cultural importance to indigenous tribes. Poor access to markets, capital, and technical knowhow of more commercially rewarding alternatives such as horticulture and cash crop cultivation also hinders the transition to other occupations. Clearly, one cannot do away with jhum assuming it to be a primitive and inefficient system, as attempted in governmental jhum control programmes and new land use policies.15 Instead, an unbiased understanding of the advantages of jhum is required for proper design and implementation of developmental programmes.

Erosion of valuable topsoil in the hills due to jhum has been alleged to cause siltation and floods in the plains. Singh16 has reviewed studies carried out by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research that compared soil erosion from jhum fields with other forms of cultivation on terraces and contour bunds. These studies show that jhum fields cultivated for a single year and abandoned (the most common practice) have less erosive losses of soil than the other forms of settled cultivation.

Some erosion of topsoil is inevitable in any form of cultivation in the high rainfall hill tracts. Soil erosion is minimised in jhum due to the retaining of rootstocks of bamboo and trees in burned plots, the rapid recovery of weeds and bamboo following abandonment, and the interspersion of forests and fields on hill slopes.17 The evidence for siltation of rivers and floods because of soil erosion due to jhum is weak and possibly untenable. Other factors, such as large scale logging for timber extraction, may be responsible to a greater extent for the deforestation and environmental problems in North East India.



What is the extent of deforestation and loss of forest cover that can be attributed to jhum? This question has no simple answer. Forest cover estimates from different sources vary and, at best, report only amount of dense (>40% canopy cover) and open (<40% canopy cover) forest. The dense forest category could include plantations and dense secondary forest with bamboo. The estimates of changes in forest cover, therefore, do not give a clear picture of the changes in the nature of forest types. Estimates produced between 1975 and 1983 of the area affected annually by shifting cultivation in India varied enormously from 9,956 to 90,000 square kilometres.18 Between 1989 and 1991, a net decrease of forest cover of 387 km2 due to jhum was estimated for the seven states of North East India.19 The forest loss due to jhum increased to 448 km2 between 1991 and 199320 and then decreased to 175 km2 lost between 1993 and 1995.21



The extent of forest loss due to jhum varies from state to state. Over the same period, the amount of forest cover lost appears to be declining in Arunachal Pradesh, increasing in Nagaland and Manipur, and fluctuating in Mizoram between a loss of 156 km2 in 1989-91 to a gain of 199 km2 in 1993-95.22 Clearly, there is no simple relationship between jhum and forest loss, implying dynamic changes in forest cover due to the interacting effects of various factors.

Monitoring forest loss due to jhum from satellite requires more accurate ground-truthing. The shifting cultivation landscape is a mosaic of forests, fields and fallows. Every year the complexion of the landscape changes because of varying juxtaposition and interspersion of these elements. It is important to distinguish different successional stages of vegetation regrowth, especially dense forest cover that represents bamboo regrowth habitats or plantations rather than mature tropical wet forest. External influences that reduce available area for shifting cultivation, such as the loss of traditional jhum land to commercial tree plantations or development, will also have to be considered. Only a more detailed and dynamic analysis of such changes will give a clear picture of trends of change in forest cover due to jhum.



The belief that jhum has a detrimental impact on wildlife finds support in recent studies. Studies in Mizoram on rainforest birds, arboreal mammals, and plants have shown that second-growth habitats created by jhum, especially young fallows and dense, monotypic bamboo forests, support only a fraction of the species found in undisturbed primary tropical rain-forest.23 Species that thrive in open fallows and young bamboo forests are mainly common, widespread ones, such as bulbuls, tailorbirds, and hoarybellied squirrels, which are of little conservation importance. A large number of specialised and endangered rainforest plants and animals such as hoolock gibbons, capped langurs, Pallas’s and Malayan giant squirrels, hornbills, peacock-pheasants, wren-babblers, and woodpeckers occur only in undisturbed primary forest.24.

As fallow regrowth is rapid, many species may survive if jhum cycles are long enough to allow substantial forest regeneration. It has been estimated that regrowth habitats begin attaining biodiversity values close to those in primary forest only after at least 25 years (for birds) and 50-75 years (for woody plants).25 In most areas, jhum cycles are far below this – usually less than 10 years. Clearly then, there is a need to protect mature tropical forest for the conservation of biodiversity. In the past, this has been achieved mainly through central and state laws that created ‘safety’ and ‘supply’ village forest reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. In some areas, such as Meghalaya, sacred groves set aside and protected by village communities also conserve a significant portion of local biodiversity.26 The erosion of traditional values and deterioration of sacred groves in recent times is, however, a matter for concern.27 Although jhum is most commonly blamed, other factors such as conversion to monoculture commercial tree plantations, and logging for timber extraction can also have negative impacts on biodiversity.



Rapid demographic and social changes have occurred in many tribal societies of North East India. The environmental impacts of jhum cultivation and its role in people’s lives have concurrently changed. The state of Mizoram offers an instructive study because of profound changes in people and landscapes in the last century. The state’s population has increased from 82,434 persons (4/km2) in 1901 to 689,756 persons (33/km2) in 1991. The conversion of over 80% of the population to Christianity in less than a century (1894-1994) has dislodged the significant role of superstition and mystique in peoples’ relationship with their natural environment. Since the 1950s, literacy rates have increased to over 90% and percentage of the urban population to 46.33%. Agricultural changes include an increase in the gross cropped area from 382 km2 in 1911 to over 975 km2 in 1991. A large majority of peoples is tribal and dependent on jhum for its subsistence and livelihood. Considerable influx of immigrants from neighbouring Tripura and Bangladesh has also occurred.28



Major changes in administration of land, forests and regulation of jhum cultivation followed the abolition of chieftainship and the formation of democratically elected village councils in 1954. In the 1960s, bamboo flowering, famine, insurgency, grouping of villages, development of roads and communications, and urbanisation, effected further social changes. All of these altered the peoples’ traditional relationships with nature and the magnitude of their impact on the environment.

More recently, an ambitious new land use policy was launched with the basic objective of rapidly replacing jhum cultivation by alternative occupations such as horticulture, terracing, and small-scale industries.29 Between 1990 and 1996, the government spent over Rs 132 crores, which is supposed to have reached over 41,000 beneficiaries.30 The NLUP can potentially help a large number of families in dire need of better livelihoods in the North Eastern region.

Unfortunately, reliable independent information on the efficacy and implementation of NLUP schemes is lacking. As village councils have not been involved in the design and implementation of NLUP schemes and relatively new notions of individual ownership of land have been introduced, the regulation of jhum appears to be in disarray in many villages.31 Although it is too early to comment on the success of NLUP, the need for transparent monitoring is obvious.



The people of North East India represent a fascinating variety of cultures. Jhum plays an important cultural role in local customs, traditions, and practices, besides offering economic security to farmers. It would be unfortunate if developmental programmes based on misguided opinions about jhum suppress this unique form of agriculture. Only occupations providing monetary and social benefits perceived by jhumias to outweigh the cultural and security benefits embodied by jhum are likely to gain acceptance. A balanced approach to development that also recognises the merits of jhum is needed. Then, this remarkable form of organic farming may persist into the 21st century.



1. P.D. Stracey, 1967, ‘A note on Nagaland’, Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society 64: 440-446.

2. D. Borah and N.R. Goswami, 1973, A comparative study of crop production under shifting and terrace cultivation (a case study in the Garo hills, Meghalaya). Ad hoc Study 35, Agro-economic Research Centre for North East India, Jorhat; A.P. Dwivedi, 1993, Forests: the ecological ramifications. Natraj Publishers, Dehradun; R.R. Rao and P.K. Hajra, 1986, ‘Floristic diversity of the eastern Himalaya in a conservation perspective’, Proceedings of the Indian Academy of Sciences (Animal Sciences/Plant Science Supplement) November: 103-125.

3. C. von Fürer-Haimendorf, 1982, Tribes of India: the struggle for survival. Oxford University Press, Delhi; M. Gadgil, and R. Guha, 1992, This Fissured Land: an ecological history of India. Oxford University Press, Delhi.

4. H. Conklin, 1969, An ethnoecological approach to shifting agriculture, pp. 221-233, in A.P. Vayda (ed), Environment and Cultural Behaviour. Academic Press, New York; O. Horst, 1989, ‘The persistence of milpa agriculture in highland Guatemala’, Journal of Cultural Geography 9: 13-29; M.J. Eden, 1987, ‘Traditional shifting cultivation and the tropical forest system’, Trends in Ecology and Evolution 2: 340-343; R. Guha, 1994, Fighting for the Forest: state forestry and social change in tribal India, pp. 20-37, in O. Mendelsohn and U. Baxi (eds), The Rights of Subordinated Peoples. Oxford University Press, Delhi.

5. M. Gadgil and R. Guha, 1992, op. cit.

6. P.S. Ramakrishnan, 1992, Shifting Agriculture and Sustainable Development: an interdisciplinary study from north-eastern India. MAB Series, Volume 10, UNESCO, Paris.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. K.N. Ninan, 1992, ‘Economics of shifting cultivation in India’, Economic and Political Weekly March 28 A: 2-6.

10. D. Singh, 1996, The Last Frontier: people and forests in Mizoram. Tata Energy Research Institute, New Delhi.

11. P.S. Ramakrishnan, 1992, op. cit.

12. D. Singh, 1996, op. cit.

13. P.S. Ramakrishnan, 1992, op. cit.; U. Shankar Tawnenga and R.S. Tripathi, 1996, ‘Evaluating second year cropping on jhum fallows in Mizoram, North-eastern India – phytomass dynamics and primary productivity’, Journal of Biosciences 21: 563-575.

14. K.N. Ninan, 1992, op. cit.

15. D. Singh, 1996, op. cit.

16. Ibid.

17. P.S. Ramakrishnan, 1992, op. cit.

18. Ministry of Environment and Forests, 1987, The State of the Forest Report – 1987. Forest Survey of India, Government of India, Dehradun.

19. Ministry of Environment and Forests, 1993, The State of the Forest Report – 1993. Forest Survey of India, Government of India, Dehradun.

20. Ministry of Environment and Forests, 1995, The State of the Forest Report – 1995. Forest Survey of India, Government of India, Dehradun.

21. Ministry of Environment and Forests, 1997, The State of the Forest Report – 1997. Forest Survey of India, Government of India, Dehradun.

22. Ministry of Environment and Forests, Reports of 1993, 1995, 1997. op. cit.

23. Ministry of Environment and Forests, 1997, The State of the Forest Report – 1997. Forest Survey of India, Government of India, Dehradun; T.R.S. Raman, 1996, ‘Impact of shifting cultivation on diurnal squirrels and primates in Mizoram, North East India: a preliminary study’, Current Science 70: 747-750; T.R.S. Raman, G.S. Rawat and A.J.T. Johnsingh, 1998, ‘Recovery of tropical rainforest avifauna in relation to vegetation succession following shifting cultivation in Mizoram, North East India’, Journal of Applied Ecology 35: 214-231.

24. T.R.S. Raman, 1996, op. cit; T.R.S. Raman, G.S. Rawat, G.S. and A.J.T. Johnsingh, 1998, op. cit.

25. P.S. Ramakrishnan, 1992, op. cit. T.R.S. Raman, G.S. Rawat, and A.J.T. Johnsingh, 1998, op. cit.

26. B.K. Tiwari, S.K. Barik and R.S. Tripathi, 1998, ‘Biodiversity value, status, and strategies for conservation of sacred groves of Meghalaya, India’, Ecosystem Health 4: 20-31.

27. Ibid.

28. D. Singh, 1996, op. cit.

29. Ibid.

30. Data on expenditure under NLUP in Mizoram, 1990-1996, Rural Development Department, Government of Mizoram, Aizawl.

31. D. Singh, 1996, op. cit.