Jhum Farming in Meghalaya

We all know that the main occupation of the Khasis residing in Meghalaya is agriculture. Well, traditional methods are still in use in various parts of Meghalaya including Shillong, albeit with some innovations. The farmers have used their experience along with age old farming practises to reduce soil erosion and increase yield. Two distinct types of agricultural practices are followed here -  settled and shifting. Most of the forest areas except protected forests, sacred groves (Law Kyntang), restricted forests (Law Adong) and private forests are open to shifting agriculture or Jhum as it is popularly known. It is a type of cut-and-burn or burn-and-plant method of shift cultivation.

Jhum Cultivation

Meaning of Jhum Cultivation

Jhum agriculture is not a means of livelihood only; it is an integral part of their tradition and culture and it gives them food throughout the year. However, with modernization, these farmers cultivate crops not only for their own use but also for selling surplus produce in the market for extra income. They grow commercially important crops such as turmeric, cabbage, cauliflower, pea, radish and potato etc.

Farmers are also gearing towards horticulture, citrus fruit plantations (orange, guava, pineapple, lemon, litchi, banana, jack fruit, plum, peach, pears) and cultivation of cash crops to augment their income. Spices, mushrooms and medicinal plants are also grown in some regions.

Legend Associated with Jhum Farming God

According to a popular legend, the Wind God and God of hail and storm dispersed rice seeds from some celestial tree. These were then properly sown by the do'amik bird. Some of these seeds were also given to few people with instructions on shift agriculture. God ordered that after every harvest, a portion of the harvest must be dedicated to Him.

Another fable is that a man named Bone-Neripa-Jane-Nitepa in Garo hills cultivated rice and millet from land near a rock (named misi-Kokdok) after clearing the land. He told others too about this and thus started shifting cultivation.

Jhum Agriculture

Jhum Agriculture not Sustainable Type of Farming

Jhum agriculture is not good for biodiversity and ecological balance in Shillong and even in Meghalaya state for the following reasons -

  • Forests are being lost to such type of farming which anyway does not yield much produce.
  • Majority of farmers still practise Jhum agriculture in the name of keeping the tradition and culture alive! The burned ashes are used as manure for betterment of crop produce.
  • It is a destructive and time-consuming method of farming as all forest cover on the hills or its slopes is burnt or slashed and then crops are cultivated for a certain period only and then they migrate. However, the devastation is forever! They plant seeds in another hill before moving from their previous habitat.

Innovations in Jhum Farming

Financial institutions, NGOs and government agencies have been successful to enlighten farmers on the ill effects of Jhum agriculture and so new innovations have been incorporated with traditional methods for higher yield. Some innovations in Jhum agriculture practiced today are as follows -

  • Terrace cultivation (cutting terraces/rows on hill slopes) too has its inception in Jhum agriculture. It helps to curb soil erosion. 
  • Easily decomposing plant parts are used as weeds.
  • Farmers resort to selective slashing (tree stump also retained) and controlled burning nowadays.
  • Rows of bamboo are raised on the boundaries while preparing the fields. This enables in soil conservation.
  • Healthy seeds are collected and crop-specific method adopted.
  • Cash crops such as turmeric, potato grown as they are commercially significant crops. Harvesting is done for selling extra produce in the market.
  • Fallow period is shorter now (8-15 years). Proper fallow management is carried out. Plantation of bay leaf, jack fruit and black pepper is done nowadays.

Crops Grown in Meghalaya

Food grains grown in Shillong include rice (cold tolerant rice varieties like Megha I, Megha II) maize, wheat, cereals, paddy (varieties such as Masuri, Pankaj IR8, RCPL, IR 36)  and pulses. Potato, ginger, turmeric, areca nut, betelvine, cotton, mesta, rapeseed, mustard, black pepper, tezpatta, short-staple cotton, jute etc. are grown here. Oil seeds include rapeseed, mustard, castor, linseed, sesame, soybean etc.

Jhum is a type of mixed cropping system practiced by Khasis, Garos and alike. The benefit of Jhum agriculture is that it maintains high crop diversity. The road from Guwahati to Shillong is replete with the beautiful sight of areca nut plantations. Nowadays, coffee, tea and cashew nuts are also grown.
Shillong has a natural grace of forest cover, abundant natural resources (limestone, coal, granite, sillimanite, kaolin) rich bio diversity and yes, number of water bodies.

It is important to keep old traditions alive while also adding some innovative and modern sustainable methods of agriculture so that farmers can fend for themselves, sell extra produce to earn a comfortable livelihood and most importantly also preserve the natural habitat of their own region. Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has also developed alternative methods of farming to encourage farmers learn and embrace new agricultural technologies.

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