Shifting Cultivation in India

Shifting Cultivation refers to the form of cultivation where a large area is cultivated for few years and then abandoned for some time until the fertility of the land is restored naturally.

Process: By the time of the sowing season the earth is covered with a layer of ashes. Then seeds are scattered, and rarely sown in these ashes. After some time the seeds take root and grow, nourished by an occasional shower of rain. The crops are scare and of inferior quality. In a few years’ time the spoil becomes impoverished in the absence of ploughing and manuring, and a new stretch of the forest is brought under the axe.

In tribal India shifting cultivation is widely prevalent, though it is known by different names.

  • The Naga call it Jhum Cultivation;
  • The Bhuiya distinguish two forms of it, dahi and koman;
  • The Maria of Bastar calls it penda;
  • The Khond refer to it as podu;
  • And the Baiga call it bewar.

Shifting axe-cultivation consists of felling trees on a hill-side a little before the sowing season and setting them on fire.

If all the trees are cut down, then the Bhuiya call it ‘dahi’ if only bushes and shrubs are placed round the trees and then burnt, they call it koman.

Disadvantages: Shifting cultivation has come under severe criticism from nearly all imaginable quarters.

  • It has been characterized as inefficient, uneconomic and wasteful.
  • It has caused deforestation and as a consequence thereof, erosion and floods.
  • Valuable timber has been wastefully lost.

Mythological Explanation: The tribal folk have, of course, their own explanations, very often only mythological in nature, to give for this practice. Thus the Baiga report than Bhagwan (God) told their ancestor Nanga Baiga not to plough land as the Hindus and the Gond do; doing so would have meant tearing the bosom of mother Earth. It may be of interest to note that Manu laid down an injunction against Brahmans engaging in cultivation in views of the fact that many under-death dwelling living beings (jivas) get killed in the process of ploughing, transplanting seeds, etc.

Conclusion: It has been pointed out that if shifting cultivation is not stopped, it will tie down the tribes practicing it to an undeveloped and low socio-economic level. However, it must be recognized that a change-over from shifting to permanent plough cultivation cannot take place suddenly as the economic life of a people is woven inextricably with all the other aspects of their life.

One must not jump to the conclusion that all the Indian tribes who engage in agriculture practice shifting axe-cultivation. Some sections of the Naga people, like the Rengma Naga, are experts in terrace cultivation which is easily possible on a hill slope. Elsewhere in India, among the Bhil, the Gond, The Munda, the Santhal, The Khasi and other tribes plough-cultivation, similar to that practiced in the non-tribal villages of India, is practiced.

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