Warriors of hunger : Farmers striking retorts of Violence
One more time a violent story is retold; once more a seething wound has been recklessly taped by a quickfix cure ; once more a burning inferno inside the heart has been smothered by a helpless district administration’s short-sighted means of arbitration and peace buying. The clash between the expanding populace of muslim settlers in Halaikunda char area ( temporary sand plains formed by river Bharmaputra) with the local indigenous population in the Mayong area in The Darrang district of Assam, could be thankfully contained this time from exploding into large scale violence and ethnic conflict. The community with 70 erosion effected families from Katahguri char was allowed to settle down in this area by the local population on humanitarian grounds in 1998.After all these years, as the muslim community largely composed of agricultural workers who lived on land leased out by local land owners grew in population, the insecurity and clash over resources also grew. Largely agrarian, the local agricultural village of indigenous community felt threatened by the growing competition with the muslim immigrants who were also agriculturists. The age old story of fixing scapegoats was once more reiterated within the general scenario of low human development, economic insecurity , poverty and competition over access to limited natural resources, like land, and forest.
But, was this the only true reason ? What are the underlying forces that produce these intermittent outbursts in this region, notoriously branded as the violent North East. The true reason is to turn a blind eye towards degradation of a society where agriculture and unorganized farming in rural areas is turning out to be economically non-viable due to small landholdings and lack of infrastructural support. The inferior value attached to manual labour makes farming, a very low-prestige profession which the emerging urbanised educated middle classes loathe to associate themselves with. The push factors of emerging urbanization have made rural India and all its associated riders of village life and farming as a livelihood option unattractive to the youth. This is a dangerous trend for emerging economies: the centrifugal forces of urbanization is creating havoc in the balance of local development of rural India and survival of its ‘little and folk traditions.’ In fact, what is happening is even dangerous: no doubt a booming ICT, satellite TV, mobile, and internet facility is bringing the global society into the threshold of village society, but at the cost of a great loss to the self-esteem of rural India as it finds itself dispossessed of its sustainable heritage, which includes among other things organic farming and sustainable food cultivation.
A holistic and comprehensive land policy with clearly defined land ownership in the changed scenario of demographic affiliation, strictly defined parameters of land management and encroachment policy, documentation of land records, differentiation between agricultural land and commercial land, ownership rights, prevention of diversion of agricultural land leading to shrinking of agricultural land , are all important part of exacting solutions to reinstate agriculture as the most viable means of food security, poverty allievation and local rural development.
In Assam the current narrative of conflict between impoverished and low self esteemed farmers and agricultural communities, led to largescale encroachment of Forest areas and degradation of land resources. If this is to continue , the dream destination of India’s next evergreen revolution will not only be farfetched but can never be exacted.Aggressive encroachment by impoverished agriculturist who resort to terrorism against natural resources in desperation,is the first step to eroding agriculture of its most dynamic resource ie human community; destroying the dynamism of agricultural community, their creativity and resilience to contribute into a sustainable food system.
Agriculture for emerging economy is one of the most dynamic sectors of economy . In the years ahead it will evolve as the most effective instrument of social security in areas of food security, employment generation, health and nutrition, driving local development and rural economy. However, having said this, it would be imperative for such economies to safeguard agricultural sector and its implications for manipulations towards environmental degradation, global warming, climate change, toxification of soil, contamination of food and deterioration of human health conditions. This is a mammoth task,because it is one thing to be aware of the potential of harnessing agriculture through effective policy implementation but quite the other to deteriorate it’s existing condition through implemention of ineffective, detrimental policies that are not scientifically researched and locally focused on environment and community. While it is not easy to achieve this, emerging economies will have to explore new options other than intensive agriculture which is increasingly being questioned by the developed world through the apolitical discourse of sustainability and the informal food network . In this endeavour the developing world in the south is being increasingly drawn towards the new science of Agroecology, emerging as a dominant scientific discourse in the developed North. It is rather ironical because a number of scientific premises of the science of Agroecology actually have its foundational premises embedded in traditional knowledge of a local communities in the developing South. In India, the formal scientific parameters of Agroecology will have to ensure strong network and interaction with informal knowledge of local communities that is experiential and mostly unrecorded. For the formal science of Agroecology in the North, having already moved away from their own informal collective memory of farming practices, due to the long span of their modernization of agriculture phase, this evolution of knowledge is more in the formal institutional parameters of scientific knowledge. However the situation is quite different for the developing south where the collective memory of traditional practices are still ingrained in the local rural economy. A comprehensive agricultural policy for emerging economies has to ensure adequate interaction and knowledge sharing between both. In order to ensure this we have to adequately leverage our vast heritage of sustainable farming practices embodied in the informal knowledge base of our agricultural communities, empowering them, supporting them, safeguarding their economic and social security.
From the Indian perspective, Organic Farming is seen to evolve into a dominant institutional rhetoric and India’s political quest to revive our legacy of sustainable farming practices is an example of that trend. North East India with its rich heritage of indigenous community based knowledge of sustainable farming is seen as the next destination of Evergreen revolution. Assam, no doubt, along with other north eastern states with it mosaic of multiethnic and indigenous communities have managed to preserve some of the unique traditions of sustainable agriculture. This optimism, however could be short-lived, as they struggle to grapple with the onslaught of conventional agriculture and weak institutional support and policy planning.
In Assam, conventional industrial agriculture only penetrated through the colonial capitalism of the tea industry. Food crops were fortunately not tampered with, and communities were allowed to carry on with their traditional practices. However, this is not to say that the scourges of industrial agriculture and commercial production of tea did not impact the local ecosystem, biodiversity, and livelihood patterns due to the indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers for mass production. Thus, in spite of large-scale degradation of soil quality, water, and human health, what can be still salvaged is probably the invaluable indigenous knowledge of sustainable agricultural practices among the indigenous communities in areas of flood control and management, bio fertilizers, pest control, multi-cropping, seed preservation, food storage, livelihood support, and local food security. It is remarkable that most of the tribal communities inhabiting this region have been self-sustaining in terms of their social structure and economy. Starvation deaths were unheard of, and common property resources regulated through customary laws largely ensured equity, inter-generational stability, and to some extent gender equality.
The traditional paradigm of sustainable agriculture, popularly in India is drawn from the organic agricultural practices underlined in the greater traditions of Hinduism and its grand narrative in texts such as Vrikshayurveda and in practices of agnihotra yajna, pancha gavya,go mutra etc. The little traditions of the tribal folk cultures and their unique sustainable legacy of livelihood practices, many a times go unnoticed due to the lack of proper documentation and research in these areas. There is a great impetus in this region to go organic, given the potentials for organic farming and a growing market of citizens seeking ‘clean and pure food’ production. Undoubtedly, there is enormous potential for this region, given that it is not even halfway as polluted as the other parts of India that went for intensive agriculture during the Green Revolution, such as Punjab and Bengal. Learning from the price that was paid by the Green Revolution in terms of adverse health impacts and natural resource pollution, the current agenda is to go towards an evergreen revolution with full support of the government. Regions like Northeast India, being the last frontier to the Indian post-development planning, await this attention eagerly. But, are they ready for this? A word of caution needs to be heeded, because haphazard adoption of organic farming will not only jeopardize the ethical component of going organic, but will also uproot and destabilize prospects of sustainable agricultural practices in one of the most deserving regions of the world. Right now, there are a number of unorganized endeavours towards organic farming by private entrepreneurs and local farmers. However, in the absence of awareness and commitment to organic food; coordination and networking between farmers and consumers; and community and institutional support for farms to be self-sustaining in terms of seeds, storage, marketing and brand building, organic farming in Assam and North East India as a whole may never see the dawn of success.
The vision of positive intervention, expressed in this brief note cannot be actualized in the scenario of conflict, especially when the conflict threatens the very foundation of its active stakeholders. farming communities in our rural areas. The agriculturists, the farmers, the community in rural assam are all warriors of hunger, equipped with the skillful craft and traditional knowledge base, which if enhanced by modern capacities of technology and sustainable business management could miraculously transform and enhance the structures and processes of the worlds oldest livelihood option Agriculture; the most tested out means of food production, food security and social stability in the times ahead.
Dr Sujata Dutta Hazarika
Deputy Director, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), Guwahati