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Trishita Shandilya
Date of Publish: 2017-07-25

Cash crop farming has reduced the space of Nyishi women in bio-resource management

“We come to the field at 8 am and work till 4.30pm. We are expert in doing hard work in ‘Rongo’ and see we look so old in early age”, Joram Yami (32) said while weeding the Jhum land.

Sipping cold drink during a break from weeding activity 40-year old Joram Myama described how use of machines has brought about changes in their traditional agricultural practices. “Now people work more for money. The use of machine, especially in wet paddy, has replaced the women who earlier handled almost all the ‘rongo’ related activities”, she said.

“Due to illaichi (cardamom) plantation other traditional crops are declining and we are not getting profit as cardamom plants take two years to bear fruit”, says Joram Atu (30) while helping her friends in weed management.

Other Nyishi women, who were working in cardamom plantations in Joram area of Lower Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh, too expressed concern over loss of the space of women in management of resources of one of the major tribes of Arunachal Pradesh.

A 40-year old widow, Joram Manaya expressed concern over the changing climatic situation in their locality, “Some of the wild vegetables are declining due to the increase in population rainfall variation, as well as due to expansion of areas under cardamom. For, large cardamom is planted in the area after cutting down other plants. Only shade trees are maintained in a cardamom plantation. The availability of bio-resources can be revived if the forest can be kept intake, it is the work of people due to which the situation is changing,” she added.

The Nyishi which literally denotes the dwellers of highland, is one of the major tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, who has inhabitants in approximately 21,144 Sq. Km. The economy and livelihood of Nyishi people is based on agriculture and agro-forestry practices. They traditionally practice mix agriculture in Jhum (Tump or Deep Rongo), though not widely. Many Nyishis also practise wet cultivation (Sapia Rongo).

The women folk of Nyishi tribe have a very special relation with Rongo or agricultural practice. The women are the chief manager of the agricultural practice in Nyishi society. Their work starts from sowing the seeds in agriculture, handling the weed management activity, harvesting of the crops and finally they also handle the whole process of preserving the seeds for next agricultural season.

A traditional Nyishi society has a patriarchal system with the prominent tradition of polygamy. However, the traditional Nyishi society provides a unique space to their women folks. The women are assigned the responsibility of nurturing the agricultural field along with the duty to nurture the family. Thus, being close to nature through performing their duties, women acquire an ample amount of knowledge about bio-resources management which is again supported by their socialised traditional knowledge.

A field study was conducted in greater Joram area of Lower Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh to understand traditional knowledge of Nyishi women about bio-resources and their role in bio-resource management during summer internship by this writer in June and July, 2017. For the purpose of the study the five villages - Phu-Joram, Shuil Joram, Migo Jara, Sekh Joram and Deli hapa of greater Joram area were covered. Altogether 33 women between 20 to above 60 years of age, were interviewed individually at their working place i.e. the agricultural field and 18 household based interview were conducted to gather information about the family members of the women who were interviewed in the working place.

The field observation reveals that, a Nyishi woman’s day starts usually at around 5 to 5:30 am. She starts her daily routine by cooking for the members of the family. She takes care of the children, sometimes with the help of the male members and mostly without any help. Approximately, they have to give three to four hours of her morning time to the management of household chores before going to the field. Apart from three to four hours of daily household chores, women are involved agriculture related works for almost 11 months of a year involve. In most of the cases, it is the woman who solely manages jhum and homestead garden.

Observing the Nyishi women working in the agricultural field while interviewing them, it has been noticed that they have an upper hand in case of resource management. On an average, they spend about 150 hours a month as they usually work for around five hours a day for 30 days for five months in jhum cultivation.

In wet paddy cultivation, a Nyishi man erects a bio fence to demarcate the boundary of the cultivable plot. He also gets involved in preparing the land for wet paddy. Women’s activities in wet paddy field include land preparation, seedbed preparation and seedling development, transplantation of paddy, weeding, weeding and pest management, harvesting of paddy and processing of the harvested paddy. Women engage into wet paddy cultivation for seven months of a year, with around 30days per month and five hours per day

Homestead garden is also an important part of agricultural activities where necessary vegetables and fruits on the basis of the members of the households’ food habit, are grown and managed by the female members of the household.

Normal life of women with high work pressure has been exposed to new stress with adaptation of cash crop in their agricultural system. In the contemporary period majority of the farming families have started large cardamom farming in their abundant jhum plot and in their private forest plot replacing the vegetation covers. The whole cultivation process as well as drying of cardamom is carried out by women. Even though the cash crops are grown following planation principle, as in case of certain species in of Jhum, but unlike mix farming the farmers need to give extra effort for weed management, shade tree maintenance etc. Moreover, with the hope of earning more money many households have started converting mixed farming Jhum land into cardamom farming land. Therefore, the burden of managing the cash crop on women is increasing.

In the contemporary period the Nyishi women, especially of Joram area, have to deal with certain dilemma as their roles are changing due to different factors. The introduction of cash crop in their agriculture is a reflection of patriarchal power politics. This cash crop cultivation is introduced by the men in their lands with the aim to earn more money. However, the whole works of sowing the cardamom seeds, weeding the cultivated land, harvesting, to drying and packaging the cardamom are done by women. However, when it comes to negotiating with the dealers, who come from other states or places to buy cardamom in large quantity, it is done by men. Thus the financial power is manipulated by the men. At the same time, in case local vegetables, fruits, herbs etc. which they grow in the mixed farming of Jhum land, are sold by women in the local market when there is a marketable surplus. However, the money they earn from selling those products is automatically divided among the members of the family whereby women are left with meagre amount of money. Thus, with men taking the decision of introduction of cash crop and also negotiating with sale of the produce with the traders, the Nyishi women have been reduced to only labourers without decision making power.

Such changes in agriculture is an outcome multiple factors of influences; like growing market economy’s product of consumerism with faulty choices to measures development in terms of cash income and growth; forgetting the wellbeing perspectives. So, at the one hand the government agencies like the Spice Board promotes cardamom cultivation, interprets profit in terms of cash return and replace the multiple traditional crops, which are the source of food, fodder, fuel, medicine for the local people; where women have the mastery. In turn, consumerism changes the cultural traditions of foods, boil rice in breakfast is replaced by pre-cooked noodles; refreshing drink of rice beer at lunch time with food is replaced by canned beer, and so on. These changes are happening at the cost of traditional mixed farming at Jhum, private forest and subjugating women from bio-resource manager to a mere labourer. It is a clear reflection of masculine framework of patriarchal system, where in contemporary context money matters, but not the services, local self-sufficiency and cultural continuity by nurturing nature. In the long run such process not only devalue the women’s role, their value system but also ruin the cultural heritage and identity, because traditional agricultural practices is not merely a production system, it is a continuum of cultural integrity.

It is the high time to formulate strategy for protecting traditional mix farming and traditional private forestry practices in Joram area and give protection to Nyishi women’s traditional agricultural practices to confirm the cultural continuity and ecological security to the people. However, focus also needs to be given on developing value addition chain of local horticultural and forestry product with appropriate science and technology interventions and empowering women in the new context; along with, gender sensitive, gender equity base eco-cultural resource literacy should be taken as an important agenda for areas like Joram, which are located in ecologically important Eastern Himalaya System.

Trishita Shandilya

(Trishita Shandilya is a Student of BA, Sociology ( Hon.) of Janki Devi Memorial College, University of Delhi. This article is produced as part of her Summer Internship on Bio Resource Management at Arunachal Pradesh State Council for Science and Technology on Nishi women in Joram area of Lower Subonsiri District, Arunachal Pradesh. She can be reached at trishita.shandilya@gmail.com)

Photographs by - Trishita Shandilya

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