Mizoram: Realizing the change

In the light of the developmental aspirations and needs of the people, a question needs to be asked: how long will people value the forest ecosystems in Mizoram? The possible answer to this question is embedded in the implementation of two important policies, viz., the Policy of Village Grouping for Insurgency Control and the New Land Use Policy (NLUP).

The scheme for grouping existing villages began on January 3,1967. These were named 'Protected and Progressive Villages' (PPV) under Rule 57 of the Defence of India Rules. It was considered as one of the counter-insurgency strategies to secure the villages against harassment by insurgents, while at the same time, denying insurgents sanctuaries, information and so on, as described by the late Lt. Gen. Sam Manekshaw. But in process of relocating villages to the roadside, people got cut off from their traditional jhum lands, and this also disturbed the traditional village economy. The army tried to provide food, medical care and other facilities to minimize problems faced by the villagers.

These villages soon became part of the ongoing developmental process and also received the benefits of education, healthcare and proximity to markets. The trajectory of peace being followed after 1986 provided opportunities to the population residing near roads to benefit from development activities. Alternatives to the traditional livelihood practices came in the form of settled terraced agriculture of various crops such as ginger, chilly, turmeric along with modem jobs such as teaching and other government services. But even today, jhum remains as core subsistence livelihood economy of villages in Mizoram. Jhum agriculture involves slashing and burning of mature forests to enhance the productivity of the soil. Hence, forests remain the main source of nutrition to the jhum agriculture in form of burned ashes of matured trees. Thus, forests remain central to the survival and food security. Other jobs are getting preference in urbanized cities and towns, but partial food security still comes from jhum crops. But it will not be wrong to say that the policy of village grouping acted as a driver to enable villagers to benefit from modem amenities over a due period of time.

The NLUP targets to provide alternative systems like the permanent farming systems and land reforms.It also aims to provide livelihoods for the urban poor by encouraging small-scale industries.

On the other hand, the NLUP was conceived in 1984 to address the economic deprivation of the local people. The scope of implementation of NLUP has slowly enhanced in three phases from 1985 till date to provide a robust structure to address various issues including economy, environment protection, land reforms and reclamation in Mizoram. The policy is being implemented with the help of eight government departments and it is being facilitated by all district administrations. The NLUP, targets destructive and unprofitable shifting of cultivation practice by providing alternative systems like the permanent farming systems and land reforms. The NLUP also aims to provide livelihoods for the urban poor by encouraging small-scale industries and petty trades.

Mainstreaming development

The grouped village houses have become convenient centres for sourcing basic amenities leading to well-being of the inhabitants.The locals have accepted this mode of development where they are getting the opportunity to participate in the larger developmental process in India. The villagers have been prioritizing their developmental needs in the form of agricultural link roads, improved agricultural techniques and preference to horticulture as an alternative to jhum. Such development priorities are leading to newer projects from the Centre and external aid agencies such as World Bank.

The ongoing work under North East Rural Livelihood project (NERLP) in Mizoram has revealed the priorities mainly revolving around addressing water scarcity in dry months, new land use planning for agricultural areas, marketing avenues for surplus harvest from horticulture and linking far off jhum lands by village roads. The unapproachable Wetland Rice Cultivation (WRC) areas are getting attention of the villagers to ensure local food security as well as to reduce the over dependence on jhum. The agricultural terraces are proving a logical way to practice settled agriculture as well as to reduce soil loss and infertility. Though the markets are not unknown to the people, they need avenues for marketing the benefits of their agricultural produce and improving their lives.

Changing Mizo life

Today, Mizoram villages and cities are demonstrating developmental aspirations. The bamboo-dominated houses are fast being replaced by cement and concrete while retaining the architectural design. Though new cities and towns have started mushrooming, Aizawl itself has grown by leaps and bounds, and now there is a separate Development Authority managing the issues arising due to urbanization. Of the 11 lakh population of Mizoram, more than four lakh already live in cities and towns. These newly-urbanized areas are grappling with the same problems faced by other towns and cities in the Himalayan foothills. But the kinship and community bonding in urban and rural Mizoram remains very strong. For example, during a recent trip to village Chamring and Aizawl city, the entire community took part in search operations of missing people.

Most of the changes happening in Mizoram must be seen against the backdrop of interesting figures such as 91% forested area, 91.58% literacy rate and 51.51% urban population. These developments are the outcome of the policies implemented since the formation of the state of Mizoram. It is widely accepted that the higher literacy rate in Mizoram is the result of the efforts taken by Church missionaries and the initiatives of the state government. Still, people have been forced to migrate due to the lack of livelihood options and basic infrastructure such as access to water.

Jhum remains as core subsistence livelihood economy of villages in Mizoram. Other jobs are getting preference in urbanized cities and towns, but partial food security still comes from jhum crops. The policy of village grouping acted as a driver to enable villagers to benefit from modern amenities over a due period of time.

My first acquaintance with Mizoram goes back to 1997 when as a field ecologist, I ventured there to know more about the green belts, safety reserves nurtured by the people around villages, with Pu Zawma, the then Vice-President of Young Mizo Association (YMA). The Mizos in Myanmar, the adjacent mountain range for Mimbung and Hrianmum villagers, followed their close interactions with the Mizos in India. The present day Mizoram was governed as part of Myanmar (Burma) and was then in Chittagong Province.

After the formation of Bangladesh, it remained with Assam and finally the state of Mizoram became the twenty-third state of the Indian Union in 1987. The entire process could not be better understood than this trip with PuZawma to these villages bordering Myanmar. The YMA meeting of Sialkal mainly discussed relocation of the village to the roadside so as to bring them into the developmental process

p.By 2015, Mizoram has come a long way in realizing the impacts of many decisions and policies governing the institutions and natural resources. Mimbung, a remote village bordering Myanmar is today eager to join the mainstream development process by relocating along the roadside. Earlier, it was difficult to convince the villagers of Mimbung to bring changes in their life and join the development process. But result of changes in the state at large are possibly an eye-opener for the villagers to join the developmental process.

To meet the growing developmental aspirations of the local communities, the role of the state government, and the powers and capacities of village councils need to be more dynamic. The village councils control most of the land, compared to other parts of India. The state needs a more convincing approach to work with the village councils to evolve a synergy for local development and to bring larger benefits to the state and the nation. The receptivity towards horticulture, sericulture and terracing of agriculture lands need to be developed as new livelihood options for the educated youth of the state. Thus, the challenge for the state and the people is to evolve a trajectory of development where the benefits can be realized in real time.