Until last fortnight, most nights in Mizoram were lit up by the red glow of forest fires. Long thin lines of flame, rising and falling along the contours of the hills, ate their way up through the forest. It was jhum time in the state, when farmers who practice the traditional practice of slash-and-burn cultivation torch large sections of jungle so that they can begin planting next season’s crops.

In Mizoram, as in other parts of the North East, the forests are owned by the local community. There is little individually-owned farmland. Each year, villages burn a part of their community forest to clear land for farming. The next year, they move to a new tract, leaving the previous one fallow for the soil to recover, returning to it after some years.

This year, the administration set March 15 as the deadline for burning forests. And so, in the evenings, even in the state’s capital of Aizawl, one could see thick tendrils of smoke rising from its surrounding hills. In the mornings, one woke up to see wisps of soot and burnt leaves on the ground and in the air.

Jhum is the dominant mode of farming in Mizoram. It is practiced by 60%-65% of the 1.1 million people in the state. It’s also an increasingly insubstantial livelihood. As population rises, fields lie fallow for shorter periods of time, reducing their fertility. Research in 1982-‘87 found fields were left fallow for ten years. “Now, four-five years is very common,” said SK Tripathy, a professor of forestry at Mizoram University. “In some places, it is two years.”

Increasing inefficiency

As a consequence, jhum cultivation isn’t able to support as many families as it once did. “What people get is 240 kilos of paddy per acre,” said Solomon, who uses only one name. The former militant from the Bru minority group from Terei village in Mamit district now drives a Maruti 800 cab to supplement his income. The yield, he said is not enough to support a family for even 240 days.

Shortly after coming to power in 2008, Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla’s Congress government – which is now in its second term – launched Mizoram’s biggest programme till date to wean people off jhum. Called the New Land Use Policy, it aims to give as much as Rs 100,000 in cash over five years to 135,000 households in the state to encourage them to move away from the increasingly inefficient method of cultivation and into other forms of livelihood.

The beneficiaries ‒ who constituted more than half the state’s 222,117 households ‒ were to receive technical from the horticulture, fisheries and animal husbandry departments about setting up new enterprises. So, for instance, families who wanted to set up fish farms were supposed to be given advice about establishing hatcheries, help with building ponds, provided with stocks of fingerlings and other help.

Five years later, the New Land Use Policy has covered 120,000 households, state finance minister Lalsawta said in his 2014-‘15 budget speech. Mizoram has spent approximately Rs 3,000 crore on the programme so far.

Early conclusions

However, the initial results have been underwhelming.  The Forest Survey of India’s 2013 report said that the state had lost 154 sq km of the land not under the forest department’s control. When surveying forest areas like community forests not under the forest department’s control, the report said that moderately dense forests had shrunk by 263 sq km while “open forests” had grown by 103 sq km. This suggests that the degradation continues.

This raises obvious questions about the programme.

Some of the programme’s flaws were plain to see in Dampa Rengpui, a Bru-dominated village inside Mamit district’s Dampa Tiger Reserve, about 100 kilometres to the west of Aizawl. Sarusun Rai had been signed up for the NLUP in March 2013. The 26-year old, who runs a small shop in the village, is from Nuagaon in Assam but settled here after marrying a Bru woman.

When Scroll met him, Rai was sitting in the room behind his shop with a fellow villager, Bichon Reang. Reang has not been covered under NLUP.

The discrepancy, they explained, was because they had different party affiliations. Rai and his wife and are Congress members. “We were told about the NLUP scheme and told about the list of activities we could pick up,” he said. “I discussed with my wife and we decided to pick up a suar [pig] business.”

Reang, on the other hand, is a member of the rival Mizo National Front.” Our party is different,” he said. “How can I get the NLUP money?”

Bichon Reang, a member of the Mizo National Front, wasn’t chosen for the programme.

To understand why they say so, you have to understand how beneficiaries were chosen. First, local community organisations like the Young Mizo Association created a list of deserving candidates in each community. Next, a village committee selected beneficiaries and sent that list to the NLUP department.  

Congress members had a distinct advantage. In 2009, the Congress won 30 out of 40 assembly constituencies, said James Thanga, a professor of economics at Mizoram University who studied NLUP implementation in its early days. “And so, the local council head was a Congress member,” he noted.

A 2012 study by the Presbyterian Church, covering 10 villages in the three districts of Aizawl, Mamit and Champhai found that 87% of the beneficiaries were Congress affiliates.

This is something that even the authorities agree with. “I agree that in the first round, the people of the Congress would have gotten first chance,” said PL Thanga, a retired bureaucrat who has been appointed as the head of the NLUP Implementing Board.,

But over time, he says, as the programme was scaled up, it has gone beyond those who voted for the Congress. “There are about 156,000 eligible families,” PL Thanga said. “And 130,000 are NLUP beneficiaries. The allegation would be valid only if I gave NLUP only to 40% of the state population.”

However, not everyone believes that story. For instance, a forest department official who spoke to Scroll on the condition of anonymity said that the NLUP is being used to wean away supporters from other parties. While only Congress supporters were given funds in the first rounds, Congress leaders used to opportunity to tell locals, “Loosen your stiffness [closeness] to the MNF,” this official said.

Despite the political logic at work, the neediest did get covered, said Thanga of Mizoram University. “There is a Mizo word called Tlawmngaihna,” he said, “It translates as ‘you first’ or self-sacrifice. In the first round, the scheme went to the poor in the party. From the second phase onwards, anyone who is eligible has been selected.”

But if everyone got covered, why is jhum expanding?

Pu Sangha in his home in Dampa Rengpui. 

In Dampa Rengpui, Pu Sanga opted for the “terracing” option under NLUP three years ago. The idea was to build terraces on his three-acre hillslope plot and to farm there. He received Rs 35,000 in three instalments by the end of last year. However, he wasn’t sure when the next instalment would come. “It is very hard to plan work on the terraces if the money will come at unpredictable intervals,” Sanga said. Like his neighbourhoods, he continues with jhum.

This is a common refrain. Take Sarasun Rai. He and his wife got one instalment of Rs 15,000 shortly after signing up in March 2013. A second instalment of Rs 15,000 arrived in August 2013 but since then have not received anything. “It is now March and there is no sign of the money,” he said. Similarly, other farmers report that they are getting their seeds late, or getting money for coops but not hens.

At the best of times, starting on a new, unfamiliar livelihood is hard. This is one reason why many programmes to encourage participants to start new income generating activities splutter out. The idea of paying villagers Rs 100,000 over a five-year period was to cover their expenses while the new livelihood took root.

These delays in disbursement have had several repercussions. Rai and his wife had bought three pigs. Now, as each pig eats through Rs 1,000 worth of feed a month, he is paying from his pocket to feed them.

Sarasun Rai has three pigs and spends Rs 1,000 per month to feed each of them.

In Terei village, F Lalduhlaii, president of the village council, says she had once asked government officials working on NLUP why the money comes irregularly. “We were told the money coming from the Centre is not enough and so we are giving small amounts to everyone,” she said.

Thanga of Mizoram University blamed two factors for the delays. For one, the state’s finances are overstretched due to high expenditure on salaries and subsidies even as its revenues stay low.

The state election commission was also responsible for payments drying up. “During the assembly elections in 2013 and the national elections in 2014, the State Election Office blocked funding for three months,” Thanga said. “This is illegal blocking of money by the Election Commission.”

Scroll’s attempts to meet local election officials were unsuccessful. However, according to Evan C Lallianbuanga, secretary of the south section of Vanhne village near Lenglui town, a lot of NLUP money was disbursed to villagers just before the code of conduct head of the 2013 assembly polls. “They gave voters Rs 10,000 and say that if you vote us back to power, we can give you the remaining Rs 90,000,” alleged A Chatua, the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Saiha district.

But the irregular flow of payments has continued even after the national elections last year. Only the first set of NLUP beneficiaries got all the entire amount set out under the scheme, said Lallianbuanga, the secretary in  Vanhne village. “Those in the second or third group only got Rs 10,000-15,000,” he claimed. “There is not too much that can be done with Rs 10,000.”

Loath to start investing in a business when they did not know when the rest of the money would come, people with existing businesses like fish ponds or provisions stores put the money in them. Others spent the NLUP money on consumables like televisions.  Several people stopped jhum when the money came in but returned to it when the cash ran out, said Mizoram University’s Tripathi.

The NLUP, said Lallian Chhunga, an assistant professor of political science at Mizoram University, aims to protect the environment but it does not. “It is a populist policy implemented by the Congress to catch votes,” he declared.

However, bureaucrats associated with the programme are not willing to write it off to quickly. A lot of the NLUP activities  “have a long gestation period”, said J Hmingthanmawia, the deputy commissioner of Lawngtlai.   Take people who set up orange orchards: it will take another seven or eight years for those trees to grow. “In the interim, what will the beneficiaries do except jhum?” he said.