Millet is a highly nutritious crop grown by hill tribes like the Nagas and it forms an important staple in their diet, along with rice. A rich variety of wild strains of both millet and rice (I saw colours of green, red, brown, purple, white), apart from an abundant variety of medicinal, nutritious plants; wild vegetables; fruits; nuts; seeds are found in these areas, making it a biodiversity hotspot.

According to the villagers of Chizami in Phek district, Nagaland, the problem started with the rising popularity of cash crop cultivation, encouraged by the government. It resulted in farmers producing a glut of produce such as ginger, cardamom or passion fruit, with no infrastructure for preservation, local control of the trade or building up of transportation systems and markets. When earlier a plot of land yielded anything up to 40 varieties of crops, including millets of enormous diversity, today cash cropping is wiping out this diversity of local products.

It has also resulted in a deficit of food for local consumption. Rice, a staple, now requires 50 per cent import from outside, when earlier it was entirely locally produced. This polished variety of rice does not require as much labour as their local strains, but it lacks nutrition value.

Further adding to the loss of food diversity is climate change. The villagers of Chizami noted that erratic rainfall pattern led to crop failure, especially when they practiced monoculture. In contrast the old farming practices of crop diversity did not fail them. Even if one crop failed, others did grow. is ensured food security and village survival too.

The government’s “development” schemes are often being adopted without much thought or questioning by the community. Planners have made no effort to inquire about local experiences or warn them about the possible down-side of schemes.

While actively promoting tourism for instance, it has not prepared communities in how to deal with its negative impact, drawing from wider experiences. There is no concern for the environment. In the rush to link agriculture to markets, link roads are precariously cutting into hillsides and causing landslides and sinking of land. Four-lane highways running through ecological sensitive areas have opened the region to plunder.

While in Nagaland almost all agriculture is organic, the government is undermining it with the active promotion of chemical fertilisers and pesticides (though officials claim this has been minimised to some extent in recent years).

While the region spawns a myriad variety of indigenous grains, vegetables, fruits, herbs etc, the distribution of free hybrid tomatoes or genetically modified seeds is wiping out local varieties. Rubber and teak plantations are replacing natural forests, which reduce the fertility of the soil and its ability to retain water. “The Naga have yet to see its dangers, yet to understand that the health of the soil and water affects what comes into your kitchen and impacts your health”, said Akhole Tsuhah, a Chizami youth leader. “The need for cash is compelling people to sell their land and forests. It is alienating them from their common resources, with consequences that are scary. If we lose our common resources we lose our independence and sovereignty.”

An example of poorly thought-through development policies promoted by the government and blindly accepted by communities is the vigorous effort to rear mithuns, a buffalo species indigenous to the Northeast region. The sudden proliferation of these animals has caused an imbalance through over grazing of community grasslands; destruction of trees and the water catchment areas; the spread of waterborne diseases. Around Chizami area for instance there are 500 Mithuns between four villages (each mithun costs Rs. 40,000) and the huge strain on local resources has caused fights between the “mithun maliks” (owners), the villagers reported.

Government pre-conditions for awarding projects have little awareness of ground reality and impose unrealistic demands. According to a farmer in Chizami, the government insisted on specific hectares of land being cultivated under a project. This was, however, unfeasible when contiguous stretches were earmarked as community forests, land for jhum (slash and burn cultivation) etc. If their pre-conditions were not complied with, the project was not awarded. And when it was taken up and then failed, rural people lost faith in such schemes. If the government really wants to help, it should provide subsidy for farmers and access to low-interest cash loans, he said.

The failure of these “development’ schemes has compelled the villagers of Chizami – particularly its youth – to come together to form a study circle and to debate long and hard about the kind of development they want.

These debates need to be replicated within communities across the Northeast region. It would ensure their preparedness in meeting outside forces with an awareness of what is good for them and their land; what ideas they will or won’t accept and steer a development path based on their own wisdom and understanding. Towards this end the villagers of Chizami donated land to create a training centre which imparts a skills and knowledge based education among Northeast youth. It is being run by trained village youth who are associated with an NGO, Northeast Network.

“Preparedness implies making informed choices. This requires an awareness of what is happening in the wider world; understanding the forces of globalisation; the impact they have made in other situations and the development perspectives that have emerged from that experience”, said Seno Tsuhah, a Chizami youth leader and a member of Northeast Network.

Such investigation and research has led to a flowering of creative enterprise in Phek district. For instance the youth in Chizami have started a Millet Resource Centre to ensure survival of the vast millet varieties found in their area. The creation of a seed bank now ensures that every millet species is documented and preserved.

With every woman in Chizami village knowing how to weave, the youth associated with Northeast Network, supported by the village, set up a weaving centre. It initially started with seven weavers in 2008 and now has over 300 women from ten neighbouring villages. The centre enabled the village women to access cotton yarn from south India; linked them to new ideas for marketable products while incorporating their traditional, highly complex weaving designs. Their products, branded “Chizami Weaves” are of excellent quality and is attracting a high-end market. This enterprise has transformed the lives of Chizami households. It provides access to cash ow that improves the health, education and livelihood of their families.

In neighbouring Leshami village, women weavers have revived the specialised skill of producing natural yarn from locally available stinging nettle stalks. With this they weave shawls, runners, bags that are unique and beautiful. Equally astounding, is, nearby Enhaloumi village where women farmers are growing organic cotton for local use.

They have revived a traditional practice that would otherwise have died with the older generation. They not only saved the indigenous seeds but also shared it with other farmers in their area.

The Chizami Village Council persuaded villagers to stop mithun rearing as it was adversely affecting privately owned grazing lands and water retention in the catchment areas. It also convinced five other surrounding villages to do the same as mithun grazing on contiguous privately owned land was undermining sustainable land use of the entire area.

Plunging with enthusiasm into development as conceived by them, these villages also focus on cultural and artistic expression of their youth through art, dance, sports and music workshops. Earlier the youth loved to roam the forests shooting birds and animals with their sling shots, but then they took to shooting with a camera and used photography to document the flora and fauna of their area, which is featured in a published book.

Use of the Right to Information Act has generated awareness of government programmes and ensured accountability in implementation. The village communities are linking with people and institutions that are helping them bring small, home-based technology such as a drying machine and knowledge of organic food preservation that enhances the shelf life of agriculture products.

During meetings with women weavers and farmers in May 2016, one saw an emerging confidence and a new awakening to the world around them when they asked me and two other friends from Mumbai about the problems faced by farmers in the rest of India.

Both Chizami and Enhaloumi villages have women representatives on its Village Councils, a first in Nagaland’s highly male-dominated society, despite the 33 per cent legally mandated reservation that exists for women on paper.

Initially facing resistance, they chose a subtle way of persuasion – instead of fighting aggressively for their rights, they merely said, “Okay, if you do not take this up now, we will bring it up next year” and finally got their way. (The battle for women’s reservation in State bodies has not yet been won elsewhere in Nagaland and is a deeply contentious issue).

“It is crucial that we make informed choices about our development process, that we don’t make decisions casually,” reiterated Seno. “Our whole struggle is about protecting our land, water and agriculture. Many think we are saying no to development. But to them we are saying, our lives are based on our land, water, air and that is the essential message emerging from our studies and debates. Our farmers are beginning to understand the politics of development and how people lobby to promote interests that don’t always work in our favour. The Northeast public and civil society organisations have to work to develop our own perspectives”, she said.

Excerpted with permission from Understanding India’s Northeast: A Reporter’s Journal, Rupa Chinai.