Facing the pandemic crisis in Garo Hills

AMIT JOHN KURIEN

 

THE representation and understanding of rural realities of Northeast India has beenbiased and poor. Garo Hills, an area of nearly 8200 km2 of rural forest-agricultural landscape and economy, lying at the eastern corner of Meghalaya mostly received attention for its militant movements which have now been curbed. Yet the media as well as academic coverage on the complexities of life and livelihoods of people in this region are scanty; and now, on the impact of the pandemic, abysmal. Therefore, in order to understand the effects of Covid-19 on people’s livelihoods, a clear understanding of the backdrop of this region is required.

The Garo Hills landscape, once an expanse of shifting cultivation (also referred to in policy circles as jhum) fields, fallows, and forests, has now been significantly altered with the promotion of tree cash crops such as cashew, areca, and rubber. The Jhum Control Scheme of the 1950s and agricultural policies which followed brought tree cash crops such as cashew into the landscape to replace shifting cultivation. These policies resulted from a blind belief in the colonial narrative that shifting cultivation was a ‘primitive’ and ‘wasteful’ agriculture practice, causing deforestation and soil erosion.

Since the 1970s-80s, crops such as cashew deemed as a ‘cover crop’, areca and to some extent rubber would generate livelihoods and economic growth and people took to it for cash income, but it also meant intensification (i.e. shortened fallow periods) of their subsistence practice – shifting cultivation. The rural population increased in the post-independence era, but not much outmigration was observed from the region for a long time. Today, most villages in the region are directly dependent on a mix of shifting cultivation, tree cash crops and the market for produce. Wet rice production is restricted to the valleys. There is little terraced farming. By the farmers’ own choice, both shifting cultivation and cash cropping in most places are rain fed and free of fertilizers, all of which take place in this largely remote region.

 

 

This paper follows the arc of key changes that occurred in the rural sector once the pandemic spread, and physical movement became restricted. It also attempts to point out the larger issues that plague the region that explain how the pandemic unfolded and the manner in which its effects were experienced by the Garos on community life and the rural sphere.

The article is composed of five sections: the first deals with the immediate effects of the lockdown and some longer lasting effects on community life and the rural sphere. The second examines the role of the state in providing relief to overcome the crisis. The third section elaborates the many ways in which the rural economy adapted to newer conditions of semi-complete restrictions of movement and market access. The fourth delves into the deeper issues enmeshed in Meghalaya society that determined how the crisis played out and might continue, and the final section provides some key lessons that could limit the effects of such catastrophes in the Northeast Indian region.1

The main impact that the pandemic had on rural families was in making them fall back on subsistence agriculture for food procurement because market closures created difficulties in trading crops (especially areca, cashew and ginger) for cash and food. One of the main troubles villagers faced during the lockdown in March 2020 was that it coincided all across Northeast India with the planting season. In the Garo Hills, and other parts of Meghalaya too, the planting season is closely associated with heavy dependence on markets for basic commodities such as rice,
dal, sugar, salt, and fish, and even vegetables.

 

 

Villages in Garo Hills thus faced an extremely precarious period during the lockdown. As state borders closed, weekly markets shut down; there was limited movement of non-Garos who constitute the merchants and intermediaries, thus limiting food supplies. The public distribution system (PDS) was also significantly impaired. The daily supply of rice and groceries was therefore affected leading to overall shortage in consumption of food across all household – especially in those less connected by road and living up in the hills.

The food scarcity during the lockdown, as well as into the following months of the pandemic, compelled people to rely on shifting cultivation fallows and riversides for ‘famine foods’ for subsistence but also for sale. Families including adults and children regularly gathered yams (Dioscorea spp., Colocassia spp.,), edible mushrooms and leaves, vegetables, bananas, banana blossoms, and fruits. But these foods provided limited respite since fallow periods of shifting cultivation are short now and also little fallow area remain in most villages.2 Thus, villagers faced harsh situations through the humid summer of 2020 and into the monsoon after June.

 

 

Even after the lockdown, many farmers lost money due to lack of access to towns or retailers to sell their farm produce at the markets leading to a wastage of precious shifting cultivation crops – all based on natural farming. Some did sell their crops to livestock farmers, but at throwaway prices. The collective loss during this period, of produce from shifting cultivation fields – the largest land use in large parts of the region, if not all of Garo Hills – simply remains unknown. The trade in cash crops such as areca, cashew, and ginger, the largest source of income for rural households, halted for quite some time and resumed only after mid-2020. This amounted  to huge financial losses for several households.

Non-Garos who lived in the border areas of Garo Hills facing Bangladesh and Assam faced harsher food insecurity because of the suddenness of market closure. Nearly all of them were directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture. Many farmers have their fields across the border in Bangladesh that they could not access because of strict closure orders. Moreover, non-Garo villagers relied on income derived from activities that required direct links with markets and also on remittances – both of which were stalled since many returned home. Such situations only increased food insecurity.

The daily wage labourers who form the large unorganized sector were most affected by the pandemic. Since households with capital did not make land-based investments fearing another outbreak of hard times, the local well of wage employment dried up quickly.

 

 

At the state level, the government was thrown out of gear and the staff at district levels found it difficult to organize food and rations during the lockdown. Relief measures were minimal during the period of the first lockdown.

The PDS did resume after an initial pause, but a significant number without ration cards were left to make ends meet in other ways. Many of these families were young, married couples settled separately in the villages according to Garo social customs and who don’t have productive lands. Some families did obtain free additional rations of 5kg rice and 1kg dal per person under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) announced in 2020. However, allegations point to Meghalaya having distributed a lot less than the allocated grains under the scheme.3,4 Similarly, the local area development funds of the MLAs were disbursed early on, but much debate is ongoing in the local media about its utilization.

Temporarily ceasing the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) during the initial lockdown led to serious financial difficulties for families that depended on it for cash income. However, despite a fresh inflow of funds into MGNREGS after the lockdown, there were mixed reports regarding its effective implementation, especially in 2020. The Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-KISAN) meant to support small and marginal farmers played only a trivial role in supporting farmer households. Only about 9000 of Meghalaya’s nearly three million farmers received the annual financial support – the lowest among Northeast Indian states.5

 

 

A heartening aspect was the significant citizen participation in ensuring relief measures. Apart from the NGOs and church groups that took part in such activities, citizen groups of adventure enthusiasts, heritage conservationists, among others, gathered donations and often put in their own funds to help those in the countryside. Many of these groups were eventually integrated with the state’s plans for distributing rations. Even though free food items were distributed in villages by the state government as well as by individuals, it did not match up to the losses the families were incurring during the period due to loss of crops, hence lack of steady market access and inability to sell cash crops such as areca nut, cashew, and ginger.

 

Initially the pandemic forced rural livelihoods into disarray. But through the period after the first wave, several rearrangements by necessity were observed in the rural economy.

1. A rising dependence on shifting cultivation – The precariousness for livelihoods observed during the first wave pushed families living close to the roads that depended entirely on cash crops and daily wage labour or had completely stopped shifting cultivation, to resume the practice because of its value for subsistence and food security, even though only for a short period. Shifting cultivation does not sustain families for an entire year anymore since fallow periods have declined, partly due to expansion of cash crops.6,7 Crops that did see a rise in production included ginger, pumpkin, and tubers since it is aimed for local markets and can also be used for home consumption with longer shelf life.  However, the excess supply of ginger from the region did result in market rates falling drastically this year.

2. Decentralized anti and neo-traders – With the closing down of main markets, numerous makeshift anti (Garo word for ‘bazaar’) sprang up based on inter-community networks. Temporary shops fabricated using locally sourced bamboo served the farmers’ need to sell crops from shifting cultivation fields, fallows, and home gardens. They also sold fish, pickles, and other home-made eatables. Individuals obtained essential commodities such as clothes, soaps, slippers etc. from vendors in towns to begin small enterprises and shops near the villages itself. This was the only option as more Covid positive cases rising into 2021 restricted inter-district movement and regular market transactions.The state borders were closed restricting movement of non-Garo traders who dealt with much of the market trade. By the time restrictions eased, many Garo men became part-time traders and temporarily replaced the non-Garos. These neo-traders also facilitated the distress sale of livestock by poorer families to overcome income needs.

3. Local food sourcing – The demand side of this story was that during the last two years many town dwellers expressed enthusiasm in receiving better quality meat products such as chicken, pork, and beef directly from the farmer-producers. This created a slow shift in preferences from these products originally sourced from faraway Assam, West Bengal, Haryana, and Punjab. The local livestock are in better health as they are both stall-fed and free ranging with reduced costs of transport pointing to the clear benefits of supporting local food production and consumption. Fish, however, was still being sourced from outside the state during the pandemic. Whether the reentry of the poultry and meat market trumps the interest among consumers to demand for local meat products remain to be seen.

 

 

Deeper problems of poor infrastructure and systemic corruption and mismanagement hampered the state’s response to the crisis. Biophysical and climatic factors are two of the most important aspects that hamper infrastructure development in North-east India and Garo Hills. Monsoon rains become floods. Houses are washed away, and roads give way. These annual realities of the region affect infrastructural support and the delivery of services. Both the pandemic years saw heavy rains. Bridges collapsed leading to loss of road connectivity to many strategic locations such as ration shops and other delivery points for food.

The region lacks a well equipped healthcare system. Most serious Covid cases had to be taken to Shillong or Guwahati – a five-hour journey from the Garo Hills. During the first wave in 2020, quarantine centres were set up by local village institutions under the guidance of the village heads (nokma) and other senior members and largely because of secure inter-community networks.There was much resistance to setting up these centres in the following year because of a lack of disbursement of funds by the state government to compensate the villagers’ expenses. As of mid-2021, Covid positive cases were steadily on the rise even in the remotest parts of the region, many of which are undoubtedly going unrecorded.

 

 

These shortcomings combined with the lack of self-sufficiency in food and increased policy emphasis on market-oriented tree cash crops such as areca and cashew has led to ecological and social vulnerability during such crises. The informal institution of the council of all village headmen – the Nokma Council – thus emphasized the need to promote greater interdependence among villages of the region during such times.

The state government deployed its own ‘iTeams’ to provide farmer-market linkages in some parts of the state such as the Khasi Hills. The Integrated Technology Enabled Agriculture Management System (also called 1917 iTeams) put in place in 2017, is an innovative initiative to provide market access by way of vehicle services using a toll-free number. However, its service in Garo Hills region was poor during the pandemic when it was sorely needed. Moreover, there were fewer reports of its role in the management of the crisis in 2021 thus revealing the incapacity of the government to utilize or efficiently manage existing services.

The NPP-led Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA) government is currently caught in rough waters regarding allegations of corruption in the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS).8,9 Meghalaya government’s preference for delivery of food under the Supplementary Nutrition Programme (SNP) of the ICDS is currently largely based on giving major contracts to large industries.This runs against the Supreme Court directive to preferably offer such contracts to village communities and women Self Help Groups (SHGs) to bolster the SNP. There is a clear lack of interest on the part of the government to improve the SNP in this manner. Such an approach could help retain the agroecological diversity, further incentivize small holder production (perhaps even innovation) and facilitate youth employment – none of which is happening.

 

 

The non-payment of income support to daily wage workers and traders under the Chief Minister’s Relief against Wage Loss scheme (CMRAWL) initiated during the national lockdown in 2020 as well as in the Building and other Construction Workers (BOCW) resulted in the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) highlighting the mishandling of funds.10 At the time of writing this article, workers headed by the social activist group Thma U Rangli-Juki (TUR) were holding a protest demanding the release of funds.11 The government’s image was also se-verely sullied by the CAG report on the audit of the Centre’s flagship pro-gramme, Saubhagya scheme (Pra-dhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana) where a loss of Rs 149 crore was observed.12

 

 

Food insecurity in other states in the country was severe during the pandemic.13 The agrarian sector in Garo Hills and maybe even other parts of Meghalaya were badly hit by the Covid-19 storm. It has underscored the vulnerability and lack of resilience for rural livelihoods with limited market access and state support. A few lessons can be learnt from this experience that could help in facing the crises yet to come.

First, overcoming food insecurity and increasing self-reliance is central. Farmers in Northeast India, given its remote and difficult terrain, depend on shifting cultivation and wet rice cultivation for subsistence. One way to raise production, food diversity, self-sufficiency is to enhance the shifting cultivation system itself but keeping its essence intact which is in sync with the seasons, terrain, agroecology and culture. Moreover, if there has to be a concerted effort to improve the SNP and ICDS and prevent malnutrition that already exists in many parts of Meghalaya, these natural farming systems and farmers need to be encouraged and incentivized.14 The local crops do not involve fertilizer or pesticide use, has enormous food diversity, provides ease of sale in local markets where it has good demand by virtue of its centrality in local cuisines that form the food culture of the region.

 

 

However, the policy framework for it does not currently exist, though efforts are being made to improve
the situation.
15 The mindset to ‘improve’livelihoods by replacing shifting cultivation with cash crop plantations for cash income generation is good only if market prices are steady. There needs to be an honest effort to modify policies, undertake research on indigenous farming systems, and to market such produce.

Second, the economic and ecological vulnerabilities in the farm economy are rising. Today, 30% of West Garo Hills district alone has been converted to monoculture plantations albeit in smallholder form.16 Such rapid transformations increase pest loads in the landscape. In many parts of Garo Hills and Khasi Hills, several farmers have already lost many areca fields due to total shedding of leaves from what appears to be multiple clusters of identical pest attacks. While the need for cash crops is important, jettisoning subsistence agriculture could result in greater possibility of impoverishment and vulnerability.

Several Northeast Indian states were also hit by the African Swine Fever (ASF) right in the midst of the pandemic leading to the death and slaughter of several tens of thousands of livestock. Even as one pandemic is being managed, it is essential to not invite other kinds to our doorstep. Research from similar landscapes have shown that excessive reliance on a cash crop economy can lead to ecological problems as well as social and economic differentiation.17

Third, welfare schemes play an important role in keeping the village and labour economy afloat because of poor economic growth and unemployment. Better management of crises requires an honest approach to dealing with existing schemes and funds. MGNREGS plays a very significant role in the village economy and especially supports poorer families. The PDS play a significant role but needs to be enhanced with better quality food in an area where local dietary trends are fast changing for the worse.

 

 

The Government of Meghalaya plans to boost its economy using agriculture as its mainstay.18 A few things need to be looked at to make this happen. The infrastructure required for it in an earthquake and flood-prone region such as effective transportation facilities, cable networks, refrigeration, and the capacity to utilize existing services needs to be put in place. The high rates of unemployment, mismanagement of funds and corruption needs to be curbed. The farm sector in remote, sub-Himalayan, flood-prone states in Northeast India needs resilience and sustainability as central to its agricultural, forest, and economic strategy into the future. State governments need to think hard about how they want to build economies in landscapes with distinctly different agroecologies and the kind of infrastructure they ought to be providing for development.

 

* Research for the article was initiated with ATREE as part of my doctoral studies.

 

Footnotes:

1. The paper is largely based on my doctoral fieldwork over a period of one and a half years. Data for the post-pandemic period was based on telephonic interviews with villagers, government officials, NGO staff, social activists, journalists, citizen volunteers involved in relief work, traders, town-dwellers. Literature review and limited news accounts during the pandemic were also used to guide the study and complement the above data.

2. A.J. Kurien, S. Lele, H. Nagendra,‘Farms or Forests? Understanding and Mapping Shifting Cultivation Using the Case Study of West Garo Hills, India’, Land 8(9), 2019, p.133 doi:10.3390/land8090133

3. https://www.foodnavigator-asia.com/Article/2020/07/13/India-s-COVID-19-free-food-rations-Government-s-compassionate-gesture-blighted-by-inefficiencies

4. https://theshillongtimes.com/2021/07/26/bernard-demands-free-rice-under-pmgkay-for-beneficiaries-till-diwali/

5. https://www.eastmojo.com/meghalaya/2021/06/08/only-9000-farmers-benefited-from-pm-kisan-scheme-says-meghalaya-mp; The scheme has been crafted to be nearly invalid for the state since it is conditional on farmers having land ownership, something uncommon in Garo Hills and Meghalaya, in general, where lands are held without a title (temporarily or permanently) within com-munally owned and managed villages.

6. Ibid., fn 2.

7. Behera et al., ‘From Jhum to Broom: Agricultural Land-use Change and Food Security Implications on the Meghalaya Plateau, India’, Ambio 1, 2016, pp. 63-77.

8. https://www.eastmojo.com/meghalaya/2021/06/18/rice-scam-fallout-meghalaya-govt-refrains-from-addressing-media-after-cabinet-meet/

9. https://www.eastmojo.com/assam/2021/06/14/assam-1-lakh-bags-of-fci-rice-seized-from-private-godown-in-kamrup/

10. https://theshillongtimes.com/2020/11/14/cag-reports-non-filing-of-utilisation-certificates-worth-over-rs-4200-cr/

11. https://www.eastmojo.com/meghalaya/2021/07/26/asked-to-vacate-meghalaya-leader-angela-rangad-stands-firm/

12. https://theshillongtimes.com/2021/07/06/cag-detects-rs-149-cr-scam-in-saubhagya-scheme/

13. https://www.ideasforindia.in/topics/poverty-inequality/the-covid-19-crisis-and-food-security.html

14. Chyne et al.,‘Nutritional Status, Food Insecurity, and Biodiversity Among the Khasi in Meghalaya, North East India’, Maternal and Child Nutrition 13(S3), 2017, e12557.

15. NITI  Aayog, Report of Working Group III – Shifting Cultivation: Towards a Transformational Approach. NITI  Aayog, New Delhi, 2018.

16. Op. cit., fn 2.

17. T.M. Li, Land’s End : Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier. Duke University Press, Durham, 2014.

18. https://megagriculture.blogspot.com/2020/07/meghalaya-agri-vision-2040-2-days.html