Agriculture of Uttarakhand

 

Agriculture and animal husbandry or pastoralism have long been and still are the mainstay livelihoods and occupations of the human communities in the Himalayan state of Uttarkhand. Closely and symbiotically interlinked, both of them are deeply dependent on the neighbouring forests and ecosystem for sustenance and viability.

Agriculture in 87% of hill Uttarakhand is rainfed. It is distinguished by its organic cultivation methods and marked by exceptionally rich biodiversity. The farmers of Nahikalan, a village I’ve been closely associated with grow up to 40 different crops in a year.

The following example illustrates the diversity, associated knowledge and sustainability of traditional farming systems in this area.

Baranaja is a mixed farming, companion planting system, a veritable community/society of crops that are planted together on the same terraced fields in the kharif/chau masa or monsoon season.

Amongst the grains (cereals/millets) there will be mandua (finger millet), ramdana (amaranthus), kuttu/ogal (buckwheat), jwar (sorghum) and makki (corn)

Pulses and beans like rajma, lobia, bhatt, gehat, naurangi, urad and mung

Oilseeds like til, bhangjeer, sann, bhang

Vegetables like ogal, chollai, kheera, lobia

Spices like jakhiya and til (sesame).

Fibre plants like sann and bhang

Vines of pulses leap onto sturdier crops like corn and millets and climb far, in exchange they share the extra nitrogen that they fix in the soil _ works well for both.

As plants grow and flourish at different levels/ storeys much like a natural forest, they utilize multiple levels of space. This system implies more overall productivity, meeting of diverse food and nutritional security of humans and cattle, minimizing risks due to climate and pests and sustained soil fertility.

Important and hard tasks like weeding, hoeing and harvesting are still undertaken together by working on each others fields in turn, as is the sowing of paddy. Village typically go together to graze cattle or fetch fodder and fuelwood. What is missing is the earlier music, song and dance though they still talk and joke a lot.

Agroforestry:

In between rainfed agri-terraces are numerous trees of astounding diversity and so too all over the agricultural zone. Their numbers run into (even tens of) thousands of trees for a single village. Wild bushes, grasses and herbs too abound here. In the monsoon its easy to mistake the agricultural zone for a forest.

This amazing traditional agro-forestry system importantly provides diverse fodders, foods, fuelwood, fibre, firelight, medicine, timber etc. Besides minimizing erosion on steep slopes they create wonderful nutrient cycles and micro-climate for crops and enhance livelihood security and accessibility.

Agriculture here is completely powered by cattle. The most critical component of organic manures is cowdung. And all tilling of the land is done by bullocks. Along with this symbiotic link with agriculture, cow and buffalo milk and milk products are critical to food and nutritional security and livelihood risk reduction. Its likely a climatically and ecologically surer livelihood option than rainfed agriculture.

Perhaps the single most important feature that determines water availability, above mainstay livelihoods and other needs including determining where habitations are located is forests.

Forests here provide critical livelihood needs like fodder for cattle, resultant cowdung for manures, leaf mulches for crops, quality fuel woods, wild foods, medicines for humans and cattle, wood for housing, furniture and implements and importantly a congenial micro-climate for several special hill crops. They are the critical factor in sustained water availability… through springs, streams, rivers, pools and ponds etc.

The well being and quality of life in these mountains is directly linked to the health and diversity of the neighbouring forests, especially those above villages. Little wonder they have a special place in Garhwali folk music and culture.

For centuries dozens of wild food plants comprising flowers/buds, fruits/berries, leaves, wild tubers etc. comprised a very crucial part of the food and particularly nutritional security of local communities.

Threats and Challenges to Sustainability

But these mountains are no Shangri-la, despite such inherent strengths there have been and are several challenges.

The earliest modern challenge was attempts to take over control of forests by the British followed by the Indian state. Often leading to alienation, forest felling, attempted commercialization, and local resistance movements and initiatives.

Application of the dominant industrial development paradigm to these Himalayan regions through government policies especially in sectors of energy, mining, agriculture, road building etc. are a big challenge. As they see even these, the worlds greatest mountains and its civilization defining rivers as merely natural resources to be exploited. The effects on communities, livelihoods and environment, local and all the way downstream is neglected, underplayed and ignored. Can this ever be sustainable for the Himalayas or these mighty rivers and all the life that is linked to them.

At the same time local livelihoods, lifestyles, folk knowledge (significantly of agriculture and forests) and cultures were singularly neglected, ignored and regarded as backward, leading to economic, social and cultural devaluation. With the above thrust this lead to shrinking economically viable livelihood options and changing and growing (especially economic) aspirations. Add to this woeful neglect of health and quality education needs of villages and small towns and cultural influences of television, films and big cities. The result has been widespread migration from the hills.

At the local level, rain fed farming communities across Uttarakhand are today struggling with the vagaries and unpredictability of changing swinging climate…to which they have made virtually no contribution.

Over the last two decades forest fires have become the most widespread local threat to forests with their increased frequency, wider range and severity. Climate change induced frequenter long dry spells or severe heat spells along with alienation of communities due to government forest policies are primary causes. Result is enormous eminently avoidable harm to forests and communities, releasing massive pollutants and stored carbon, even as carbon sinks are destroyed, adding significantly to global warming and climate change.

And yet, organic biodiverse agriculture, natural forests and dependence on them have changed far less in the hills of Uttarakhand especially Garhwal, compared to other western Himalayan states. The sustainability of these primary livelihoods, lifestyles and their core characteristics have enabled the sustainability, integrity and perhaps survival of these mountain ecosystems over centuries.

Significantly, the last four decades have seen several remarkable efforts by local communities to protect forests, mountains, water sources, agriculture and linked livelihoods _ often fighting apathetic Governments, money and muscle power, timber mafia and politicians, the arrogance of modern science and economics.

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