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The Politics of Swidden Farming, Environment and Development in Eastern India

By Debojyoti Das

Imprint: Anthem Press


ISBN 9781783087754
March 2018 | 250 Pages | 229 x 152mm / 9 x 6
PRICE:  £70.00  /  $115.00  Buy from Amazon.co.uk  Buy from Amazon.com

About This Book

‘The Politics of Swidden Farming, Environment and Development in Eastern India’ offers a new explanation for the changes taking place in slash-and-burn (jhum or swidden) farming in the highlands of eastern India through an ethnographic case study. Today market-led agriculture is transforming land and labour relations. Jhum cultivators are beneficiaries of state schemes, including internationally funded, community-driven development or biodiversity conservation programmes.

The book traces the story of agroecological change and state intervention to colonial times (including post Indian independence) when Nagaland was seen as the frontier of state and civilization. Contemporary agrarian change can be understood by contextualizing farming not just in terms of the science and technology of agriculture or conservation/biodiversity but also in terms of technologies of rule. For the colonial administrators of the Naga Hills – who saw their role partially in terms of rescue and record ethnography – jhum practices were part of backward Naga customs and traditions. Improving farming practices was bound up with indirect rule as a distinct process of governance involving forms of knowledge and intervention. It was political expediency rather than imperial science that changed local agroecologies and pressurized shifting cultivation. Crucially, neighbouring Naga terrace rice cultivators were promoted as offering a more civilized – yet local – alternative.

‘The Politics of Swidden Farming, Environment and Development in Eastern India’ demonstrates how contemporary agrarian development reflects this complex colonial heritage, including linkages between the state and village elites. Evangelical missionaries in the post-Independence period also contributed by appropriating local institutions to a Protestant (Baptist) ethic of work. Reinforcing the colonial state’s privileging of rice as the crop of civilization, the missionaries’ moral discourse installed new time disciplines geared to settled agriculture. To this end, the book adds a new dimension to the underdeveloped literature on shifting cultivation in South Asia by focusing on the social ecology of farming and agrarian change in the hills. It provides a comparative viewpoint to state-centred and donor-driven development in the frontier region by bringing in different actors and institutions that become the actants and agents of social change.

Methodologically, the author engages with the many voices that shaped his fieldwork, providing evidence from in-depth household-based participant observation and life histories, and a household survey, while also drawing extensively on original archival research and colonial photography to provide documentation of colonial representations of the swidden landscape. The research was undertaken in a milieu of fear and violence, which raises further methodological and ethical issues.

Readership: Readers and students interested in South Asian studies, social anthropology, historical anthropology, anthropology of development, human geography, environmental anthropology, environmental humanities and visual anthropology.

Author Information

Debojyoti Das is SSRC Fellow at the Yale MacMillan Center. He received his PhD in social anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, UK.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements; List of Abbreviations; Chapter 1 Introduction; Chapter 2 Methodology and Fieldwork: Negotiating Hazardous Fields; Chapter 3 Ethnography, Violence and Memory: Telling Violence in the Naga Hills; Chapter 4 Jhum and the ‘Science of Empire’: Ecological Discourse, Ethnographic Knowledge and Colonial Mediation; Chapter 5 Land and Land-Based Relations in a Yimchunger Naga Village: From a Book View to a Field View; Chapter 6 The Politics of Time: The Missionary Calendar, the Protestant Ethic and Labour Relations among the Eastern Nagas; Chapter 7 The Micro-Politics of Development Intervention: Village Patrons, Community Participation and the NEPED Project; Chapter 8 Conclusion; Appendix; Bibliography; Index.