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Research project

Markets, Ethics and Agency: Changing Land Utilization and Social Transformation in the Uplands of Northeast India

This project explores the decline of shifting cultivation in Northeast India. What is the impact on society of people’s deepening engagement with markets and the state?

Erik de Maaker

Tata Institute of Social Sciences

From Margin to Frontier

‘Markets, Ethics and Agency’ explores the strategies employed by upland farmers of Northeast India who are deepening their engagement with markets and the state. Given the substantial commitments of the Indian state towards the Northeast and its growing importance for commercial activities such as mining, the region is rapidly developing in terms of infrastructure and connectivity. Increasingly, the upland areas are becoming integrated with regional, national and even international markets.

These expanding networks of trade demand that upland cultivators reformulate their ethics of exchange, including morally charged notions such as ‘trust’, ‘profit’ and ‘greed’. The adoption of new crops has triggered the privatization of land, challenging inalienable communal ownership. Yet, people seem to attach great value to land as a shared resource, and they make great efforts to maintain collectively managed land as well.

This continuing land attachment is also made explicit in political claims, as voiced by the many ethno-nationalist movements that are active in the uplands. Conducting in-depth multidisciplinary and empirical research into the so far neglected agency of upland farmers and their complex and changing relationship with markets and the state, we expect to gain important new insights into how upland indigenous communities modernize.

Social Inequality and Communal Sharing

In the uplands of Northeast India, land is gradually becoming scarce. Over the last century the population of the uplands has exponentially grown decreasing the area of land that is available per person. Hill land is increasingly being occupied for the cultivation of permanent ‘plantation’ cash crops such as tea, coffee and rubber (de Maaker 2015). In many parts of Northeast India, this results in less land being available for swidden cultivation and creates pressure on communal land holdings, gradually resulting in their privatization. Land commodifies, and can be mortgaged or sold (albeit only within the community). This allows for income disparities to grow. Some people become rich, but land alienation and impoverishment also occur.

The ‘modernisation’ of upland farming does not seem to result in the phasing out of shifting cultivation. If shifting cultivation would be outright ‘inefficient’, as many agronomists claim, it seems likely that farmers would abandon it as soon as alternatives become available. This is not the case. Rather, upland farmers seem to continue practicing shifting cultivation against many odds. For example: they move onto steeper slopes and less fertile plots, encroaching upon areas that were hitherto not cultivated. How can this persistent commitment towards shifting cultivation be explained? Why, at a time that people are getting more strongly connected to the market, are they simultaneously cherishing communal practices that hinge on mutual dependency?

Swidden farmers in Northeast India are drying black pepper, a valuable crop, in preparation for it being sold to middleman at the village market.

Changing Ethics of the Market

Upland producers have since long been trading at markets. Historically, markets served as nodes for political control that facilitated economic interaction between upland and lowland populations (Mishra 2011). Earlier, trade relations were relatively fixed between upland producers and lowland traders. The current opening up of upland economies has resulted in the extension of trading networks well beyond the confines of the earlier market spaces. How does that change the economic strategies of upland farmers? Upland cultivators are ‘taken in’ by the market, but do they also have the agency to appropriate it? Trade relationships revolve around notions such as ‘trust’, ‘loyalty’, ‘profit’ and ‘exploitation’ that create an ethical framework for interaction, or an ‘economic morality’ (Hyden 1976, Stehr et. al. 2006). Does the expansion of trading networks, both in terms of people and goods, demand the adoption of new economic skills and transform people’s ethical and social frames of reference? How do people make such adjustments, in what contexts, and what are their social implications?

Markets, Ethics and Agency keys in with the AMT funded project Postcolonial Displacements: Migration, Narratives and Place-Making in South Asia (Erik de Maaker with dr. Sanjukta Sundarason of LIAS). The changing economic and political constitution of the uplands triggers migratory movements that induce a reframing of the relationships of community to territory.

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