Prioritizing Issues of Livelihood in North East India A Lead Discussion Paper - Centre for Humanistic Development India’s Northeast is comprised of the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura. The region is land-locked and has international borders except the ‘chicken neck’, a narrow corridor of 33 km on the east and 21 km on the west connecting it with the rest of India. The total population of the region is about 39 million (2001). The land is also inhabited by diverse ethnic groups speaking about 250 languages and dialects. The northeast is mostly hilly (about 70%) ; the hills cover most of the states of Arunachal, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Sikkim, Nagaland, 9/10th of Manipur, half of Tripura and 1/5th of Assam. The plains of river Brahmaputra – 730 km from east to west – comprise 2/3rd of Assam, the most populated state (about 70%) in the region. Most of the hills are rugged and inaccessible. Barak valley, formed by river Barak and its tributaries covers three districts of south Assam. Plains of Tripura are the extension of Ganga (Meghna) - Brahmaputra plain. Manipur valley is small covering only 10 percent of the state. The region is rich in fauna and flora and other natural resources. Population Density (2001) State Population Land Area Population Density (in million) (in sq. km) (per sq. km) Arunachal 1.09 83743 13 Assam 26.65 78438 340 Manipur 2.29 22327 103 Meghalaya 2.31 22429 103 Mizoram 0.89 21087 42 Nagaland 1.99 16579 120 Sikkim 0.54 7096 76 Tripura 3.19 10486 313 Northeast 38.98 (88% rural) 262185 149 All India 1028.61(75%rural) 3287263 313 Issues of livelihood of the poor India’s northeast is going through a transition. No longer is the traditional way of living addressing the problems faced by the people of the region, especially the poor and marginalized people. The diminishing traditional social safety nets in forms of traditional institutions; population pressure, both internal and in the form of influx; poor public health infrastructure; erosion of homestead and access to common property resources; increased exposure to market have raised the cash need of a common household and the poor household’s livelihood security and traditional coping mechanism has gone topsy-turvy. No longer is the traditional basket of activities of the poor and not-so-poor household sustainable with stiff competition from mass produced goods. In such a situation, the poor households are in a relentless pursuit of cash generating activities. Pursuit of cash has pushed small farmers hitherto self-sufficient in nature more into cash crops and unskilled wage labour. And both are uncertain in nature. There are apprehensions that despite rise in overall income and reduction of ‘absolute’ hunger, the poor household has become more ‘vulnerable’ vis-à-vis poverty. The poor household’s chances of slipping back into poverty are higher than before. The ‘most’ vulnerable Groups The most vulnerable groups & communities of the northeast could be identified as the following; Small farmers and the landless Upland communities1 including Jhum cultivators Internally Displaced persons due to ethnic conflict/ natural disaster The Adivasi community- totally/ partially engaged with Tea Communities involved in traditional occupation –artisans, weavers, bamboo/ cane craftsperson, potters, bell/brass metal makers, fishermen The urban poor Women – also as a separate group – cash need induced activities are also displacing women – from their traditional control over homestead to a marginalized position The places where (due to geographical and infrastructural conditions) poverty pockets are burgeoning are; Mountainous or hilly regions – where population is sparse and infrastructure minimal - Arunachal, Nagaland, hills of Manipur, remote areas of Mizoram and Meghalaya, hills of Tripura and Assam, and Sikkim. Plains where ‘mainstream’ development is least in terms of infrastructure and developmental programmes; incidentally, these are also habitat of the tribal- Foothills of Himalayan Range in Assam and South Tripura. Places where people are displaced due to ethnic violence – Tripura, hills of Assam, Western Assam. Places severely affected by militancy – Manipur, Nagaland, pockets of Assam and Tripura. Places affected by Natural disasters – flood plains of Brahmaputra, especially in the northern bank, where its tributaries are shifting and Surma valley in Assam. ‘Char’ – large (some times more than 20 km in length) sand deposits in the middle of the river Brahmaputra- areas of Assam. 1 If a poverty line taking into account (a) higher calorie requirement, (b) higher non-food needs of clothing and shelter for survival, and (c) higher prices obtaining in mountain and hill areas is adopted, then the incidence of poverty in the upland would turn out to be higher than shown by current measures. Some ‘distress’ faced by some groups, communities in some places are Food insufficiency acute in Remote Pockets in Upland Remote pockets of tribal-inhabited areas of Tripura Large percentage of Internally Displaced Persons due to ethnic violence now residing in Relief camps and ‘rehabilitated’ villages of western Assam, Hills of Assam, Tripura Displaced households by flood, river shifting in Brahmaputra valley of Assam Women Headed Families, especially among Koch-Rajbonshi in western Assam, migrant labour among ex-tea communities and immigrant Muslims in Char areas Families of Closed tea gardens in South Assam Asset/landlessness More marginalization of small farmers, some tribal people, upland remote communities, land alienation and insecure titles (some upland tribal and ex-tea communities in the plain) or the fact that the land they own is too small or unproductive. Also most farmers in the region cutting across all communities and geographical sub-regions Access to Resources Livelihood is a function of transformation of resources. Therefore, non-access to resources is a vital element in perpetuation of poverty. These resources may be natural, physical, technological and financial in nature. Alienation from traditional societal resources like forest and grazing land, low transfer of appropriate technology to the poor, virtual non-access of the poor to the formal credit system, low bargaining power in the market have bust the livelihood options of the north-eastern poor. Need for pro-poor institutions But it is social structures that will determine the access to available technology and use it beneficially. Therefore, pro-poor institutional development is a very significant need for effective intervention of poverty reduction and livelihood generation. It goes without saying that these institutions need to have good governance and efficient management systems including MIS. It may be pointed out here that information dissymmetry is one major hurdle faced by poor and not-so-poor in the region, which results in non- adequate prices fetched at the market. The other reason for such depressed price is also absence of bargaining power by the poor and not-so-poor in the market. Both these issues may be addressed by the organization of the poor themselves such as broad based cooperatives, federation of SHGs both at producers’ and markets’ points. This will be a step ahead of the traditional capacity building continuum. It goes without saying that for such an endeavour facilitating organizations for institutional development support is necessary. The first step for promoting such intermediate organization will be better understanding of the state of poverty and livelihood of the poor in the region and the challenges they present. Therefore, capacity building of intermediate Livelihood promoting organizations, like NGOs and repositioned traditional institutions, is important. Need for Technology transfer Appropriate technologies have to be developed for and adopted in rural areas for: income/employment generation reduction of drudgery upgrading habitat and social infrastructure otherwise improving quality of life In the present context, dominant requirement is for technologies for income/employment generation in the non-farm sector, i.e., for rural industrialization. Value-addition to rural resources Utilisation and up-gradation of local skills Sustainable farm and off-farm livelihoods Need for policy advocacy and research For integrated development intervention, policy advocacy and research cannot be overlooked. The systematic research and documentation of livelihood issues in the northeast is very patchy and inadequate. Any attempt in this regard, would be a necessary precursor to effective policy advocacy. End note Livelihood generation, to be meaningful, will have to be large in scale and easily replicable. There is also an urgent need to synergize the third sector intervention with that of the government, for it would create greater access to funds and institutions for such livelihood generation. This would also, in turn, lead to greater efficacy of governmental programmes.
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