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Evolution of Bihu and sustainability questions

The customary eating of eshoebi-dhsaak (101 types of herbs) on the day of Goru Bihu portrays the long tradition of rich herbaceous food culture in Assam.


Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  28 April 2022 3:02 AM GMT

Indrajit Borah


The customary eating of eshoebi-dhsaak (101 types of herbs) on the day of Goru Bihu portrays the long tradition of rich herbaceous food culture in Assam. Once, all these 101 varieties could be found in the vegetation grown in the Bari (garden) of a traditional Assamese home. With time, the marginalization of the agrarian sector to a mere one-fifth of state income unearths the erosion of the subsistence Assamese home and gathering exhoebi-dhsaak in a festive morning has now become a distant dream.

Bihu celebrates the farming cycles of agrarian Assam. As traditional art forms, Bihu songs and dances are manifestations of the agrarian experience of the peasants, coupled with fertility cults. These art forms were ape depictions of nature's breeding purpose and desired realism. No doubt, the early genres of Bihu song and dance had the same magic of art form, emanating from the aesthetic aspects of life to expedite the labour of production in the early stage of the agricultural society in Assam. Bihu songs and dances were originally performed in open fields to symbolically depict the fertile and productive nature of the earth. The crude forms underwent transformations over the generations. The patronage of the Ahom kings brought the Bihu dance from the fields to the royal amphitheatre, Rang-Ghar. Later, in the mid-twentieth century, the Rongali Bihu came out from a rural agrarian society to the public platforms of an urban and semi-urban population. The imminent makeover of these folk art forms by urbanized creativity has not been without a process of consensus. The core of enticement in Bihu song and dance are the elements of ancient art submerged under present-day modified forms.

The rituals of Bihu festivities typically espouse the self-sufficient Assamese home that made everything required for a subsistence life. This self-sufficiency had eroded much earlier, dating back to the beginning of the colonial period. In short, agrarian Assam has passed through the primitive social structure of Ahom-period, Zamindari revenue administration of British rule and dependent survivalist characteristics of rural India after independence. Today, agrarian Assam has lost its primitive subsistence structure, attributing it to socio-economic transformation to a pre-capitalistic structure and population expansion.

The agricultural land of Assam was mainly administered under the Zamindari land tenure system, which was the most widespread, covering 57 per cent of cultivated land in British India. The British Administration had brought down the historically complacent subsistence rural economy of Assam under Ahom rulers to even below subsistence levels at the cost of colonial needs. Till the formation of our democratic republic, the feudal elements of agrarian Assam were well preserved without any space for capital formation. Since independence, public investment has also not initiated a process of capital formation. Rather, we have seen another phase of government packages and subsidy-driven subsistence rural economies. With the population explosion, the fragmentation of farm holdings into tiny plots adversely affected agricultural productivity and this process made marginal owners landless. It is important to mention that no country has matched the volume of land reform legislation produced by India since its independence in 1947.

Small and marginal farmers dominated nearly 70% of the total cultivators in Assam. The steady decline in the average area owned per household reflects the increasing pressure of rural populations on the limited land base over the years. Small farmer dominated farming in Assam requires the support of enhanced public investment. Because the meagre per capita income can hardly generate an investable surplus or create purchasing power in the rural sector to provide a market for local industries. As a result, consistent under-investment in the farm sector calls for more off-firm means of employment generation like rice plus policy to supplement total household income in Assam. Otherwise, economic forces would further compel small and marginalized farmers to abandon farming and migrate to urban areas.

The transformation from home-based to mass production with wage-based industrialization deemed the household base primitive and unprofitable. There is no second opinion on shifting focus from the consumptive dependent survivalism mode to households as owners of productive assets, producers, and suppliers, termed the productive perspective. The household is one of the institutions around which production is organized.

The unique characterization and positioning of cooperatives as critical economic institutions forms the basis for alternative rural economic strategies. The advocacy of market forces to guide resource allocation has been barricaded with compensatory measures termed "structural adjustment with a human face". Rural development has always been a consequential approach that led us to the rhetoric of sustainable livelihood, which emphasizes the role of non-farm activities. The rural development perspective should consider value chain-based strategies and productive participation of marginalized rural households.

The structural and systemic exclusion marginalizing the rural poor has been a worldwide phenomenon. It can be attributed to rural commercialization based on the experience of the colonial period. It is also argued that an ineffective macroeconomic framework has confined rural households as dependent survivalists. In this process, rural households are pushed to operate as under-resourced passive participants carrying the cost of production. As per the experience of the industrialized world, rural commercialization has always conflicted with sustainable development.

In a predominantly agrarian economy, Bihu is unquestionably a cultural symbol of identity. The modern Assamese identity today has its initial roots in the inclusion process of different identity groups during Ahom's rule in the Brahmaputra valley. The boundary of the multi-ethnic social base was further widened with the induction of different groups of people from various parts of British India. Therefore, the formation of the Assamese identity has always been associated with alienation-centric discontents due to migration and infiltration issues since independence. The underdevelopment has sharpened inter-ethnic competition for access to resources and avenues for livelihood. Again, the dependency on trading cheap manufacturing goods from outside during the colonial era was the main impediment to indigenous capital formation. The self-sufficiency within feudal patronage was the inertia of complacency in this process.

The transfer of indigenous agrarian populations to the urbanization process has been the biggest challenge. The demand for an urban and modern working population has largely been fulfilled by various streams of migration in history. Consequently, the historical transformation of the primitive Bihu characterizes the broadening of Assamese identity.

Any region having a history of migratory populations has inherent identity issues in its political discourse. This phenomenon is more acute owing to the nature of the development path India followed. There was not much devaluation of state power to the bottom giving rise to acute centralized decision making. On the other hand, the inward-looking economic policy has also left very little room for start-up private capital and again, a typical entrepreneurial class could not come out of feudal wealth. This feudal wealth had royal patronage during the Ahom period, was subservient to British imperial capital and remained as collateral to public money after independence. As a result, there has been no local production base developed aggravating the situation by relying on other parts of the country for even the necessities. Today, the broadening of Assamese identity must resolve the conflict by developing indigenous production capabilities and production modes.

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