Podu Cultivation

Kailash Chandra Das

    Tribal communities of India living on the hilly tracts follow a method of cultivation by cutting and burning forest patches on the hills of the neighboring areas. This is known in various local terms like 'Podu', 'Dahi' and ‘Jhum’. In English documents this is called Swidden or slash and burn or shifting cultivation. It is an interesting aspect of tribal economy. This method allows two or atmost three annual crops and then abandoning that land until the trees have grown again sufficiently to allow a second filling. This process continues until the land gets washed so bare of soil and seed that no more forest growth is possible. It is then finally abandoned and there remains a bare hillside useless for any purpose producing only thorns, creepers and coarse grass. The hill tribal peasants of Orissa, on the Eastern Ghats, have long tradition of practicing 'Podu' cultivation.

Podu in Colonial Records:

   Due to the Podu cultivation the forest of estate (now a past of Koraput) were going to be swallowed. Mr. Harries, the agency Commissioner of Madras in his report in 1918 narrates the evils of Podu cultivation, which are as follows:-

1. It causes the springs below the hill to dry up.

2. It causes the soil and the Podu land to be washed away.

3. It ruins valuable timber for the sake of much less valuable crop or grain.

4. It causes very heavy floods in the rivers below and then endangers life and property

5. It causes the hot weather supply of these rivers to diminish and this reduces the water available for second crop cultivation

6. It brings down heavy silt into tanks and makes them useless and brings heavy silt on to the fields and destroys the crops.

   The report of the partially excluded areas enquiry committee, Orissa in 1940 had described the Podu cultivation in Koraput as a positive source of evil. According to this report Podu cultivation was itself inherently defective and economically unsound. The report had accepted the opinion of Maulavi Mushahib khan, special assistant agent, Rayagada. According to him dry crops raised in Podu cultivation. A particular crop is not grown in any one season, as the growing of mixed crops is the rule rather than exception. A variety of grains are broadcast and beans are raised in their midst.

   In the Nimgiri hill slopes of Bisam Cuttack, valuable commercial crops such as turmeric, castor, plantain, chilies and brinjal are raised. The crop generally grown on Podu lands are Ragi, Red gram, champu, Kharasa, Judenga, Kangu, Khosala, Horsegram, castor, suma and Korra. The average yield of each crop on an acre of Podu land is 15-20 kgs besides about 8-10 kgs of lentils. The total yeild is thus 20-25 kgs where as in the low-lying country on the plains the average yeild per acre is 40-50 kgs. Commercial crops generally are not grown on the hills so much so that the value of the crop on the hillside is about one-half of that grown in plain country of an equal area. The report of Partially Excluded Area Committee after the opinion of the people needs the mitigation of the evil of Podu of it can’t be completely removed.

   According to Mr. Harries, the question of mitigation or removal involves a close examination of the circumstances of the locality and the habit of the people. As regards the locality, the country is hilly, the hills are generally wooded, there are numerous small streams and there is not much level land.

Primitive Economy

   Practically the only occupations of the people are agriculture and collection of jungle produce. The tribal ryots have taken recourse to Podu generally generally as a subsidiary occupation. In some areas they do Podu exclusively and in other places they don’t do any Podu at all. The village headmen often encourage Podu cultivation for getting money from the tribals. The hill tribals are not efficient food producer. They had traditional habit of food gathering (by collection and hunting)and partly cultivation on slopes top hill or foot hills. New villagers are established as per need. Only shifting cultivations were shifting dwelling in remote past.

In the 1930 suggestion came from various quarters as to what definite steps should be devised for the migration of the evil. Some suggested that the tribals should be restricted to the vicinity of their villages. It was also suggested that the tribals should be convinced to settled give up Podu in favour of cultivation. Another view is that as a deterent massive Podu lands should be taxed heavily.

Problems of Abolition

   There were tribals who had finished certain unreserves by Podu and had wanted to intrude on the reserves. In Malkangiri area (south-west Orissa) there were plenty of unreserved lands available for reclamation. But people in certainparts were un willing to take to it and had insisted that they had a right to remain in the hills as their ancestors had never done any kind of cultivation except Podu. There was agitation of the sabars for more lands for Podu cultivation in the Parlakimendi maliahs (forest areas). Restriction of Podu cultivation had led, in some instances to emigration of tribals to Assam and other places to work as plantation labour.

   Biswanath Das ,ex-prime minister of Orissa (pre-independence period) was in favour of a scheme to convert these people by means of propaganda grant-in-aid and grant for the purchase of agricultural implements and seeds. But he was not sure that any hasty action would produce the desired result. He had proposed to have propaganda first and the ameliorative measures to follow. The report of the partially excluded areas committee suggested that the stoppage of Podu would in time bring about substancial increase in the receipts from forests and an earnest attempt should be made for regulated restriction of Podu. The people must be convinced of the utility of such restriction. Simultaneous provisions should be made for providing the tribals with ordinary cultivation whenever possible. Solution must be found out as to how the people who have been dependent on Podu for their stable crops will find its substitute in case wholesale restriction is introduced. The following figures of acreage (approximate) of Podu cultivation (record of jeypore, samsthanam) may help to understand.

Year     Acreage of Land

1934-35     3294.20
1935-36     3552.40
1936-37     3706.95
1937-38     4658.80
1938-39     3510.27

   Though Podu cultivation had been considered for a long time as a positive evil, no planed effort was made to restrict or eradicate it. It was the decided opinion of the committee for partially wxcluded areas that Podu cultivation was harmful for the points of view of agriculture, forests, and rainfalls. Intensive efforts should be made to do away with it completely in the course of the next ten years (1940-1950) for this purpose the Government should appoint a special officer of the rank of a senior sub-deputy collector and the samsthanam(Jeypore Agency) should also appoint an equally competent officer, the two working jointly under the supervision of the collecter. These officers should chalk out a program for stamping out Podu cultivation altogether beginning with a small selected area. They will have to take a census of the people who subsist an Podu exclusively and partly and the approximate acreage under Podu cultivation . they should recommend the average of cultivable lands required to be given to these people free of assessment for the first five years and there after by assessment. These cultivable lands should be found out in the plains or at the foot of the hills to begin with. Steps should be taken to secure them subsidies or loans through the agency of the co-operatives societies or any other agency suitable for recovery of dues by the estate to provide the tribals with bullocks and agricultural implements. Necessary legislative enactments should be passed for providing deferent punishment for the offenders who violate the laws for preservation of forest lands on hill tops.

   The suggestions for preventing Podu cultivation in the Koraput area presented by the committee for partially excluded areas appeared to be very sound. The Podu is differently known in different parts of the world as also of India. The Baiga is an aboriginal tribe of the central provinces and the cultivation allied to Podu is known there as "Bewar" verrier Elwin who had made a case for controlling such shifting cultivation had an interesting monograph on this topic which was published in 1939. He suggested that some alternative occupation must be provided for the landless tribals who would be affected by the restriction of such cultivation. Mr.Nicholson, the conservator of forests, Orissa in the colonial phase had presented his opinion for stamping out of Podu cultivation in Orissa. He wanted a slow process for this work. Side by side with reservation of forests, Government must adopt a long range policy aiming at the substitution of permanent forms of cultivation for shifting methods. He suggested also that Podu cultivation couldn’t be stopped without providing an alternative method of livelihood.

   Considering the authoritative views and the peculiar circumstances of the Ganjam agency, the committee for partially excluded areas of Orissa in the 1940 suggested that the Podu cultivation being a positive evil should be abolished as early as practicable. For that purpose the following measures were recommended to the Government:-

  • A committee of three officers from revenge, agriculture and forest departments, one from each, be formed and asked for carry out a preliminary survey as to which areas in the savara agency should be kept under forests and which under cultivation and fruit growing. They should also estimate the quantity of land which is available for terrace cultivation.
  • As it is generally known that there is not sufficient land for cultivation in the savara area , savaras may be encouraged to migrate to Gunupur. Taluk and that facilities be provided for this migration and settlement by taking up the matter with the maharaja of Jeypore.
  • Along with their migration the savaras may be encouraged to migrate and settle on lands round about Mohana, Baminigam and Dasingbadi where some of them already reside, and they may later on be pushed northwards in Khand area. Which adjoins the savara area.
  • For discouraging Podu cultivation the lands under Podu cultivation should be highly taxed instead of being taxfree as at present (1939-40).
  • In any scheme for encouraging the substitution of the normal method of cultivation for Podu. So some provision should be made for agricultural purpose as improvement loans or other financial assistance.
  • Marketing facilities for the ordinary forest produce and other commodities produced by the savaras should be arranged departmentally by the Government agencies following the action pursued by the Government of Madras (for marketing the produce of chenchrs in Kurnool district) and for Bhill’s in west Khandedesh district by the Bombay Government.
  • Similar to the savara agency, all Podu cultivation both in the Khand area and the Khandmals should be discouraged and taxed in the whole of the Khand agency and Khandmals.


In the colonial phase in Orissa Podu cultivation was considered a great force to hasten deforestation. Reserved forest goods became rare due to Podu and so many steps were taken to prevent this. The partially excluded areas enquire committee,Orissa in 1939-40 under the chairmanship of A. V Thakkar of the Harijan sevak sangha presented many suggestions to remove the evil of Podu cultivation. The members of this committee were Nabakrishna Chaudhuri, Gobinda Chandra Thatraj ahadur, Rev. E.M Evans , Radhakrishna Biswasroy,Rajkrishna Bose,Rao sahels Appla Swami Naidu and others. They saw that proper schemes of forest rearing had not been carried on in the Joypore forests. The worst evil that was going to swallow the Jeypore forests (Mahakantara) was the shifting cultivation on the hill tops (Podu). Score of hills were completely cleared of vegetation owing to discriminate cutting and burning of forests by the tribals. The supply of timber and firewood had become thereby scarce in considerable areas and owing to consequent erosion of the soil large tracts of land were becoming bare and almost unproductive. In the last part of the colonial phase in Orissa the end of Podu cultivation by the tribal people was initiated, yet the practices is still continuing. Efforts are on for total abolition.



  • Report of the partially excluded areas enquiry committee, Orissa, 1939-40.
  • Government of Orissa memorandum for submission to the constituent assembly on the partially excluded areas of Orissa,1947(Orissa state Archives, Bhubaneswar)
  • Elwin Verrier, The Baiga,1939/1986, New Delhi, page-100-131.