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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 April 2007, 14:10 GMT 15:10 UK
Bracing for a famine caused by rats

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Aizawl, Mizoram

Tribesmen in India's far eastern state of Mizoram, bordering Burma and Bangladesh, are shuddering at the sight of the heavy flowering of the ubiquitous bamboo.

Rat in Mizoram
The rat plague is expected twice a century

It attracts hordes of rats, a phenomenon known locally as Mautam, the Mizos' worst nightmare.

Not only do the rats thrive on the bamboo flowers, they also then go on to destroy the farmers' crops.

Mizo oral tradition suggests this deadly ecological cycle is repeated every 48 years.

Most Mizo farmers are now not even sowing rice or corn, so worried are they by the rats.

"It is no use planting anything. The hordes of rats have already destroyed the standing crop in some areas and will destroy all the rest," says Thangthiauva of Pangzawl village.

Map

Officials in Mizoram's agriculture department share his gloom.

Plant Protection Officer James Lalsiamliana says the Mautam, that struck the Mizo Hills in 1910-11 and again in 1958-59 is back with a vengeance.

"It will affect more than 30% of Mizoram's land area and much of the area under some crop or other. It cannot be stopped, we can only do damage control," said Mr Lalsiamliana.

He told the BBC that some parts of Champhai, Aizawl and Serchhip districts had already witnessed crop destruction by hordes of rats in the winter of 2006-2007.

"But the worse is still to come."

Shortfall

A report by India's forest and environment ministry predicts that at least 5,100 sq km of Mizoram's forest area (out of a total of 6,446 sq km of forest) will be affected by the Mautam in 2007.

Collecting rat tails
Gathering the rat tails together - each one is worth one rupee

More than half of Mizoram's population of nearly 900,000 are farmers.

The Mizoram agriculture department anticipates a crop shortfall of at least 75% in 2007-2008 because of farmers not planting.

Desperate to control the rising rat population, the state government announced a reward of one rupee for every rat killed.

During 2006 alone more than 221,636 rats were killed. The killing continues but the rats keep coming in hordes.

It was in October 2005 that the initial heavy flowering of the bamboo was first noticed at Chawngtlai bamboo forest in the southern district of Champhai.

It then spread rapidly in 2006.

Fuelling revolt

As it continues to spread, tribal elders in Mizoram remember the deadly Mautam of 1958-59, that led to a widespread famine in the Mizo Hills, then a part of Assam.

Farmers
Many farmers have not planted their seeds this year

T Chaltanga of North Vanlaiphai village recounted the horrors of the 1959 Mautam.

"The rats would wipe out three to four hectares of paddy cropland in one night. We would see our crop standing the night before but next day it would all be gone, eaten away by the rats," said Chaltanga.

Another local, Bualhranga, explains how he ended up becoming a leading figure in the separatist Mizo National Front (MNF).

"Our elders knew from oral traditions that Mautam was coming but the Assam government paid no heed," Bualhranga says.

"When it happened, our people just starved and hundreds of angry young Mizos like me picked up weapons to fight a government that showed no concern for us."

The MNF started as the Mizo National Famine Front to provide relief to the starving people but then the word "Famine" was dropped and its leaders declared their intention to fight for freedom from India.

The MNF guerrillas engaged Indian security forces in a bloody insurgency for 20 years until an agreement in 1986 brought the fighting to an end. Since then, peace has held in Mizoram.

The MNF now governs Mizoram having won the state's last two assembly elections.

"We are taking all measures to fight the impending Mautam. We are encouraging people to kill rats, we are telling farmers what to do and we are asking Delhi to rush huge additional supplies of food grains to feed our people when the crop shortfalls happens," Mizoram's Chief Minister Zoramthanga said recently.

As a former rebel leader who fed on the anger of his starving people, Zoramthanga knows well the risks of ignoring the Mautam.


SEE ALSO
Bamboo puts India on famine alert
11 Oct 04 |  South Asia
Rat boom sparks India hunger alert
04 Dec 02 |  South Asia

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