Rat boom threatens hunger for millions

By Rahul Bedi

NEW DELHI - The Indian Army, used to fighting insurgencies in India's turbulent northeastern states, is now fighting another enemy - a huge increase in the rat population feeding off a bloom of rare bamboo blossom.

Soldiers are combating millions of rats that have destroyed crops and consumed vast quantities of grain in Mizoram province bordering Bangladesh and Burma, in the states of Tripura, Manipur and Meghalaya, and in parts of Assam. The explosion in rat numbers has generated fears of food shortages and disease in the thickly forested and under-developed region.

The increase in the rat population is attributed to the flowering of bamboo across the northeastern provinces, which happens every five decades or so. It last bloomed in 1958 in Mizoram.

Army officials said soldiers were not only hunting rats, but were also educating villagers on pest and rodent control. They have set up community farms to grow aromatic spices, such as ginger and turmeric, which keep the rodents away, according to an Army official involved in the "rat war" in Manipur's hugely infested Churachandpur district.

Farmers are being provided with rat traps and poison, and the Government is trying to harvest the bamboo before the rat population reaches unbearable levels.

"The rats are a huge problem and if not dealt with effectively will trigger an economic crisis," said Tonsing Vunglallian, a professor at Churachandpur college.

The famine that ensued in 1958 claimed almost 15,000 lives, triggering a guerrilla war between the native Mizo people and the Government that lasted almost two decades.

The Mizo National Famine Front that emerged from the ecological disaster became the insurgent Mizo National Front, which eventually signed a peace agreement with the federal authorities in 1986.

According to bamboo expert Dr M.P. Ranjan, the flowers produce protein-rich seeds favoured by rats, causing an explosion in their population. After the seeds are exhausted, the rodents fan out to eat grain supplies.

"The famine [in 1958] was quite disastrous - that is what is being expected this time," Ranjan said.

The British first noticed the phenomenon of bamboo flowering in the northeast and its devastating impact on ecology. It recorded the first famine in 1862, and the second 19 years later, in which about 15,000 Mizos died.

The 1911-12 famine was also caused by the event, with similar results.

Year of the rat

* Rat populations are booming in the northeast, threatening crops and the spread of disease.

* Rodents are multiplying because of the rare flowering of bamboo, which they feed on. After that is exhausted, they turn to human food supplies.

* In the last flowering, 15,000 died of hunger. This in turn triggered a guerrilla war between the Mizo people and the Government.

* The Army has been called in to try to halt the rat tide this time.

* Village elders are growing spices, such as ginger and turmeric, to keep pests away.

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