Asia Crisis

Indian state faces famine after plague of rats

SATEEK, India, March 17 (Reuters) - About a million people in India's northeastern state of Mizoram are facing famine after a plague of rats ate the region's entire paddy crop, officials and aid agencies said on Monday.

Hordes of rats have swept through the forests of Mizoram, home to just under a million tribespeople, feasting on the fruits of wild bamboo, which flowers every 48 years.

Experts say that the rich protein content of the bamboo fruits increases the rats' reproductive power, and, when they finished off the fruits, the rats turned their attention to farmers' crops.

The last time the bamboo flowered was in 1959 -- and the armies of rats that came in its wake decimated paddy fields across the region, leading to severe food shortages.

In 2007, the government hoped to be better prepared. But the rats could not be stopped because of bad planning and alternative rice supply plans went wrong, aid agencies said.

They said a majority of villagers were now surviving on wild roots, yam and sweet potatoes with either no supply or no money to buy to their staple food -- rice.

"Conditions of widespread food shortage and hunger prevail in all eight districts of Mizoram," said a report by international aid agency Actionaid.

"The government is reluctant to accept that the situation is rapidly slipping out of its control."

Local people call the famine which follows bamboo flowering "mautum", which means "bamboo death" in the local language. In 1959, New Delhi brushed off local warnings of a famine as tribal superstition.


The last bamboo flowering gave birth to the Mizo National Famine Front, an organisation set up to meet food shortages but which ended up fighting the Indian government for independence.

That rebel movement, renamed the Mizo National Front (MNF), after 20 years of war and close to 3,000 deaths, won for Mizoram recognition as a separate state but not independence from India.

To fight the next bamboo flowering, the state in 2004 formed the Bamboo Flowering and Famine Combat Scheme (BAFFACOS).

But Mizos say, despite all preparations, the government has failed to tackle the foreseeable problem.

"Frankly the farmers got nothing out of BAFFACOS," said Michael Mansuala, a former top civil servant. "Now the people are in a desperate situation."

Mizoram needs around 15,000 metric tonnes of rice a month, but only about one-fifth of that was available now at subsidised rates.

"Sufficient rice is not available with the food supply department. There is a huge shortfall of rice," Dominic Lalhmangaiha, a consultant with the state-run Disaster Risk Management programme, told Reuters.

"Villagers are going to jungles to dig out roots to supplement their regular food."

Their harvest lost to rats, some villagers are now working as daily wage labourers on a World Bank-funded road project.

Farmers complained that they found work for only one day a month and earned just a little over $2.

The last three months they were asked to flatten a hill-top and turn it into a football field.

Majority Mizos are Presbyterian Christians and more than 70 per cent of them are farmers.

"People would not have suffered had the government preparation been good enough," said J.H. Zoremthanga, president of the powerful Young Mizo Association (YMA), a social organisation.

"It seems the government woke up from slumber at the last minute." (Editing by Krittivas Mukherjee and Alex Richardson)