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March 24, 2008

Bamboo fruits attract plague of rats, decimation of crops in India

The people of Mizoram, a tiny, remote state of north-east India squeezed between Burma and Bangladesh, have known for the past 48 years that they would face famine in 2008.

Confirmation came last November when the local species of bamboo that dominates the state's landscape began to burst into flower -- a peculiar ecological phenomenon that happens about twice a century.

A plague of rats rapidly followed, feasting on the bamboo's protein-rich avocado-like fruit, before swarming to consume the farmers' rice paddies, grain harvests and food stockpiles. Now up to a million people are facing hunger, according to aid agencies.

Mrinal Gohain, of charity Action Aid, said: "There were rats all over the fields. Farmers would go to harvest their crops and find that the entire field had been eaten overnight."

Although the state government had ample warning and has been making preparations for four years, its emergency measures have proved inadequate in the face of the exploding rat population. A bounty on rats was announced last year (a rupee for every tail), public bonfires of slaughtered rats were held and free rat poison and traps were distributed, but to little avail.

Gohain said: "The crisis is unfolding and is going to get worse. We anticipate that if this continues, we will see something terrible happening here."

The luckier villagers in the worst-affected areas are living on one meal a day, he said, while thousands more are foraging in the forests for food, surviving on roots, herbs and leaves.

Although no hunger deaths have yet been reported, stockpiles of food are rapidly dwindling and few villagers have enough money to buy the subsidised supply of relief rice, he said. Most farmers have no seed for new crops and the true impact of the disaster will only be felt later in the year.

Twenty years of violent guerrilla unrest followed the last appearance of the bamboo flower and the famine, known locally as mautam ("bamboo death"), in 1959. Politicians had then dismissed villagers' warnings of imminent disaster as local folklore. This time nobody has questioned the bamboo legend.

The fruit of the Melocanna baccifera, which flourishes across hundreds of thousands of hectares of Mizoram, is delicious to rodents and attracts rats from neighbouring states and countries. Locals suspect it has aphrodisiac qualities for rats, fuelling their numbers.

Scientists have found that more baby rats survive when the bamboo has flowered as the adult male rats, which are known to eat their newborn offspring, tend to leave them alone when they have had their fill of fruit. As a result, litters of up to 13 rats survive and are ready to reproduce themselves within three months.

Gulsogi (40), a widow from a far-flung region of the state, said, "My family could starve if we do not get relief soon. How long can we forage to survive? We are walking longer into the forest each day to find anything edible."

The state declared a disaster in December but the crisis has been largely unreported within India, where national media tend to pay little attention to the problems endured by the nation's 700-million rural population, preferring to focus on Delhi-centred political intrigue and Bollywood gossip.

Describing the crisis in Mizoram as a "silent tragedy", renowned Indian blogger Shantanu Dutta lamented that "while a bus overturning in a ditch and killing passengers or a rail derailment attracts a lot of attention, silent disasters like the bamboo-flowering-induced famine in Mizoram don't attract much news".

Aid workers say that the state-run Bamboo Flowering and Famine Combat Scheme (Baffacos) has largely failed, but local officials blame India's national government. PC Lalthlamuana, director of disaster management in the state, said no help has arrived from Delhi.

"We have applied for aid, we are expecting it, but it is rather slow in coming," he said by telephone from the state capital, Aizawl, adding that the poorest villagers are suffering the most because they have no access to alternative food supplies. He warned of deaths from malnutrition over the coming months.

Reports of rodent-borne disease have increased, but most of the rats are now said to be dying from hunger.

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