The Year of the Rat

For the people of Mizoram, it is a coincidence that 2008 is the year of the Rat according to the Chinese Zodiac Calendar. In the Mizo people’s calendar, a phenomenon known as Mautam happens roughly every fifty years, which brings to them wide-spread sorrow. Every fifty years, bamboo forests in the region blossom, and Mizoram becomes a host to some uninvited guests – rats.

These rats are not just any ordinary rats; some of those spotted weigh as much as 15 kilograms. Just as the bamboo flowers turn into fruits, rats emerge in throngs – devouring the protein rich seeds which further causes a mighty explosion in their population. When there are no more bamboos a particular field, the rats look for food elsewhere. This way, soon, the nearby rice fields are run over by the rats and Mizoram is faces a severe famine.

Addressing a huge crowd from the villages near Aizwal at the airport on June 15, Sonia Gandhi said that she had seen for herself how the MNF (Mizoram National Front, an organization formed post the 1958 famine – to prevent future occurrences of it) government had failed to tackle the Mautam famine despite huge Central funds being allocated to combat this problem. She mentioned that she was informed by the villagers that the famine funds had never reached them. She also accused the MNF government of misusing the NREGS (National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) funds and insinuated that without the misuse, the famine situation in the rural areas would have been better.

What is difficult to understand is the reason why the government has not done much to help avert, or at least lessen the burden that this phenomenon brings upon the people of Mizoram. Simply allotting funds would never achieve anything; there has to be a follow up on that. Several records prove that this indeed is a cyclic process, which is connected with the blossoming of the bamboo flower and it always results in a famine. Mizoram grappled with a severe famine in 1958-59, 1911, and 1862, all occurring after intervals of 48-49 years. Knowing that it would soon be time for the next cycle, why had the government not acted earlier? Fifty years is a long time to put good measures in place. Is it mere coincidence that Sonia Gandhi visited Mizoram during their worst hour and attacked the state government for the famine, five months before the state goes for elections?

On the previous occasion, over 10,000 people died as a result of Mautam. As a result of the government’s lack of concern for the issue, 95 per cent of rice crops and 75 per cent of the cash crops have been destroyed in Mizoram. 30,000 families are now living with acute shortage and 10,000 families are on the fringe of starvation. And when one takes into context the present inflation of 11.42 per cent, the situation looks all the more terrible for those facing the Mautam.

Raveesh Bhalla