Perhaps more than roti, kapda, makaan, sadak, bijli and paani, it’s a Pied Piper that most of the farmers of the Sunderbans are looking for in the run-up to the polls.
Plagued by an explosion of rat population in the region, most of the farmers are hoping that a Hamelin-like solution can only deliver them from the biggest scourge of their lives.
Ironically, the rodent menace originated from cyclone Aila that wrecked havoc in the Sunderbans on May 25, 2009. The cyclone killed a large number of snakes that triggered in an explosion of rats.
Ask any farmer of the region, what he wants from the new government, and he will tell you that the party that can deliver them from the rat menace is most eligible for their votes.
“Rats have really become a menace in my constituency Gosaba. A few other constituencies are facing the same problem. It seems the party that can come up with a solution will earn the blessings of the villagers,” Uttam Kumar Saha, RSP candidate of Gosaba, told HT.
A visit to the Sunderbans reveals how correct Saha is.
The rodents are running amok and wreaking havoc in the farmlands, eating everything in their path – from paddy to potatoes.
“I lost more than 200 kg of potato and almost 120 kg of paddy last year because of these devils. We have been repeatedly complaining about the scourge to the district administration and zilla parishad but to no avail. This time my family and I will vote for the candidate who can offer a solution,” said Sanjay Saha a farmer at Lahiripur village – one of the last human habitats of the Sunderbans before the tiger territory starts.
“I have around two bighas (20 cottahs) of land where I had cultivated paddy. The rats destroyed the crop of almost one fifth my land. I will ask the candidates when they come campaigning what solution they can provide us,” remarked Radhakanta Santra of the same village.
While some try to eliminate the rodents using pesticides, others rely on more traditional methods. They seal one end of the burrow and flood the opening with water to either drown the animals, or force them out into the open, where they can be killed.
“Whatever the method applied their numbers seem unending. I killed more than 50 in just 15 hectares of a potato field just three months ago. But they have returned in greater numbers and are on the rampage again,” said Bhagyadhar Mondol a resident of Satjelia village – a village adjacent to Lahiripur.
Experts blame the phenomenon on Aila. They say the cyclone disturbed the ecological balance by killing thousands of snakes that keep the rat population under check.
“May–June are the breeding months for snakes. When Aila struck, snakes died in large numbers as they could hardly move with eggs inside their womb. This destroyed almost two generations. The rats, however, managed to take shelter on trees and rooftops and survived,” Pranabesh Sanyal, former chief wildlife warden of West Bengal, told HT.
Rats have one of the highest reproduction rates in the animal world and multiply much faster than snakes do. They produce six litters a year while snakes lay eggs just one a year.