Thousands of rats have been poisoned to death in India's northeastern state of Mizoram after armies of rodents rampaged rice fields, fuelling fears of a famine in the region.
"Countless number of rodents got killed in the past two months with a massive campaign on in the state to eliminate rats using poisonous chemicals," James Lalsiamliana, head of Mizoram's Rodent Control Cell said.
The Mizoram government's plan to kill rats followed reports of large-scale raids by medium-sized rodents on paddy crops.
"Rats in thousands went berserk destroying almost all the ripe paddy in at least 20 villages in three districts before it could be harvested," said Lalsiamliana, who is also Mizoram's Plant Protection Officer.
The districts of Champhai, Serchip and Aizawl are the worst hit by the rat invasion.
Mizoram Agriculture Minister H Rammawi said reports of rats destroying farmlands came after vast forests of bamboo started to flower in many parts of the state, bordering Bangladesh and Myanmar.
"Gregarious bamboo flowering is taking place in many parts of the state and when this happens there is an increase in rat population that subsequently invades granaries and paddy fields. This phenomenon signals an impending catastrophe or a famine," the minister said.
The state government had already sounded an alert, saying a famine is going to hit the mountainous state of a little under one million people next year.
"The phenomenon of bamboo flowering is a cyclical one and occurs every 48 years and so. 2007 is the year when a famine is going to hit the state. It is inevitable and only God can help prevent this from taking place," Rammawi said.
According to tribal legends, when bamboo flowers, famine, death and destruction follow. Behind the superstition lies some scientific truth, as blooming bamboo triggers an invasion of rats, which proceed to eat away food supplies.
"Rats multiply at a very rapid pace after eating protein-rich seeds that appear soon after bamboo flowering," Lalsiamliana said. When the seeds are exhausted, armies of rats chomp their way through rice and potato crops and granaries, causing a famine.
Bamboo grows wildly in 6,000 square kilometres of Mizoram's total geographical area of 21,000 sq km with the state harvesting 40 per cent of India's 80-million-tonne annual bamboo crop.
In 1958-59, a famine in the state resulted in the death of at least 100 people, besides heavy loss to human property and crops.
The famine, locally known as Mautam, broke out after the state witnessed the rare phenomenon of bamboo flowering and an increase in rodent population. Historical accounts say Mizoram recorded a famine in 1862 and again in 1911 after the state witnessed similar bamboo flowerings.
Separatist insurgencies in the northeast first started after the Mautam famine in 1958-59, with the legendary guerrilla leader Laldenga forming the Mizo Famine Front, which finally led to the formation of the Mizo National Front, one of India's most organised rebel armies.
The MNF waged a 20-year-long bush war against the Indian union for secession before signing a peace accord with New Delhi in 1986. The MNF is now a regional political party that heads the government in Mizoram led by former guerrilla leader Zoramthanga.