Thousands of rats are rampaging through rice and vegetable fields in India's northeastern state of Mizoram, fuelling fears of a famine in the region even as international aid agencies have warned of a serious crisis unfolding in the mountainous border state.
"Countless numbers of rats have raided paddy crops and vegetables, leading to serious problems in almost all the eight districts of the state," C Lalnithanga, a Mizoram government agriculture scientist and plant protection officer, told IANS.
A team of experts from ActionAid, an international anti-poverty agency, recently visited Mizoram to assess the damage caused by an army of rodents on the state's agriculture.
"Hundreds of families are facing food shortages. Some are barely eking out one meal a day. Crops including rice, maize and vegetables have been wiped out as flowering of bamboo in the region caused an explosion of rodent population," a report by ActionAid said.
Mizoram Agriculture Minister H Rammawi said reports of rats destroying farmlands follow vast forests of bamboo bursting into flower in many parts of the state.
"Bamboo flowering and the subsequent invasion by rats on granaries and paddy fields in the region is a phenomenon that signals an impending catastrophe or a famine," the minister said.
According to tribal legend, 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 the protein-rich seeds that appear soon after bamboo flowering," Lalnithanga 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 sq km of Mizoram's total geographical area of 21,000 sq km with the state, bordering Bangladesh and Myanmar, harvesting 40 percent of India's 80-million-tonne annual bamboo crop.
In 1958-59, a famine in the state of Mizoram 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 that started emptying granaries and destroying paddy fields.
Historical accounts say Mizoram recorded a famine in 1862 and again in 1911 after the state witnessed similar bamboo flowerings.
"The rare 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. We are already facing a famine-like situation with locals now having to depend on rice imported from outside," the minister said.
The state government has asked New Delhi to rush adequate stocks of food grain to tide over the crisis.
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 bush war against the Indian state 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.