Bamboo grows wild in at least 30 percent of Mizoram’s total geographical area of 21,081 square kilometers. The plant is of two types, ‘mau’ and ‘thing’ -Melocanna bamboo Soidef and Bambusa tulda classified by European botanists. The mautaam refers to a famine (‘taam’ meaning famine) caused by the cycle of ‘mau’ bamboo flowers, while thingtaam refers to that caused by the cycle of ‘thing’ bamboo flowers. The pretty mauve, yellow and crimson bamboo flowers sprout its seeds in a cycle of every 30 to 50 years. This flowering phenomenon and consequent dropping of millions of protein rich seeds triggers off an enormous increase in the rat population which throws their subsistence lifestyle out of gear. When the seed supply is exhausted the rats move to crops and granaries. Devastation that follows is unbelievable for an animal that is so puny. These rats gobble up all that is available to them including entire standing crops. Soon food is in short supply, causing a famine, the rat famine. Scientists say that bamboo flower seeds have high protein content of nearly 12 percent and high starch content of nearly 50 percent. It also contains vitamin A, which helps to augment the fertility of the rats and enhances hormonal stimulation enabling the female rats to reproduce much earlier and more frequently.
The 1958-1959 mautaam killed at least 100 people, besides causing heavy loss to property and crops. In a scenario like this, when authorities failed to respond with quick famine relief – the disillusionment and anger finally resulted in the Mizo National Famine Front, an organisation created to help people get relief, changing into the Mizo National Front, an ethnic political party which involved the Mizos in a 20 year war of attrition against India which ended only in 1986 with a peace accord. The Mizo National Front had cited this as a major issue in carving out the new State of Mizoram from Assam.
Now, the bamboo has flowered again and this time it covered huge bamboo forested areas across the other north eastern States of Tripura, Manipur and Southern Assam.
Nearly 68,626 farmer families spanning 659 villages of Mizoram’s eight districts are facing the prospect of famine as they have lost 88.5 percent of their paddy to the marauding rats. More than 14,48,963 rats have already been killed, creating piles of tails, which have to be counted by officials before reward money can be disbursed to the catchers. Now with the standing crops demolished the rampaging army of rats has turned its attention to vegetables in farms across Mizoram.
‘As a child I often heard elders discussing starvation and mautaam– yet the phenomenon that we are witnessing today was unheard of. Rodents are attacking not only our crops but even vegetables and fruits. Pumpkin, banana, papaya, tomato, cabbage and even chilli are palatable to them now. With everything being wiped out, what will we fall back to fight starvation? exclaims Lal Mal Sawma, Finance Secretary to Government of Mizoram. Recently in New Delhi, the Finance Secretary pleads the case of the devastated farmers of his State. It is without doubt a sad sight for anyone who has seen Mizoram’s productive landscape and the toil of the farmers.
Mizoram urgently needs a pied piper to exterminate the land of it raiding rodents and prevent starvation deaths. The food crisis is imminent as the Government of India’s monthly rice allotment at PDS price is inadequate, claims Sawma. The present allotment of 11,640 MT is not sufficient and the State needs to procure 3,360 MT additionally every month says the Finance Secretary. The State has requested the Government of India to provide fund for next financial year for food subsidy in line with the provision of fund made for the remaining three months of the current financial year. Without the support of the Central Government it would be impossible to prevent starvation deaths Sawma adds. The silver lining is that the famine may yet be prevented as most villages today are linked by road and timely interventions can easily reach the desired locations.
A thriving economy revolves around bamboo. The pulp and paper, construction, cottage industry and handloom, food, fuel, fodder and medicine annually consume about 22 million tons of bamboo. However most of the bamboo is located in inaccessible parts of the hills and where it is within reach, it remains locked in a complicated bureaucratic system which has now resulted in the negative ecological and commercial fallout.
Water, which is already a scarce resource in most of the hills, is rapidly becoming scarcer. Experts say that during the bamboo flowering in Mizoram in the late 1950s and ’60s, there was a sharp rise in temperature followed by a spell of dry arid weather, which had a direct fallout on the health of the people. Not only that, women and children who have to spend hours to fetch water will be forced to spend even more time carrying out this task. It is only when the potential impact of the bamboo flowering cycle on the people’s lives receives proper attention that a safety net for the most vulnerable section of the population can be created.
Mautaam in Manipur
Churachandpur is the most mautaam affected district, in the adjoining State of Manipur. A famine like situation has been prevailing here due to abnormal increase of rodent population which devoured standing crops thereby depleting the actual food grain production. By 2007, the situation is no longer ‘famine-like’ but has become a ‘full blown calamity’. The startling statistics say it all – food grain production of the district for year was down by 87.27 percent. The district administration, on the basis of 2002 BPL census, has identified additional requirement of food grains at 8081 quintals. The Zomi Economic Planning and Development Agency (ZEPADA), a local NGO has been representing the plight of the farmers and local population to the State Government and recently approached the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) for rescuing the people of Churachandpur.
The Manipur Hills Journalist Union, a conglomerate of working journalists based in the hills of Manipur have surveyed the area to find that scarcity of food grains has indeed wrecked the economy of jhum dependent tribal communities and a whopping 99 percent population was on the threshold of starvation. The ZEPADA has demanded a package from the PMO which inter alia includes, grant of additional 5000 MT of food grains as was done in the case of Mizoram; PDS rice and other food grains be distributed under Food for Work Scheme, declaration of situation as natural calamity besides establishment of Village Grain Bank Scheme in the rural areas.