History of rats, famines and political upheavals comes to bite Mizoram

History of rats, famines and political upheavals comes to bite Mizoram

The flowering of bamboos is causing jitters since, per local lore, the high nutritive value of bamboo seeds increases rodents’ fertility; this in turn could lead to a famine

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The long historical connection between rats, famines and the Mizo National Front (MNF) seems to be haunting Mizoram’s ruling party as it gears up for elections next year. 

The state is feared to be once again staring at a cyclic ecological phenomenon that causes sudden surge in rodent population, which in turn destroys crops.

Bamboo flowering cycle

According to Mizoram’s agriculture department, more than 572 hectares of paddy fields in nine of the state’s 11 districts are currently affected by rodent attacks. Agriculture director James Lalsiamliana said the rodent invasion began around August this year due to the flowering of bamboo species Dendrocalamus longispathus, locally called Rawnal.

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The flowering cycle of the bamboo grass varies from species to species. Some species flower only once every 40 to 50 years. This cycle is called Mautam in local parlance. Some other variants such as Rawnal flower sporadically. The flowering of these species is called Thingtam.

Around 20 species of bamboos grow in Mizoram, covering about 57 per cent of the state’s geographical area, according to data from the forest department.

Feast for rats, famine for humans

This abundant natural resource is both a boon and a bane for the state.

Rats feed on the flower and the seeds. As per local lore, the high nutritive value of bamboo seeds increases the rodents’ fertility. The theory that bamboo flowering invariably leads to inflation in rat population is not scientifically proven, though.

A boom in rat population triggered several famine and famine-like situations in the state in recorded history. Recorded instances of Mautam-induced famine were observed in 1864, 1910-12, 1958-59, and 2007-08. Thingtam led to famine in Mizoram in 1880-84, 1928-29, and 1976-77.

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Famines due to Mautam and Thingtam occur alternatively, with a gap of 18 years between a Mautam and a Thingtam, and a gap of 30 years between a Thingtam and a Mautam. The state had last witnessed a famine-like situation due to Mautam in 2007-08. As per the pattern, a Thingtam is likely to happen in 2025-26.

The rodent outbreak the state is currently witnessing is an early sign of Thingtam, the agriculture director said. It has already affected several farmers in 114 villages across the affected districts, Lalsiamliana added.

Mamit and Lunglei are the worst affected districts. In Mimit, Lalsiamliana said, 255.7 hectares of paddy fields in 19 villages and in Lunglei 198 hectares in 28 villages have been attacked by the marauding rats.

All the paddy fields at Mualthuam North in Lunglei district and at Tuirum village in Mamit district were completely destroyed by rats, the agriculture officer said.

Factor in politics

The famine-like situation caused by Mautam became a major election issue in the December 2008 Mizoram elections that the MNF had lost.

This time again, the MNF government headed by militant-turned politician Zoramthanga is facing a similar threat.

To prevent the repeat of 2008, the MNF government in the state has gone on an overdrive to the extent of providing rodenticides to the farmers in all districts and educating them on the mass poisoning of rats.

The MNF being a product of famines in a way, is well aware of the crucial role the calamity played in shaping the political history of the state.

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The MNF, under the leadership of the legendary Laldenga, took up arms in response to the government of India’s alleged neglect in tackling the famine caused by Mautam in 1958.

Laldenga had initially formed the Mizo National Famine Front (MNFF) to provide relief to the famine-affected Mizo people. In 1961, it morphed into the MNF and staged a two-decade long insurgency that culminated with the signing of Mizo Peace Accord in 1986.

After the peace agreement, the MNF evolved into a political party and Laldenga became the first chief minister of the newly created Mizoram state.

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