Guwahati, March 27: In the life of a farmer, flowering or fruition usually constitutes a happy period, brimming over with potential of a good harvest. In Mizoram, it's time for fear to take root. Even though it happens only once every 50 years or so, bamboo flowering is not something the farmers look forward to.
The gregarious flowering, also called mautam, leads to a wild growth of rodents who feed on bamboo seeds. Soon, the rodent population spirals out of control and wipes out vast stretches of crop, leading to foodgrain shortage and eventually a famine-like situation. Mizoram is in the middle of such a crisis.
The past three years in the state have led to a situation where an imminent starvation is causing serious alarm. "We are in the midst of a famine, and if we don't immediately get a good stock of rice from outside the state, it may lead to poor tribals, especially in remote districts, being pushed to starvation," says K. Riachho, Secretary, Disaster Management, Mizoram.
The state does not produce vast quantities of rice, and whatever little it did, has been wiped out by rodents, forcing people in remote areas to survive on roots. In fact, the past two harvests have failed completely, says Riachho.
"There haven't been any starvation deaths so far. But in view of the poor stock of rice and with monsoon round the corner, the situation may worsen. More so, because Mizoram gets its entire supply of rice from the FCI through a single road route via Assam, which is vulnerable to landslides and other natural hazards," Riachho told The Indian Express from Aizawl.
Two of the eight districts of Mizoram, Mamit and Saiha, have been badly affected, and according to Riachho, the FCI had failed to provide the required amount of rice as requested by the state government. "While the chief minister asked the Centre to provide an additional allotment of rice at BPL and PDS rates, the Centre turned it down, asking us to purchase it at normal APL rates," says T.B.C. Rozara, Food and Civil Supplies Commissioner.
Mizoram requires 12,000 tonnes of rice per month, but due to the two successive failed harvests, the demand has gone up to over 15,000 tonnes. "Another problem is that Mizoram is a remote state dependent on FCI supply. There is no private market from where people can buy rice and people's purchasing capacity is also going down," says Rozara.
It isn't as if the government was unprepared. The state had prepared a series of Bamboo Flowering and Famine Combat Schemes (BAFFACOS) in 2005, with Chief Minister Zoramthanga taking the initiative to involve various departments like agriculture, health, rural works and public works. A series of inter-sectoral workshops were also conducted to train officials to work in an emergency mode if famine broke out. But it failed because the rodent population exceeded the anticipated numbers.
"The government also introduced a scheme of paying Rs 2 for every the tail of rodent killed. For the poor farmer, it was more important to protect his crop, but he failed to do that as well," says Rozara.
In December 2007, the government had declared the western and southern areas of the state as disaster-affected and issued an appeal for aid to the Centre. But the National Calamity Contingency Fund allocation of Rs 88.1 million falls way short of the relief requirements.
"Tightly knit support systems are crumbling as communities do not have enough resources to tide over the situation. We are hearing of the onset of blindness due to lack of food," says Mrinal Gohain, of ActionAid, an international anti-poverty agency that has recently carried out a survey of the famine-affected districts.
The gregarious bamboo flowering occurs once in a plant's lifetime, and causes ecological havoc. Bamboo plants die after flowering and take to seed several years later, leaving bare, exposed soil, which is disastrous in mountainous states. It also leads to food scarcity as animals depend on bamboo. Secondly, rodents feed on the flowers and seeds of the dying bamboo, leading to a rapid growth in their numbers, which feed on crops in fields and granaries. The destruction of crops results in food scarcity and famine.
The epidemiological imbalance also leads to increased risk of infection or outbreak of rodent-borne diseases. The modes of transmission are through rat bite, fleas and other ecto-parasites or contamination of food, water and air by rodent urine or excreta. Some of these diseases require immediate control and others are fatal.