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Mizoram on the Verge of Another Mautam?

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • April 01, 2008

    Mizoram’s bamboo groves have been bursting into flower since November 2007, causing famine-like conditions. It is not as if the locals have been caught unawares. Since the flowering occurs over a 48-49 year cycle, it was obvious to all in this tiny hill state of North East India that the Melocanna baccifera (local specie of bamboo) would burst into flower in 2007-2008, as it had in 1959 with all the attendant consequences. Adding to local lore, the Rain Forest Research Institute in Jorhat, Assam, had estimated the frightening predicament of bamboo flowering in 2007-2008 across 6000 of the 21,000 square kilometres of the state. The flower by itself is not harmful to people, but the fruit borne by it attracts huge hordes of rodents from neighbouring states and countries, which, moreover, rapidly multiply under such plentiful conditions. Like it happened in 1959, this time round as well, rodents have plagued the landscape feasting on the bamboo's protein-rich fruit as well as on local food grain stocks and the growing paddy in the fields. According to the latest state agricultural department figures, an estimated 38,247 metric tonnes of paddy have been destroyed, affecting 72.5 per cent of agrarian families in 659 villages across Mizoram.

    The consequences have been devastating. Nearly 100,000 people out of a total population of 888,573 (2001 census) have gone without staple food items since February 2008 and face the prospect of starvation. According to an Action Aid team that visited the affected areas in February 2008, “there were rats all over the fields. Farmers would go to harvest their crops and find that the entire field had been eaten overnight.” To deal with this predictable crisis of nature, the Mizoram government had established a Bamboo Flowering and Famine Combat Scheme (BAFFACOS) programme since 2004, with sanctioned funds of Rs. 12.5 lakhs for famine relief. BAFFACOS, no doubt, has been on the alert since November 2007 but its efforts have been ineffective in thwarting the boom in the rodent population (from thousands to millions) within a matter of four months. To make matters worse, the Director of the state’s Disaster Management unit, P.C. Lalthlamuana asserts that the flow of relief from New Delhi has been abysmal.

    As history informs us, an ill-conceived state response to such natural calamities could result in the militarization of society as was the case in Mizoram in 1959. In 1959-60, famine caused by bamboo flowering and attendant explosion in the rodent population resulted in many mautam, which in the local dialect means "bamboo deaths". Due to the lacklustre response of the then Union government as well as the Assam government in providing famine relief, Mizos on their own formed the Mizo National Famine Front (MNFF) led by Pu Laldenga. MNFF succeeded in providing much needed succour to the people, and subsequently Laldenga transformed it into an armed movement, the Mizo National Front (MNF), that sought independence. The proximate cause of the frustration and anger of MNF supporters was the central and state governments’ insensitivity to the plight of the people during the 1959 famine. The conflict was subsequently resolved with the 1986 Mizo Peace Accord and grant of statehood to Mizoram in 1987.

    This time again apathy seems to be the hallmark of the response of both the central and state governments to the ongoing crisis in Mizoram. Despite early warnings of the impending disaster, no serious efforts have been made to satisfactorily address the crisis. It has been predicted other northeastern states like Tripura and Manipur as well as Southern Assam are also likely to be affected by the bamboo flowering phenomenon. Across the Mizoram border in Myanmar, Chin state has also been severely affected by bamboo flowering and consequent rodent outbreak. The absence of any “redressal” policy by Myanmar and the dearth of international aid have forced many Chin families especially from Paletwa, Matupi, Thantlang, Falam and Tonzang to flee to Mizoram. The affected Chin population numbers two lakhs and could increase further. These refugee flows coupled with Mizoram’s own affected population could precipitate a major internal crisis.

    Ironically, the current Mizoram Chief Minister, Zoramthanga, was Laldenga’s close associate and right hand man both during the famine relief in 1959 as well as in the armed struggle waged by the MNF. Though he has been Mizoram’s Chief Minister for some years now, he does not seem to have formulated a policy to avert the disastrous effects of an anticipated famine. In a recent statement, he in fact contended that “we cannot deploy cats to kill rats or set traps on such a large scale. Even poisoning will not work. So, we are giving an incentive to people who kill rats. We are rewarding rupees two for every rat tail that is brought to us.”!

    Instead of such cavalier statements and responses, what Mizoram’s leaders need to do is implement a four-pronged strategy to deal with the gathering crisis. First, a competent disaster management institution must be set up to formulate a district wise relief plan to cater to the needs of the affected people. At the same time, a special relief force must be immediately set up in each district for providing famine relief. Second, civil society bodies like the Young Mizo Association, Mizo Students’ Union, Mizo Zirlai Pawl, etc. should be actively involved in disaster relief. The youths’ knowledge of local areas must be tapped into and their advice sought for relief distribution. Third, an effective information campaign must be launched to explain to people the best ways of tiding over the crisis. For this, the help of paramilitary forces like the Assam Rifles must be sought, for their personnel possess excellent logistics and terrain knowledge. This would also have the additional advantage of increasing the level of trust between security forces and the common people. Fourth, Chin refugees from Myanmar should be housed in special camps so that they do not create fissures in an already stressed Mizo society. In addition, India must also press on Myanmar the necessity of activating a disaster control mechanism on its side of the border.