The year of the rat was predicted long back. It came slow but certain. The package was like opening the Pandora Box. It started with the bloom of doom flowers (gregarious bamboo flowering). The bamboo seed turned out to be a blessing for the rats that multiplied their population after consuming the starch rich seed. The rat boom severely destroyed crops, particularly rice, which is the staple food of the distressed villagers in Manipur’s Tipaimukh and Mizoram. These two constituencies are the epicenter of the natural phenomenon that occurs after every forty eight years. Villages in Thanlon and Singat sub-division were also affected. The rats raided and invaded the rice bowl of the self reliant farmers, who are all dependent on their traditional jhum fields for their livelihood. They were left anguished, distressed, hopeless and shattered after the rats invasion that destroy food security and the prospect for it. Today hunger and famine visits them day and night. The plights of the distressed villagers is moving towards deterioration as there is no trace of proactivity and political will to address their serious situation. That is worsened by the absence of road and connectivity, and public distribution system. Moreover, as the villagers do not have alternative source of income, their pangs of hunger and the fear for it multiplied. They were left to fend for themselves, which is why they are pushed to resort to their forest and jungles to look out for wild yam and other forest produce to relieve their hunger.It is unfortunate that despite the prediction of the approaching natural phenomenon that hits the distressed villages with clock like certainty, no significant measures were identified to combat the destructive impact of the bamboo flowering. With the advantage of advance knowledge about the famine the Centre as well as the Government of Manipur could have drawn famine codes to identify emergencies and measures to be taken in situations such as these. With the harvest that never took place, the government could have provided wage employment of public works, which could become the mainstay of famine relief. The failures of the government to operationalise public distribution system and food storage have resulted in skyrocketing the prices of rice and other basic commodities that could be purchased. This is worsened by the absence of local food supply. However, with no other source of income, particularly money, the distressed villagers failed to be potential buyers, even of their dire necessities. Price stabilisation is the last thing that would take place in these cut off compartments. The usually sluggard bureaucratic machine would take its good time to put the famine codes into operation even if it felt the need for it. It may take no time at all, which could be the situation when it comes to marginalized constituencies like Tipaimukh, Singat, Thanlon and the fringe villages and sub-divisions in Mizoram, which are the epicenter of the dreaded phenomenon.
In the middle of February, 2008, distressed villagers of Tipaimukh’s Leisen and Parvachawm reached Lungthulien to buy rice with whatever little the villagers could collectively contribute. On reaching Lungthulien their fear of hunger was burdened as they were told that there was no rice to sell or buy. They were not given any choice, but to retreat with their burden of fear and hunger that was added with the inconvenient truth; to tell the villagers that there was no rice to buy at all. Earlier in September 2007, the same villagers collectively decided to lend money from one money lender to buy rice for the entire villagers from the rumoured NREGS promises that could never reached them. I met them in October 2007 when they were stalled with anguish at the brink of fear of hunger and debts. That was when Christmas was awaited. But the entire villagers had nothing more to look up to till the month of Christmas. That was when, for the first time, I heard them say, “We wanted to celebrate Christmas in October when we still have little of our trifle harvest.” That was very disturbing. But the tense situation of theirs speaks out for itself as the fear of hunger and helplessness gnaws them.
The unfortunate year coincides with the Chinese “Year of the Rat.” For once we did not get to hear of the government who tend to side track and beat the bush by looking for some outside hands in all of its calamities that toll the country. The Chinese were not blamed. Pakistan is spared. But the state actors are still in deep slumber when its constituencies and the people who should matter are confronting famine. The serious plights of the long marginalized people were never presented with the will to do the needful. They don’t seem like they were ever represented. Their existence fails to impress anything on the conscience of people who ought to act for their share of precious suffrage that turned the wheels of democracy. But today, they were off the map. Off the conscience. Off the will. Off .
Shall we watch them live the Christian sayings; there is time for plenty, time for hunger and time to bear them silently. The kingdom belongs to them. Or shall we speak like some dirty holy men and say, “Let them repent to end their hunger and famine.” Or shall we speak like some unusual self styled religious men who must have bathed and cleansed himself in some imagery seven holy rivers and sea and say, “They sowed sins and reap hunger, anguish and distress.”
But if anyone thinks this is true, then religion is the most beautiful myth created by man to serve his fear with elusive hope. He dwells in that because he is weak, hopeless and small. He dwells in that because he wanted to give himself the idea of eternity to clothe himself with that absence and feels like superman. He dwells in that because the reality of brevity and the fear of death in this sinful world is inevitable. He dwells in that because he wanted himself to be forever in the summer of life. But he could say that, not because he is religious or spiritual, but because he is selfish and brutish, which are his “state of nature.”
The big question today is, what is required of us in such urgent situations? Public actions, which you and I could exert, could make great difference for the distressed people who are living with famine in forgotten hills and mountain. Distressed villagers of these constituencies were reduced to starvation and hunger by the natural phenomenon that makes it no longer possible for them to acquire anything to secure their hunger. Public action has the strength to avert famines. It requires you and me. It doesn’t need any magical wand to address the challenges. Man has enough. We just have to exercise them, rather than celebrate them in the waste of abundance and uselessness. It is time we give up those multiplying supernatural explanations and looked at the realities of the unique link between food production, natural disasters, hunger and the absence of political will. But I believe, we could be the agent of change. When that happens we would realized that we could end hunger.
(Delhi, March 30, 2008)