Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Silent Tragedies We Ignore

When the Prime Minister visited Arunachal Pradesh recently, he reminded many in what is called “mainland India” about the existence of the North Eastern states in India’s political map. It is a pity that his advisors did not club a trip for him to Mizoram as he was in the area. It would have helped. Mizoram today is one of the few states in the North East that today enjoys relative peace but once was a hotbed of insurgency. In fact one of the Indian Air Force’s inglorious acts in post independence India was to bomb the town of Aizawl and this till today is the only aerial attack India has carried out against its own people.”

Some insurgencies are man-made and entirely political in character and some happen as a response to events and then become politicized. The Mizo insurgency was one of the latter. The events are worth retelling. A large portion of the forested area of Mizoram is occupied by bamboo forests. When bamboo plants flower (they do so only once in 40- 50 years), they produce a large volume of seeds, which are a source of food for many predators, especially rats. As masses of flowering bamboo produce this natural bounty, rats are attracted to the area. Fortified by the protein-rich seeds, they multiply rapidly. But the supply of bamboo seeds is limited. When it is exhausted, armies of these marauding rodents turn their attention to standing crops, devouring acres of rice, potatoes, and sweet potatoes within a few days. As a result, local peasants, who are fully dependant on agriculture for their sustenance, are subject to famine.

The last time such a phenomenon of the flowering of the bamboo flowers (locally called mautam occurred was between 1961-65. the resultant famine which claimed between 10,000-15,000 lives. Its inept handling by the government of the day led to the formation of Mizoram’s insurgency outfit, the Mizo National Front and an insurgency movement that lasted twenty years before a peace accord was finally signed.

Why is the retelling of all this history important? Because this is 2008 and forty years since the last flowering of the bamboo in the sixties has gone by. The flowering started again in the last two years and the year 2007 saw over 95 per cent bamboo plants in the agrarian state flower and rats destroy tobacco, cucumbers, pumpkins, grapes and other fruits and vegetables, while paddy cultivation came down by 75 per cent and maize to practically zero due to farmers’ apprehensions of an impending famine. But like the last time the “mautam” occurred close to fifty years ago, this time too, no one is taking much notice.

While a bus overturning in a ditch and killing passengers or a rail derailment attracts a lot of attention, silent disasters like the bamboo flowering induced famine in Mizoram don’t attract much news. Not by the aid agencies. Not by the media, not by the government it would seem except for the State Government which is run by the MNF with its own history in the famines and the bamboo flowering of the sixties. And often these states fight their own battles silently and often with little political or moral support. So while the visit to Arunanchal Pradesh is welcome as is the announcement that it is India’s state of the rising sun, it will be more helpful if all of us- be it the government or the private sector as well as the common citizen like me share in the life of these states- rejoice with them in their celebrations and festivals as well as share with them in their calamities.

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