Mautam is the name given to the cyclic ecological phenomenon that occurs every 48-50 years, in the Northeastern States of India, where thirty per cent of the area is covered by wild bamboo forests. During this period, Melocanna baccifera, a species of bamboo flower occurs rampantly and is followed by a sudden increase in the number of rats, whose rodentary cravings cause devastating famine. The most recent flowering began in May 2006, and efforts are still underway to prevent a famine, by the State Governments with the help of the Indian security forces deployed in the area.
Bamboos usually have a life cycle of about 40 to 80 years. This varies amongst different species of the grass (Bamboo is a variety of grass). Normally, new bamboo grows up from bamboo shoots near the roots. If the soil changes in humidity or nutrition in which the plants find difficult to grow, they will start to blossom. After the blossom, the flowers bear the fruit, which is called “bamboo rice”. Thereafter, the bamboo forest dies. Since a bamboo forest usually grows from a single bamboo, the death of bamboo happens in a large area.
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 which have the effect of an “aphrodisiac”, they multiply rapidly. When the supply of bamboo seeds gets exhausted armies of these marauding rodents turn their attention to the standing crops devouring acres of rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes and anything else that is available in the fields or in the homes of villagers within a few days. As a result, local peasants, who are fully dependant on agriculture and farm produce for their sustenance, are subject to famine.
It needs to mention herein that the ‘Mautam’ or bamboo flowering is a unique ecological phenomenon which is not a very surprising development in the Northeastern region. In fact, it occurs now and then in some parts of this region. The last such flowering took place in Manipur, Tripura and the Barak Valley of Assam in 1959; and its consequences were terrible due to a devastating famine caused by a low agriculture production which hit Manipur the hardest. Records from the British Raj indicate that Manipur suffered famine in 1862 and again in 1911, after the region witnessed similar bamboo flowerings. In each case, the records suggest that the flowering of the bamboo leads to a dramatic increase in the local rat population. The increase led to raids on granaries and the destruction of paddy fields, and subsequently to a year-long famine.
The 1959 Mautam resulted in the recorded deaths of at least a hundred people, besides heavy losses to property and crops. Some elderly villagers in the undeveloped and more traditional region, recalling this event, have claimed that their warnings based on folk traditions were dismissed as superstition by the Government of Assam which then ruled the present State of Manipur. It has been estimated that around two million rats were killed and collected by the locals, after a bounty of 40 paisa was placed on each. However, even after the increase in the rat population was noted, preparations by the Government to avoid a famine were limited.
Though it is almost impossible to prevent Mautam altogether few steps can help to reduce its impact. Some of these steps are selective clearing of bamboo groves cultivation of alternate crops and of course pest control. Villagers are also being encouraged to grow rodent resistant commercial crops such as turmeric had ginger partially as an insurance against variations in purchasing power and also because the aromatic spices ward off rodent raids. Rats are turning out to be much more harmful than the bamboo flowering because they not only cause famine, but may also spread deadly diseases. An awareness campaign is required to educate the villagers about growing alternate crops, so as to obviate a famine or similar situation in the future.
The Sangai Express