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Coverage on Rat Farming

BBC News

Read BBC on Rat Farming: August 13, 2008 by Amarnath Tewary

Mr Prakash says his proposals to popularise rat meat eating are intended to uplift their social-economic condition.

“There are twin advantages of this proposal. First, we can save about half of our food grain stocks by catching and eating rats and secondly we can improve the economic condition of the Musahar community,” he told the BBC.

According to Mr Prakash, about 50% of total food grain stocks in the country are eaten away by rodents.

He argues that by promoting rat eating more grain will be preserved while hunger among the Musahar community will be reduced. He said that rat meat is not only a delicacy but a protein-enriched food, widely popular in Thailand and France.

Wall Street Journal

Read Old India rejuvenates as IT rivers of gold dry up: April 10, 2009 in Wall Street Journal by Peter Wonacott

In the village of Deve Kuli, in Bihar, India’s poorest and least literate major state, the Mushahar are the poorest and least literate. Most are farm labourers. About one in 10 can read. So impoverished is this group that they hunt field rats to supplement a deprived diet. Mushahar is Hindi for “rat eater”.

But the outlook for the state’s 2 million Mushahar has brightened in the past year.

Thanks to government aid programs, more Mushahar children are attending school. Increased state investment in roads and local factories has put their parents to work. Demand for labourers has pushed up wages for field work.

In a sign of the times, a government proposal to promote rat farming was ridiculed by the Mushahar, the very group of untouchables, or Dalits, it was supposed to benefit. They worried it would pull their children out of school and extend a social stigma to the next generation. Some protested on the streets of Bihar’s capital, Patna, shouting: “We want to learn to use a computer mouse, not catch mice.”

Growth has slowed in the new India of technology outsourcing, property development and securities trade. But old India – the rural sector that is home to 700 million of the country’s billion-plus people – shows signs it can pick up the slack. The rural awakening helps explain why India continues to grow even as the US recession drags on the world economy.

The change is largely political. In years past, many state leaders rode to power with vows to give voice to lower-caste voters. But after failing for the most part to lift living standards, these officials have been replaced in many cases by leaders who have. In poor and largely rural states from Orissa in the east to Rajasthan in the west, many new leaders have invested in health, education and infrastructure. That has set the stage for the creation of industry and consumer markets and enabled upward mobility.

 

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As a caste the Government has identified as “extremely backward”, the Mushahar will be eligible for a $US57 million government program that will provide families with water-supply, toilets, radios and educational support, according to Vijoy Prakash, the principal secretary for two government departments dedicated to low-caste assistance.

On Mr Prakash’s desk sits a stuffed rat, a reminder of who such programs aim to help. Yet he says past efforts have failed in part because only 9 per cent of the Mushahar can read. “This is the group that has remained excluded from India’s growth,” he says.

As the sun came up on a recent day, a group of Mushahar gathered round a water pump to wash clothes. Later in the morning, a long line of Mushahar children made their way up a mud embankment and, in a profound departure from community tradition, headed to primary school.

Parents complain that their children face discrimination even at Dev Kuli’s one-room school for Mushahar children, the name of which translates as “Slum People’s Primary School”. Children from other castes attend a school nearby.

The Government has repaired the school’s roof in recent months, hired a new teacher and added an extra bathroom to provide privacy for girls. Even so, the school doesn’t have chairs or desks, so students sit on empty grain bags and write on a cement floor covered with dirt.

Each day, a group of government-hired Mushahar, known as “motivators”, roust children from their homes and escort them to class. Motivator Phulwanti Devi, a recent and rare Mushahar college graduate, says she battles parents almost every morning to release their children from farm work.

“We tell them, ‘It will improve their future’,” says Ms Devi, 25.

“They reply, ‘We don’t see that you have such a good job.’ I tell them: ‘I have a diploma, and so I can get a better job. What about you?’ ”

Still, Ms Devi and other motivators say attendance at the school has grown. Teachers say about 150 children are enrolled. On a recent day, the motivators rounded up about half that many.

There are other challenges. Some motivators say they haven’t been paid their salaries of 2000 rupees ($56) a month. Local officials occasionally tell teachers to skip class to conduct government work, such as counting votes at election time.

Mr Prakash, the secretary for lower castes, says the motivators will soon be paid from funds his department has set aside. Bihar’s education secretary, Anjani Kumar Singh, says a Bihar court has ruled that teachers can’t skip class for government work, but admitted the order could be hard to enforce at election time.

Generating genuine business activity among a largely illiterate community hasn’t been easy, either, judging by Mr Prakash’s rat-farming initiative. He estimated that 3 million people in the state would welcome a stable supply of the protein-rich meat.

Many Mushahar say they enjoy the meat, typically barbecued or cooked with a spicy masala, and believe it keeps their hair dark. But many resented being pushed into farming them. “If we get involved in rat farming, our children will also get involved,” says Ms Devi.

After some Mushahar protested in Patna late last summer, Mr Kumar, the chief minister, shelved the proposal.

Yet Dev Kuli’s economy has improved. The infrastructure push has created jobs in the building and repairing of roads. That has helped bring factories to the area, say locals, including a steel mill and a cola-bottling plant. Those jobs have boosted farm wages to the point where the Mushahar won’t work in the fields for less than about $US2 a day, says Raj Ballabh Raji, a local farmer from a different caste.

Mr Raji, who now works his six acres with a new tractor, notes one more sign of prosperity. “You can now find a petrol pump within a mile of here,” he says in a tone of pleasant surprise. “The economy is changing.”

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