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India's 'outcasts' turn to rat farming

Impoverished Indian state of Bihar is working on controversial plan to popularise rodent meat to feed its 83 million population.

Devender Sadai, 25, displays a recently caught rat in the state of Bihar, where the rodents are being promoted as a cheap protein source.
Devender Sadai, 25, displays a recently caught rat in the state of Bihar, where the rodents are being promoted as a cheap protein source.

Jhanjharpur, India // Sharban Thakal kills his freshly caught field rat by using its tail to swing it up in the air and flinging it against the compacted mud floor outside his hut. His sister picks open the rodent's belly with the tip of a small curved knife, squeezes out its intestines and drops it on a small fire of grass and twigs. As the tiny corpse stiffens and blackens, she repeatedly flips it over like a hamburger to check it is cooked. "When the fur is burnt and there is no blood, I know it's ready," said 18-year-old Shubia Devi who lives in the village of Khairi, near the banks of the river Kamla in the north Indian state of Bihar. Sharban and Shubia are Musahars: a sub-caste of Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, who are so impoverished they eat the rats they have been traditionally employed to catch. Occupying the lowest range of the Hindu caste system, they are shunned even by other Dalits for their eating habits - earning them the moniker "the untouchable's untouchable". Now, however, Bihar's government is working on a controversial scheme to popularise rat meat, in the hope it will improve the fortunes of the state's 2.3 million Musahars and provide the rest of the population with a cheap source of protein. "It will take some time for people to accept it, but I don't see why they won't," said Jitan Ram Manjhi, Bihar's caste and tribal welfare minister. As with many places in the world, in India, rats are largely considered to be vermin. An additional problem to popularising the meat, however, is that the rat holds a special place in the Hindu belief system as the animal that carries Ganesh the elephant god. But Bihar's social welfare department thinks such obstacles are surmountable given the right public awareness campaign. "Rat and chicken have equal food values, not only in terms of protein, but in all areas of nutrition," said Mr Manjhi, himself a Musahar. "We just need to educate people." According to the minister, the project, which would eventually include loans to Musahars to begin rat farms, would serve the twin purposes of de-stigmatising the group and protecting the state's crops, up to a half of which are lost to the pest. And with the price of some staple foodstuffs in India almost doubling this year, rat meat would provide an affordable substitute to chicken or mutton for Bihar's 83 million strong population - over 40 per cent of whom live on less than US$1 (Dh3.67) a day, according to Unicef, the UN agency for children. The ministry is also keen to point out that rat is considered a delicacy in other parts of the world, including Ghana where it is stewed, or in Thailand where it is served as a snack served with chilli-paste. The project, however, has run into opposition from some Musahar groups who say that it would perpetuate the centuries' old stereotype of the sub-caste as rat-eaters and make it harder for Musahars to get jobs in other areas. As a result, the government has now put the scheme on hold while it tries to win over its detractors. "I am not against rat farming, I am against connecting this project to the Musahar community. It reinforces the caste system," said Umesh Manjhi, the head of Rashtriya Musahar-Bhuyian Parishad, a non-governmental organisation that works to provide development for the Musahars. "The government should be investing in education for the community. We want to use the computer mouse, not farm rats," he said. Descended from hunter-gatherers who originally inhabited the jungles of northern India, today, the Musahars are a landless community eking out a living as agricultural labourers and pest-controllers. Incorporated into the Hindu caste system and given a name derived from the Sanskrit words "musa" meaning "rat", and "hara" meaning "seek", they also worship their own tribal deities. Paid in grain for their work, they supplement their diet by eating the rats and sodden paddy they find when they destroy the animals' burrows. "We live hungry," said Tiliya Devi, an activist and the leader of Khairi village. "During the rainy season we don't even have enough food to eat two times a day." The community endures other problems connected to their lowly status: forced to live apart from higher castes, they are often only allotted land the near the rivers of this flood-prone state. For two months of every year the inhabitants of Khairi have to relocate to a narrow embankment while the waters from the river Kamla recede. Poverty and discrimination mean few Musahar children finish primary school, resulting in a literacy rate that is as low as one per cent in some areas, and only as high as five per cent in others, according to non-governmental organisations. Child malnutrition and infant and maternal mortality levels among Musahars are worse than those found in the rest of Bihar, which in turn fares poorly against other Indian states. To make a political statement about their plight, many Musahars now call their daughters "America" to show higher castes they are no longer willing to accept their status as second-class citizens. But despite opposition to the rat-farming plan from NGOs, many in the Musahar villages welcome the scheme. "It's a good idea. It would be beneficial for our village," said Rukhmeni Devi, whose family of nine, eats rat and other pests, including snails, four times a week. Even Tiliya Devi, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for her work to win land rights for her people, says her village is willing to participate. If the project does eventually go ahead, Rukhmeni Devi said she would try to convince customers to buy rat meat by saying it is tasty and most importantly, cheap. For those not won over by the price, she can offer some recipes to make the idea more palatable too. "A small rat is best barbecued, but for the larger ones you can add some spices and onion and make a masala," she said. hgardner@thenational.ae