Thanks to the invention of a sophisticated rat trap, the lot of the Irula tribe in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu has improved considerably. The impoverished community of three million can now send more children to school and hope for a better future.
Krishnan Chinnapayan, an Irula ratcatcher, holds up one of his victims
The sun was blazing down on Krishnan Chinnapayan as he wiped the sweat from his chalky brow and stood on an arid patch of farmland, preparing for what seemed to be a military mission. "They can sense us," he said, pointing at a nearby burrow. "They are very clever creatures."
Through a hand-operated air pump attached to a cylindrical device, a torrent of smoke then entered the burrow. Seconds later, Chinnapayan pulled out a huge brown rat from a grey blanket of smoke, holding it by its tail before killing it.
In this impoverished tribal belt in southern Tamil Nadu state, catching rats has been a primary job for members of Chinnapayan's Irula tribe -- an impoverished community of three million people at the bottom rung of the Hindu caste hierarchy, who have often found themselves teetering on the brink of starvation.
Reversal of plight
But the introduction of innovative rat traps has remarkably reversed the Irulas' plight. By curbing the amount of rodents that have long menaced Indian farmers, the tribe has seen its income triple in the past three years. The Irulas, who were once jeered by many locals as "rodent assassins," are now being touted as saviours by many farmers.
"The Irulas are a great example of how bringing technology to the rural poor can help them improve their lives one step at a time," said Siri Terjesen, assistant professor of strategic management at the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University, who visited Tamil Nadu last year. "By one estimate, if the entire rat menace were alleviated, India would be able to feed its entire population (of 1.1 billion inhabitants) three times a day."
With more than 100 million small farmers in the states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh -- the two states where most Irulas live -- the new rat trap is in great demand. Experts say rats are profligate breeders, with each female producing up to 1,000 offspring during a lifetime of up to 3 1/2 years. Each year, tons of grain are lost to the pesky rodents.
In the north-eastern state of Mizoram, many farmers stopped growing rice and corn for fear the rats would eat all their crops. To encourage eradication, state officials offered to purchase rat tails from farmers who killed them. More than 500,000 tails were collected.
Generations of tradition
For generations, the Irulas relied on lighting fires in a clay pot, covering the burrows and suffocating the rats. But the catch was typically low - just four or five rats a day. Because most farmers paid just a few cents per rat, the Irulas barely eked out a living while suffering from burns and respiratory and heart disease from inhaling the smoke.
But that all changed in 2004 after a Chennai-based non-governmental organisation, the Centre for the Development of Disadvantaged People, introduced a new rat trap that not only increased the catch but lessened the health hazards. With the help of a mechanical engineer, they designed a steel trap attached to a hand-operated air pump, which eliminated the need to blow air into the trap by mouth. The invention increased the average catch to 15 to 20 rats a day.
Improved living standards
With an increased income, Irulas are now sending their children to school in hopes of improving the current literacy rate from an abysmal 1 percent. More importantly, the rural innovation has brought a sense of pride to a community that has long been derided as lower caste Hindus.
"Everyone wants to abandon their lives as rat catchers -- a miserable existence that only brings shame," said Chinnapayan. "But this rat trap gives a sense of hope to our community that we, too, can lead productive lives."
In 2003, Sethu Sethunarayanan, the director of the Centre for the Development of Disadvantaged People, received a World Bank grant of $98,500, which enabled the organisation to provide free traps to more than 4,000 Irula families across Tamil Nadu, including Sirigumi village, which lies some 50 miles north of the capital, Chennai. He plans eventually to provide the traps to most Irula families through a credit instalment plan. Each trap costs $25 -- a hefty sum for most tribal members.
"They will be made available to all in coming years," said Sethunarayanan.
Traps versus poison
The traps may also catch on in urban areas where city officials are hesitant to use poisons. In Mumbai, for example, city leaders have embarked on a huge programme to poison millions of rats that carry such diseases as bubonic plague and leptospirosis.
Sirigumi farmers have also used poisons laced with garlic and chutney. But the toxic substances impeded soil productivity, they said, and some rats quickly developed a resistance to the chemicals.
As the day ends, Chinnapayan walks home with some two dozen rats that his wife will cook for that night's supper -- many Irulas consider rat meat to be a delicacy. As he enters his tiny mud hut home with straw roof and dirt floor, the rat catcher reminisces about the days when his nine children had nothing more to eat than wild fruit picked from a nearby parched bush. Now, they have more money for grain and other staples as well as the rats they use for food.
"My children don't go hungry, these days," he said, handing over the dead rodents to his wife. "They feast."