Cablegate: In Mizoram and Burma Bamboo Flowering May Bring Famine

DE RUEHCI #0095/01 0781119
R 181119Z MAR 08




E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: A) KOLKATA 07 00353, B) DHAKA 00110

KOLKATA 00000095 001.2 OF 003

1. (U) This is an action request. Please see paragraph 13.

2. (SBU) Summary: The Northeast Indian state of Mizoram,
wedged between Burma and Bangladesh, is at the height of an
acute food and grain shortage due to the destruction of crops by
an exploding rat population. Approximately every 50 years, the
flowering of a species of bamboo leads to a significant growth
in the rodent population, which devastates crops including rice,
the Mizo's dietary staple. The latest cycle of bamboo flowering
began in 2005 and is now reaching its peak. The Government of
Mizoram (GOM) has declared the state a disaster area and has
sought GOI assistance in meeting assistance needs. The GOI has
provided some relief, but more is required. In particular,
Burmese Chin villagers living along the border in both India and
Burma are facing a severe food shortage, and there are claims
that some are on the verge of starvation. Post believes USG
efforts should be made to assess the situation in Mizoram and if
warranted provide humanitarian assistance for this regional
problem. End Summary.
Mautam Descends

3. (U) The Northeast Indian state of Mizoram, wedged between
Burma and Bangladesh, is suffering an acute shortage of food
grain due to the destruction of crops by rats. Nearly 93
percent of the state is covered with a single species of bamboo
that flowers every 48 years - a phenomenon called "Mautam."
When the flowers appear, the plant produces fruit whose seeds
are eaten by jungle rats. The proliferation of the flowers and
fruit results in a sharp increase in the rat and insect
populations which devour crops and stored grains in the state.
The ruling Mizo National Front (MNF), which came into being
following the last Mautam in the 1950s declared the state a
"disaster area," and has sought an additional Rs. 187 crore (USD
46 million) from the Central Government.

A Flawed Plan

4. (U) On March 3, PolOff met with Mizoram Director for Food,
Civil Supplies & Consumer Affairs T. B. C. Rozara, who outlined
the discussions between the GOM and the GOI on managing the food
crisis. In 2004-2005 in anticipation of the Mautam, the GOM
submitted a plan for maintaining food supplies, known as the
Bamboo Flowering and Famine Combat Scheme (BAFFACOS), to the
GOI. The BAFFACOS included an attempt at increasing Mizo
purchasing power and diversification by shifting crop production
to durable, tradable items such as turmeric and ginger, which
were considered "rat proof." (Note: Traditionally, Mizo
farming practices were single crop, slash and burn operations,
known as "jhum cultivation." End Note.). The GOM also began
construction of warehouses for food storage and encouraged
people to invest, to save money, and to purchase supplies to
prepare for the food shortage. Over the past two years, the GOI
gave grants of over Rs. 100 crore (USD 25 million) to enhance
Mizo purchasing power. In 2007, the state doubled wages for
farmers under BAFFACOS and increased the rice quota from 2 to 3
kilograms per adult per week. The GOM also offered a reward of
one rupee for every rat killed.

5. (U) BAFFACOS has fallen short of the people's needs.
Presently, the GOI provides 6,640 metric tons of food grains per
month to the Mizoram Public Distribution System (PDS). The GOI
provides food grains to State governments at separate prices for
Below Poverty Line (BPL) and Above Poverty Line (APL) families.
The Central Issue Price (CIP) for rice for distribution to BPL
families is Rs. 565 per quintal (a quintal is 100 kg) (approx.
USD 145/metric ton) and for APL families is Rs. 830 per quintal
(approx. USD 210/metric ton). Rice is available at Rs. 5.65
(USD .14) per kg for BPL families and for Rs. 9.30 (USD .23) per
kg for APL families at ration shops under the PDS across Mizoram
as against Rs. 18 (USD .45) to RS. 20 (USD .50) per kg in the
open market.

6. (U) As per GOI rules, each family is allotted only 35 kg of
rice per week through the PDS. This quantity is not sufficient
for families in Mizoram as the average family size is large (5-6
persons per family) and rice - the dietary staple - is eaten
three times per day. Since November 2007, the GOM has been
purchasing an additional 5,000 metric tons per month at Rs. 1445
per quintal (approx. USD 360/metric ton) to meet the shortfall

KOLKATA 00000095 002.2 OF 003

in supply. (Note: According to ration card figures from the
PDS, the dependent population numbers roughly 1.1 million. End
Note.). The additional supply of rice is distributed through
the ration shops and is made available to BPL and APL families
at the regular PDS prices, with the State government absorbing
the cost differential. However, the problem is that even though
rice is available, most BPL families do not have the purchasing
power to buy additional quantities. (Note: In the last year,
the world price of rice has risen considerably, with prices of
up to USD 500/metric ton for rice being exported out of
Thailand, for example. End Note.). Rozara said his department
compiles weekly reports on families facing food shortages.

7. (U) Rozara was realistic about the efficacy of the BAFFACOS
plan, saying that there were some success stories but also many
failures. He pointed out that corruption, endemic to India,
diverted some funds from their intended purposes. Compounding
the problem is Mizoram's lack of infrastructure. There is only
one major road connecting Mizoram to the rest of the Northeast
and India - connecting through Assam and Meghalaya. There is
also a narrow gauge railway line (currently under conversion to
the standard broad gauge) as well. Travel from the capital,
Aizawl, to the Burma border takes at least six hours by car.
Dean of Aizawl University Professor Lianzeala commented to
Poloff that the BAFFACOS plan was a good one, but that the GOM
had not taken into account the inadequate infrastructure for
transportation to markets, the lack of proper marketing of new
products, and inherent corruption in the system. As a result,
most Mizos quickly lost confidence in the GOM's scheme.

Who Can Help?

8. (U) Much of Mizoram's public welfare system is run by a
combination of church activism and the non-government Young Mizo
Association (YMA), which acts as a de facto civilian arm of the
government. GOM officials state openly that they depend on the
YMA and church groups to "reach" people in rural districts. The
YMA has set up a fairly efficient distribution system where
villages and families all contribute to the well-being of their
neighbors. It is also active in raising awareness and education
on social issues, including AIDS, domestic violence, and drug
abuse. Poloff met with three YMA leaders who assessed the GOM
response to the food crisis as "inadequate." They believed that
the GOM should have provided more seeds to farmers and
recognized the connectivity problems in getting assistance to
rural areas. They also observed that the GOM response was
long-term, geared at changing agricultural practices in the
state, and did not meet immediate food needs.

9. (U) YMA leadership takes a dim view of Burmese migrants from
Chin state, although the Burmese are ethnically identical to
Mizos. A commonly held view is that the Chin migrants are
responsible for a range of social and economic ills in Mizoram -
the growing crime and unemployment rates, increasing IV drug
use, and crowding, among others.

For Burmese Chins, It's Worse
10. (SBU) Post has reported on the difficult situation of
Burmese Chins living in Mizoram (reftel A). Burma's Chin state
borders Mizoram to the east. Chairman of the Chin National
Council (CNC) Salai Chinzah, who traveled 14 hours by road from
Mizoram's southern town of Saiha to meet with Poloff, said
Burmese Chin villagers living along the border are facing food
scarcity and are on the verge of starvation. Chinzah estimates
that half of Chin state in Burma is covered by bamboo. He said
that UNDP representatives had come to collect data on the bamboo
flowering problem, and that an NGO called the Chin Christian
Relief Committee had set up an office in Aizawl on February 20
to assist Chins with relief management. Poloff inquired about
other organizations able to offer/channel assistance to Burma,
and Chinzah listed: the Zomi Baptist Association (works in
Champai and northern Chin state), the Christian Baptist
Association, the Mara Evangelical Church, the Mara Youth
Association (MTP), the Mara People's Party (NZMPP), the Zomi
National Congress, the Chin National League for Democracy, Aid
Zomi (a local NGO), and the Zomi Economic Planning and
Development Association (ZEPADA). He also noted that a Japanese
NGO had provided 40 tons of food grain, routed from Kolkata
through the NE state of Manipur and into Burma.

KOLKATA 00000095 003.2 OF 003

11. (SBU) Chinzah insisted that the Chins are aware of "the
U.S. interest in helping the Chin people," and that they are
waiting for a response from the U.S. Government. He showed
Poloff a list of 38 people from six households in Chin state who
had migrated to Mizoram in search of food. Chinzah says he is
collecting more names of people being displaced by the Mautam
and will provide it to PolOff. Chinzah recognized that the GOM
assistance was meant for Mizo people only, not Chins.

12. (SBU) Embassy Rangoon Comment: We have alerted WFP to the
problem, which will send a Burmese employee to Chin State to
make a "small assessment." Access for foreigners to make
assessments in Chin State will be difficult due to Burmese
military restrictions on access for humanitarian assistance
providers. The pre-dominantly Christian Chin are among the
poorest ethnic minorities in Burma. They are also very
pro-American due to their past experiences with American
missionaries. Due to access problems inside Burma the best way
to get assistance to them may be across the border through

Action Request
13. (U) Based on our PolOff's observations in Mizoram and
Reftel B, Post has identified: 1) a growing lack of affordable
grain for people in Mizoram, Bangladesh and portions of Burma;
2) a lack of funding for the GOM to purchase grain from the GOI
and a corresponding reduction of people's purchasing power; 3) a
need for immediate action due to the likelihood that the monsoon
rains (June-November) will make transportation and communication
with rural districts difficult. Post requests that USAID New
Delhi discuss the situation in Mizoram with the GOI (Ministry of
Home Affairs and National Disaster Management Authority) and
send an assessment team to Mizoram to visit the rural areas.
Post is prepared to facilitate such a visit.

14. (U) Embassy Dhaka and Embassy Rangoon cleared this cable.

© Scoop Media

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