The ‘rat eaters’ of Bihar: India’s poorest people?

Above, a boy of the Musahar community eats roasted rat at Alampur Gonpura village in the eastern Indian state of Bihar. Musahars are India’s are the poorest among the poorest that even the browbeaten low-caste Dalits look down on them. (AFP)
Updated 07 December 2017
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The ‘rat eaters’ of Bihar: India’s poorest people?

ALAMPUR GONPURA, India: The rat kept crawling over Phekan Manjhi’s arm as he battled to pin it to the ground before he eventually managed to kill it with repeated blows to the head.
The execution drew applause from neighbors huddled around the 60-year-old in a grimy courtyard outside his mud and straw hut. Another meal lined up for the Rat Eaters — some of India’s poorest people.
Phekan said it would take 15 minutes to prepare the rat stew, as he dissected the animal with his fingernails.
“Almost everyone here loves this and knows how it’s prepared,” he added.
Phekan is one of about 2.5 million Musahars — ‘Rat Eaters’ — one of India’s most marginalized communities. Even the browbeaten low-caste Dalits look down on them.
“They are the poorest among the poorest and rarely hear about or get access to government schemes,” said Sudha Varghese, who spent three-decades working among Musahars in the northern state of Bihar, where most live and survive as dollar-a-day laborers.
“It’s a daily struggle for the next meal and diseases like leprosy are an everyday reality,” added Varghese, who was awarded India’s top civilian honor for her work.
Phekan’s neighbor in the village of Alampur Gonpura, 28-year-old Rakesh Manjhi, bemoaned his life.
“We sit at home all day with nothing to do. Some days we get work at the farm, on other days we go hungry or catch rats and eat it with whatever little grain we can get,” Rakesh said.
“Governments may have changed but nothing has changed for us. We still eat, live and sleep as our ancestors,” said Phekan as he took the roasted rat off the fire and poked the tender meat.
He cut the flesh with his hands into a bowl and added mustard oil and salt.
The feast disappeared in seconds as a dozen men and half-naked children grabbed what they could.
“Nothing but education can change our lives and future,” said Jitan Ram Manjhi, who in 2014 became the first Musahar chief minister of any Indian state.
His nine-month tenure heading Bihar, one of India’s most populous states, is considered a huge achievement for the Musahars.
“My community is so downtrodden that I think even government records don’t yet show its real numbers, which could easily be around eight million,” Jitan Ram added.
As a child, the former minister herded cattle for a rich landowner who employed his parents as laborers.
“They were almost like bonded laborers, getting one kilogram of grain for each day’s work. Even today, things haven’t changed much for many,” he added.
While there are well-intentioned education programs, but most are often privately-run — like the Shoshit Samadhan Kendra residential school for Musahar boys on the outskirts of the state capital Putna.
“I started the school around a decade back with only four students and today it has 430, from remote Musahar communities across the state,” founder J.K Sinha said.
He discovered how Musahars live while on a police raid as a young officer four decades ago.
“They were cramped in a small hut with pigs and the filth. It was shocking. Inhumane. I can’t forget it,” Sinha said.
R.U Khan, the school principal, said the Musahars face discrimination, seclusion and squalor wherever they gather.
“Most still only work as farm laborers who are forced to catch rats or snails in fields and scavenge for grain if the crop fails,” Khan said.
Out of 430 pupils at Shoshit Samadhan Kendra, 117 lost their fathers at an early age.
“Once here, it takes us at least a month to teach them the most basic personal and social skills — like using toilets, personal hygiene, washing hands or eating food,” Khan said.
The regular education only starts after. But once given a chance, the boys are proud to get the opportunity to improve their lives.
Bihar’s Welfare Department Minister Ramesh Rishidev insisted that life has improved for the Musahars.
“We’ve been working hard with the different communities, which includes the Musahars,” the minister said.
“Our workers go to the communities to get their young enrolled in schools. They are linked to government skills and training projects to get them employment opportunities,” he added.
Rishidev said that while in the past the Musahars ate rats to stave off hunger, most now do so out of a “cultivated taste and not compulsion.”
“Some from the older generation still eat rats because it is like any other food they have. Most of the younger generation don’t eat it. Things have improved and will further change,” he added.
Many Shoshit Samadhan Kendra boys are the target of jokes when they return to their villages for holidays however.
“We often hear stories how their village friends taunt them to catch rats or scavenge for other food with them, like they used to earlier. And under pressure, some of them do,” Khan said.


If proven, Smollett allegations could be a ‘career killer’

Updated 20 min 8 sec ago
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If proven, Smollett allegations could be a ‘career killer’

  • “This could be a career-killer. We’ve seen this many times. Society has become more intolerant and unforgiving,” according to a PR expert
  • After a three-week investigation, Smollett was charged with staging the attack with help from two brothers he knew and allegedly paid for their services

LOS ANGELES: Jussie Smollett is enmeshed in weekly drama on the set of “Empire,” the Fox TV series that gave the actor a breakout role and the fame to advance his social activism.
But a scene that played out on a dark Chicago street in January has left Smollett facing felony charges and raised the possibility that “Empire” could mark the pinnacle of the 38-year-old’s career.
Smollett, who is black and gay, told police he was the victim of a hate crime committed by men who threw liquid in his face, yelled racist, anti-gay slurs and looped a noose around his neck. After a three-week investigation, Smollett was charged Wednesday with staging the attack with help from two brothers he knew and allegedly paid for their services.
Even in an industry in which bad or erratic behavior is expected, insiders and observers are stunned by what authorities allege was fakery intended in part to get Smollett publicity and a raise.
“This is incredible. No one does this,” said Garth Ancier, a veteran network executive and a co-founder of the Fox network. If more money was his goal, that’s what agents and negotiations are for, he said, calling the alleged hoax “beyond the pale.”
“It’s too bad that such a talented guy threw all that away,” Ancier said, adding he didn’t see how he could be kept on “Empire.”
Producers appeared to be doing that for now, with Smollett traveling directly after being released from jail on bond Thursday to the “Empire” set. There are two episodes left to make of the 18 airing this season, the fifth year for the series starring Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard as hip-hop moguls Cookie and Lucious Lyon.
Replacing Smollett at this point would be problematic. Writing his character, one of three Lyon sons, out of future seasons would be less so.
Smollett’s legal team released a statement late Thursday calling Chicago police’s version of events “an organized law enforcement spectacle that has no place in the American legal system.
“Mr. Smollett is a young man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence and feels betrayed by a system that apparently wants to skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing,” the statement said.
After Smollett was charged, TNT’s celebrity battle-rap series “Drop the Mic” pulled an upcoming episode with him “in the interest of not being exploitative of an incredibly sensitive situation,” the network said in a statement.
The Fox studio that makes “Empire” publicly stood behind Smollett when he first reported the attack and as skepticism about it arose. But it declined comment Thursday about what happens next as he fights charges of filing a false police report.
Experts in the field of crisis management were pessimistic. The online mockery Smollett is taking is unlikely to stop, and it could hinder any attempt to re-emerge, said Eric Dezenhall, CEO of the public relations firm Dezenhall Resources.
“The thing it’s really hard to come back from is ridicule,” Dezenhall said. “It can be easier to come back from something just bad. In our culture the whiff of something dangerous has a certain street cred. But here we’re talking about a combination of malevolence and ridiculousness.”
Eden Gillott, president of Gillott Communications, offered a similar take.
“This could be a career-killer. We’ve seen this many times. Society has become more intolerant and unforgiving,” said Gillott, citing instances ranging from Kevin Spacey’s firing from “House of Cards” for alleged sexual misconduct to Megyn Kelly’s “Today” exit after she defended blackface costumes.
What Smollett is alleged to have done isn’t analogous to either one — or to just about anything that’s happened with a celebrity or prominent person in recent memory or in news files.
There have been stunts, such as Joaquin Phoenix’s role in a so-called documentary, “I’m Still Here,” directed by actor Casey Affleck and supposedly about Phoenix’s career as a rapper in decline. The film’s release came with public apologies and lawsuits attached.
Others have exaggerated their exploits, such as TV journalist Brian Williams’ account of being in a helicopter hit by a rocket in the 2003 Iraq invasion or Hillary Clinton’s 2008 account of landing under sniper fire during a 1990s trip as first lady.
But Smollett, instead of creating an image-burnishing fiction, positioned himself as a victim and the deserving centerpiece for outrage directed at his attackers. He said those who questioned him made him feel “victimized.”
The allegation that Smollett did it for money could be seen as both a betrayal and baffling, given what he earns: more than $1.8 million for the current 18-episode season of “Empire,” according to a person familiar with the situation.
Dezenhall said it would be tough for Smollett, who proclaimed himself innocent of the charges through his lawyers, to explain himself publicly.
“All of us have said something stupid, put something in an email we shouldn’t have — we can understand that. But very few of us would say, ‘I would orchestrate something like that to advance my career.’ There’s a difference between a mistake and a scheme,” Dezenhall said. His advice to Smollett: “’Vanish for a few years, take up a cause, devote yourself to doing something good, and revisit it later.’“
Or search out people like Kandi Burruss, the singer-songwriter and reality star.
“I consider him a friend. I love him and regardless of if it’s true or not, I’m still going to be here for him. I hate the situation but I don’t hate the person,” she told The Associated Press Thursday at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood luncheon.