Monday, August 18, 2008

Krishnan Chinnapayan, a rat catcher from India's impoverished Irula community. Photo by Anuj Chopra

A better rat trap improves the lot of low Hindu caste

By Anuj Chopra

SIRIGUMI, INDIA -- 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 gray 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 3 million people at the bottom rung of the Hindu caste hierarchy who have often found themselves teetering on the brink of starvation.

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, while bringing them new respect. The Irulas, who were once jeered by many locals as "rodent assassins," are now being touted as saviors by many farmers...

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