The sun blazed down on Krishnan Chinnapayan as he stood on an arid patch of farmland, wiping his brow and preparing for what seemed like a military mission. "They can sense us," he said, pointing at a burrow nearby. "They are very clever creatures."
Through a hand-operated air pump attached to a cylindrical device, a torrent of smoke entered a deep burrow. Seconds later, from a gray blanket of smoke, Mr. Krishnan pulled out a huge brown rat, holding it by its tail.
In this impoverished tribal belt in southern Tamil Nadu state, catching rats has been a primary job for members of Chinnapayan's Irula tribe — a poor, disenfranchised community of 3 million people at the bottom rung of the Hindu caste hierarchy who have often found themselves at the brink of starvation.
But the introduction of innovative rat traps has remarkably reversed their plight. By curbing the number of rodents that have long menaced Indian farmers, the Irulas have seen their income triple in the past three years, while earning new respect. Once jeered by locals as the "rodent assassins," the Irulas are now being touted as saviors 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," says Siri Terjesen, a management professor at the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University who visited the Irulas last year.
With more than 100 million small farmers in the states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh — the two states where most Irulu live — seeking Irula services, the new rat trap is in great demand. Experts say rats are profligate breeders, with each female producing up to 1,000 offspring during her lifetime – up to 3-1/2 years. Each year, millions of tons of grains are lost to rats.
"By one estimate, if the entire rat menace were alleviated, India would be able to feed it entire population three times a day," said Professor Terjesan.
The Irulas previously relied on a traditional fumigation technique – lighting fires in a clay pot that covered rat burrows. But the catch was low — four to five rats a day. Since most farmers paid just a few cents per rat, the Irulas could barely eke out a living and faced health hazards from the method.
But that all changed in 2004 after the Development of Disadvantaged People in Chennai introduced a steel rat trap that increased the catch. With a hand-operated air pump, it prevented the burns and respiratory problems caused by the old technique. The average catch rose to between 15 and 20 rats daily.
With increased income, Irulas are sending their children to school to raise the current literacy rate from an abysmal 1 percent. More important, this rural innovation has brought a sense of pride to a community that had a gloomy sense of destiny as impoverished lower caste Hindus.
"Everyone wants to abandon their lives as rat catchers – a miserable existence that only brings shame," said one Iruli rat catcher. "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 Center for the Development of Disadvantaged People, presented the rat trap project to the World Bank. He then received a grant of $98,500, which enabled him to provide the traps free of charge to more than 4,000 Irula families across Tamil Nadu like Sirigumi. He plans to eventually provide them to all Irula families – most of whom are too poor to buy one – through a credit installment plan.
The new traps could also reach Indian cities looking for nontoxic rat control.