This article belongs to With a Grain of Piquant Salt column.

Are rats cute? Just look at Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse. They have an entire carnival of their own and a worldwide business around them! Theme parks galore! We have movies about a rat that turns into the amazing chef in the 2007 film Ratatouille. They are holy and auspicious as well.

The Hindu God Ganesh's favourite animal is a rat (or is it a mouse?). And this year is the Chinese Year of the Rat and in Chinese terms, a rat is supposed to represent protection and prosperity. But rats are actually not cuddly creatures and can legitimately be said to be a fully paid up member of the team of the four horsemen of the apocalypse (Plague, Death, War, Conquest) In a recent news report, the leading exterminator company in the UK talked about how the population of rats is increasing rapidly and has nearly doubled over the past few years. Not only doubled, but even more.

This is because more and more of the British lands are being concreted over, so the rats do not have space to dig and create their burrows. Also because of the recent floods, they had to evacuate their burrows and move to higher ground. Hundreds of tons of food grains have been eaten by these furry creatures, but then, thousands and thousands tons more of food grains are eaten by these disgusting creatures across the world. I don't like rats (mice, bandicoots, every disgusting type of vermin), miserable creatures. I hate their beady eyes and how they scuttle across the rooms, good chef or cute mouse notwithstanding. My association to them goes back to my school days when one of my teachers used to regularly abuse us by calling us as station rats.

Now, I don't know if you have seen Indian railway station rats, but they are huge, scurry around in the excreta and muck and look absolutely filthy. So I am afraid they are not my cup of tea at all. They are nasty things. They carry germs, disease and infection and god knows what else? There is a very good reason that food inspectors hate seeing rats in a kitchen, and when I saw that rat in Ratatouille actually clutch a piece of cheese to its plague ridden fur, I couldn't stop shuddering. That went into the food that they were feeding their customers? Foul. It is the rats who also carry the fleas which transmitted the plague virus.

It was because of their germ carrying capacity that tens of millions of humans died in the ravages of the black plague which have regularly swept through the world down the ages. This huge decimation of the population caused major dislocations to kingdoms, lead to wars, changed the path of the Christian Church and caused huge and brutal persecutions of minorities such as Jews (who were said to have caused the plague). Rats also have been the cause of terrorism (near war) breaking out. In the misty mountains of Northeast India is a forgotten state called Mizoram. Almost forty years ago, a special type of bamboo flowered hugely across certain areas across the Mizoram and Bangladesh border. Its flowers are delicious and full of goodness.

Well, because they are so good and nutritious, the rats eat them and grow huge. Not only that, they nearly double their breeding rate (from four to eight times in one year). Considering that you can end with about ten baby-rats in a litter, and female rats become fertile in a matter of months, you can see how the rat population can explode, and so it did! When it did, they ravaged through the bamboo forests eating everything in sight. When there was no bamboo left, they went for the crops and soon, there was widespread famine in these parts of the land.

Typically, and contrary to what Amartya Sen says, famines do occur in democracies, especially weak and corrupt ones such as India. This famine and lack of government support can be directly attributable to the rise of Mizo nationalism, the bitter Mizo terrorist campaign, the one and only bombing by the Indian Air Force on Indian citizens and eventual peace after thousands of deaths and decades of fighting. As an aside, this bamboo flowering happens once every fifty-odd years and it is happening again now. Rats have already devoured all the flowers and have already eaten a huge amount of crops in the Mizoram state and Bangladesh side. Almost forty thousand tons of food has been destroyed in the Indian side itself, while some Bangladeshi districts are reporting up to 100% food stock destruction.

The Mizoram government has a bounty out on them and is paying about 2.5 pence or 2 Rupees for each rat tail delivered (see a fascinating picture here). And the last time a huge famine hit Bangladesh, war broke out. Strangely enough, while rats were the cause of terrorism, other RATS are being formed to fight terrorism. A very interesting grouping, called as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which comprises of the central Asian republics, Russia, China and some others, signed the "Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism, and Extremism" in 2001. As part of this convention, a Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) was set up in Tashkent. While it is difficult to analyse its performance, it claims to have prevented more than 250 acts of terrorism so far.

And heaven knows - that area is full of those terror rats. Ranging from the Uyghur's in China to the Chechnyans in Russia, Kurds in Iran to Islamists everywhere else, all these terror rats need to be flushed out, and what better way than to set a RAT to catch a rat? Not only that, the US military research arm, DARPA, is turning rats into remote controlled animals who can go up ladders, sneak into ruins, under the ground, etc. on commands which electronically manipulate their pleasure centres. So they can be used for land mine clearance, for reconnaissance, for earthquake rescue under collapsed buildings, and generally be good. Nothing wrong with it, the rats love being pleasured and if in return for pleasure, they do something nice for us, I am all for it. As a matter of fact, there is a pretty nice cocktail called as a Sewer Rat, made of Vodka, Peach schnapps, Kahlua and Orange juice.

It is an acquired taste, I am afraid. And so is eating them, rat meat is considered to be a delicacy across quite a large swathe of the world and here's a good site with some recipes (if you can stomach that!). Do you remember the scene in the Demolition Man, where Sylvester Stallone wakes up in the future and gets all weird rabbit/processed food to eat. He is dying for some "proper" American food and then he spots this tiny dingy place selling burgers and he dives into the shop and starts to eat burgers with huge big bites. Idly asking about the burger, he learns that it is made of rat meat. But despite a moment of hesitation, he crams the burger down while saying, "This is a rat burger? Good burger!" I suppose I can agree with that quote, "I eat meat not because I like meat but because I hate animals", so perhaps I will try a rat burger one of these days. Meanwhile, the impact of rats on food grains is much more important, and the loss of food to rats, the scarcity of food grains, the rapidly rising food inflation can well lead to war and terrorism all again. All this to be taken with a grain of salt! Technorati Tags: Healthcare,Agriculture,Inflation,Terrorism