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In India, new rat trap boosts low-caste tribe

The new device has enabled the Irula people to quadruple their daily catch. Once ridiculed, they're now called 'saviors' by farmers.

Smoking out the rodents: The old traps yielded only five rats a day, compared with 20.

Anuj Chopra

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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.

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