Bamboo is one of the most useful plants on earth. It is used all over the world for food, building materials, medicine, musical instruments, paper, clothing and transportation. In India, it can also predict upcoming famine. India is now working on an emergency plan to deal with a famine that is expected to occur two years from now when vast forests of bamboo burst into flower.

Some species of bamboo flower only every 40 to 50 years. These periods of flowering can lead to the destruction of basic crops and cause widespread famine in areas of India where bamboo grows heavily.

The last bamboo famine occurred from 1961 through 1965 in over 12 thousand square miles of eastern India, affecting a population of more than 700,000. Reports suggest that another cycle of heavy bamboo flowering will happen in the same region in 2003, which prompted India to call an emergency meeting of its national planning body last week.

There are hundreds of species of bamboo in the world. Some flower every year, some at irregular intervals. But a small percentage of the plants flower all at once, over thousands of square miles. ?Science has to date not been able to explain how the same message is passed among bamboo clumps separated by hundred of kilometers to flower at the same time,? says botanist H. Y. Mohan Ram of the University of Delhi, who is one of the country?s foremost authorities on bamboo. When bamboo plants flower, they produce a large number of seeds, which are a delicious source of food for rats. Rats are attracted to the area and, fortified by the protein-rich seeds, they multiply rapidly. But the supply of bamboo seeds is limited. When all the seeds have been consumed, armies of marauding rodents turn their attention to other crops, devouring acres of rice, potatoes, and sweet potatoes within a few days. As a result, local peasants starve.

During past famines, the local government tried to reduce the rat population by offering a reward equivalent to $2.50 for every 100 rats killed. The rats? tails were submitted as evidence. When the most recent cycle of bamboo flowering began, villagers were killing about 500,000 rats a year. By the time the flowering peaked about two years later, the number had risen to 2.6 million rats killed every year.

The Indian government is devising a plan to deal with the cycle of bamboo flowering and famine that is expected to occur in 2003. The state has been ordered to increase stocks of food in the region and to store these provisions in rodent-proof silos. D. N. Tiwari, of the government Planning Commission, said officials were also considering replacing flowering varieties of bamboo with non-flowering ones. Farmers may also be instructed to plant crops that rats do not eat, such as ginger and turmeric, during the periods when vast fields of bamboo are expected to flower.

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