ALAMPUR GONPURA, INDIA (AFP) – The rat kept crawling over Mr Phekan Manjhi’s arm as he battled to pin it to the ground before he eventually managed to kill it with repeated blows to the head.
The execution drew applause from neighbours huddled around the 60-year-old in a grimy courtyard outside his mud and straw hut. Another meal lined up for the Rat Eaters – some of India’s poorest people.
Mr Phekan said it would take 15 minutes to prepare the rat stew, as he dissected the animal with his fingernails.
“Almost everyone here loves this and knows how it’s prepared,” he added.
Mr Phekan is one of about 2.5 million Musahars – ‘Rat Eaters’ – one of India’s most marginalised communities. Even the browbeaten low-caste Dalits look down on them.
“They are the poorest amongst the poorest and rarely hear about or get access to government schemes,” said Ms Sudha Varghese, who spent three-decades working among Musahars in the northern state of Bihar, where most live and survive as dollar-a-day labourers.
“It’s a daily struggle for the next meal and diseases like leprosy are an everyday reality,” added Ms Varghese, who was awarded India’s top civilian honour for her work.
Mr Phekan’s neighbour in the village of Alampur Gonpura, 28-year-old Rakesh Manjhi, bemoaned his life.
“We sit at home all day with nothing to do. Some days we get work at the farm, on other days we go hungry or catch rats and eat it with whatever little grain we can get,” Mr Manjhi said.
“Governments may have changed but nothing has changed for us. We still eat, live and sleep as our ancestors,” said Mr Phekan as he took the roasted rat off the fire and poked the tender meat.
He cut the flesh with his hands into a bowl and added mustard oil and salt.
The feast disappeared in seconds as a dozen men and half-naked children grabbed what they could.
“Nothing but education can change our lives and future,” said Mr Jitan Ram Manjhi, who in 2014 became the first Musahar chief minister of any Indian state.
His nine-month tenure heading Bihar, one of India’s most populous states, is considered a huge achievement for the Musahars.
“My community is so downtrodden that I think even government records don’t yet show its real numbers, which could easily be around eight million,” Chief Minister Manjhi added.
As a child, the former minister herded cattle for a rich landowner who employed his parents as labourers.
“They were almost like bonded labourers, getting one kilogram of grain for each day’s work. Even today, things haven’t changed much for many,” he added.
Bihar’s Welfare Department Minister Ramesh Rishidev insisted that life has improved for the Musahars.
“We’ve been working hard with the different communities, which includes the Musahars,” the minister said.
“Our workers go to the communities to get their young enrolled in schools. They are linked to government skills and training projects to get them employment opportunities,” he added.
Mr Rishidev said that while in the past the Musahars ate rats to stave off hunger, most now do so out of a “cultivated taste and not compulsion”.
“Some from the older generation still eat rats because it is like any other food they have. Most of the younger generation don’t eat it. Things have improved and will further change,” he added.