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PATNA, India (AP) -- With food prices rising, one of India's poorest states is considering adding rat meat to the menus of state-run canteens, a move officials in Bihar say could help provide cheap protein for the state's 80 million people, most of whom live off the land as poor sharecroppers or subsistence farmers.
"People in different parts of the world eat lizards and dogs. Why not rats?" the state's tribal welfare minister, Jeetan Ram Manjhi, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
While the suggestion -- there are no firm plans to start marketing rat meat just yet -- may seem repulsive to many inside and outside India, eating rats is not unheard of in Bihar.
Among the poorest people in Bihar are a tribe known as Musahars, whose traditional place in the India's caste system was to catch rats, which they would cook and eat along with the rice and wheat they recovered from rat holes.
That's changed in the last few decades as many Musahars, under pressure from higher castes that consider rat eating unclean, stopped dining on the creatures, although they are still paid to catch and kill them by farmers.
But Manjhi, who is one of Bihar's 2 million Musahars, says the rodents are tasty and hopes the practice could be revived and popularized by putting the rodents on the menu at canteens in government offices.
"We've been enjoying eating rats since our childhood," he said. "When vegetables get expensive, it's what we eat."
Another official, State Welfare Department Secretary Vijay Prakash, said last week that popularizing rat meat could also help Musahars, the vast majority of whom are bitterly poor and uneducated.
India's elaborate caste system divides people into hundreds of social tiers defined by ethnicity, class, history and livelihood.
Discrimination along caste lines had been outlawed for decades but remains prevalent, especially in largely rural and poor parts of eastern India like Bihar.