A better rat trap has led to a better life for the Irula tribe in Tamil Nadu state in southeastern India.
The Irulas are one of the lowest groups in the Hindu social order. They live in rural poverty. Many work as rat catchers in farm fields. Farmers pay them a few cents for each rat they kill.
The traditional way they catch rats is to light a fire in a clay pot. They blow air through a small hole in the bottom to send smoke into the underground spaces where rats live.
Then, for food, the catchers dig out the rats and any grain stored in their burrows. But often the rats escape, and the rat catchers get burned on their lips and hands. Many also suffer lung and heart disease from breathing the smoke.
Several years ago, the director of the Center for the Development of Disadvantaged People in Chennai looked for a better way. Sethu Sethunarayanan worked with a mechanical engineer to design a steel trap.
With the new trap, the rat catcher still forces smoke into the burrow. But the trap is attached to an air pump operated by hand. The catcher no longer needs to blow into the trap. And the pump has a wooden handle to prevent burns to the hands.
The Irulas asked for and received almost one hundred thousand dollars from the World Bank. They used the money to establish a factory to build the traps. It employs fifty women. The traps are sold for about twenty-five dollars each.
Rats can destroy twenty-five percent of a crop. The improved rat trap has saved tons of grain.
With the clay pots, rat catchers succeed only forty percent of the time. Some catchers could not earn enough money to feed their families. The steel trap succeeds ninety-five percent of the time.
An expert on international business visited Tamil Nadu and wrote a case study about the tribal rat catchers. Siri Terjesen from Texas Christian University is now a visiting assistant professor at Indiana University. Her report appeared last November in the journal Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice.
India has about three million Irulas. Ninety-nine percent cannot read or write. But now, with the better rat trap, they are earning more money. More are getting health care. And other Indians may think better of them for using modern technology. But more importantly, Siri Terjesen says many Irula children now go to school instead of catching rats.