Mumbai’s Rat Killers: Boon or Bane?

By webadmin on 12:37 pm May 23, 2012
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Madhu Nainan – Straits Times

Mumbai. Rashid Khan has a job most people would not envy. Around midnight when the city is asleep, rats of all sizes emerge from underground to feast around rubbish dumps and elsewhere.

Wearing a khaki uniform, he wades into a rubbish dump in central Mumbai and scratches the ground with the bloody metal-tipped end of a bamboo stick he carries.

This sound and the scent of rat blood from earlier killings is enough to attract a couple of big furry rodents. He shines a flashlight into the eyes of the nearest one, momentarily blinding it, raises the stick and brings it down with a ‘thwack’ on the rat’s head, killing it with a single blow.

Khan (not his real name as he is not allowed to speak to the media), 45, is one of Mumbai’s night rat killers, or NRKs as he and 43 others in his grisly profession are known, with 15 years’ experience. But now he and other NRKs could be out of a job.

Early this month, the government-run Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) sent a letter to the city administration in India’s commercial hub asking it to stop this “inhuman” practice. Instead, rats should be killed using humane methods, the board said.

“We came across this practice when clearing a film on the rat catchers of Mumbai,” said S. Chinny Krishna, vice-chairman of the AWBI. “We saw people going into the city’s sewers and slums, catching rats and smashing them to death. This is cruel to the animal. It also dehumanizes and desensitizes the people who clobber the rat to death, splattering its blood all around.”

But Mumbai has a people population of 18 million — more than half of whom live in squalid rat and mice-infested slums. India’s most populous city Mumbai is also home to glitzy Bollywood stars as well as top industrialists such as the country’s richest man Mukesh Ambani. Its people generate more than 8,000 tons of garbage daily, most of it overflowing around open refuse containers, making them a paradise for rats, mice and other vermin.

While there are no estimates of the number of rats in the city, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corp (BMC), which manages the city, has spent 7.5 million rupees ($135,750) to kill 1.1 million rats since 2007 — and their numbers are growing by 10 percent a year.

When the monsoon rains drench Mumbai from mid-June to end-September, residents are at risk of getting potentially fatal leptospirosis and other illnesses carried by infected rats.

NRKs have emerged as the city’s best line of offense against the rats. During the last financial year that ended March 31, they had killed 375,000 rodents, whereas 200,000 rats had been trapped and 100,000 poisoned in the city’s 24 administrative wards.

The Mumbai authorities have yet to act on the AWBI letter.

“AWBI says rats should not be clubbed to death,” said BMC’s pesticide officer Arun Bamne. “But (it doesn’t) say how we should control the rat population.”

Another official said poison does not work well.

“The rodents’ bodies quickly learn to fight the chemicals and it’s hard to keep using new forms of poison to keep ahead of their immune systems,” he said.

Meanwhile, Khan goes about his nightly work. He has to kill 30 rats every night, six nights a week, and is paid per rat killed.

Any shortfall in the nightly quota has to be made up over the next couple of nights or else his pay is cut. On average, he earns about 9,000 rupees a month.

After three hours of killing at two rubbish dumps, he completes one night’s quota. He puts the carcasses into a plastic bag salvaged from the dump.

In the morning, at the local BMC office, his supervisor will count the dead rats before they are transported to the state-run Haffkine Institute where epidemiologists inspect 5 per cent of the carcasses to check if they carry the bubonic flea. They are then buried at a landfill on the city outskirts.

Despite the gory nature of his job, Khan sees himself as essential to the city’s well-being.

“These rodents burrow around the base of buildings, destroy so much food and are carriers of diseases,” he pointed out.

Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times