There is something of a swagger about Vilas Ubhare when he sets about killing a rat.
His stick comes down fast, the rat is dispatched and then in a fluid, unbroken motion Mr Ubhare hooks his toe under the rodent’s tail, flips the corpse into the air and catches it neatly in a sack. It is like watching a footballer perform tricks in the park.
Mr Ubhare is among a 44-strong team that represents the frontline in the battle against an estimated 88m rats besieging India’s largest metropolis. Every night he and his colleagues endure filthy conditions and the risk of disease to kill rats with nothing more than a metal-tipped stick and a torch. Should they fail to meet their quota of 30 rodents by the time the sun comes up, they have 24 hours to make up the shortfall or lose a day’s pay.
Yet these rat catchers – deemed essential by the city authorities and recently the subject of a documentary shown at Cannes – are under threat. Animal rights activists want to put an end to the rat-killing, saying it is inhumane. Officials say the matter it is being considered.
Sometimes it seems rats are everywhere in Mumbai. They scurry in the quiet, tree-lined streets of Colaba and pause late at night on the platform at Churchgate station as the last, weary commuters make their way home to the suburbs. The damp, cramped conditions, with rubbish and litter strewn in the streets, creates an ideal environment for vermin and a report earlier this year estimated the rat population was growing annually by 10 per cent. Slum areas such as Dharavi and Govandi are said to be home to the most.
The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (BMC) employs various ways of tackling the issue, including traps and poison, but insists that the night rat killers (NRK) play an essential role. Yogesh Naik, an official with the sanitation department, said he only wishes there were more.
“We only have 44 rat killers. They can cover from Churchgate to Dadar. We’d like to enlarge the area we cover. We need 200 to cover the whole city,” he said, saying that they were currently filling 92 more positions. “The problem is red tape.”
Indeed, despite the unsavoury aspects of the position, competition for the positions, which come with the benefits of a government job and a monthly salary of around 160GBP, is intense. When the authorities last advertised for 30 positions they received 2,000 applications, including that of a college graduate. “It’s because unemployment is going up,” said Mr Naik.
Shortly after midnight on a recent, humid weekday, Mr Ubhare and two other night rat killers, Milind Ganapat and Tushar Tirai, pulled up on their scooters outside a block of apartments in the Lower Parel neighbourhood. Apart from their sticks and torches, they had no equipment and dressed in normal clothes and sandals.
“We have the torch. When we see a rat, we flash the light at its head,” said Mr Tirai, who completed his secondary education “The rat gets a shock and for a few seconds it freezes. It is in those seconds that we have to hit it. If we miss, it runs away.”
Yet killing rats was not a simple or straightforward task, Mr Tirai said. A stunned rat could bite or jump at the ankles and the waste and urine carried disease. [While there has not been an outbreak of plague for decades in the city, it has occurred in neighbouring states and every day the dead rats are tested by scientists.]
With Mr Ganapat nursing an injured hand and holding the bag for the bodies, Mr Tirai and Mr Ubhare set off into the darkness looking for rats, trying not to slip on rotting garbage. To the right, Mr Tirai’s torch flashed dimly, followed by a soft whack and he soon appeared bearing a dead rat. Mr Ubhare poked at a hole on the side of some exposed concrete and soon he had his first kill. Within a matter of minutes, they had killed half-a-dozen.
There was a pride and professionalism about their work and Mr Ubhare, in particular, was confident about his abilities. He said his record haul for a single night was 210, a figure that he believed had not been bettered by anyone within the department - at least not for many years.
The men talked about a piece of sanitation department lore relating to an employee from the early 1990s. “He had this special skill. With just the sound of his whistle he could attract the rats and then he could kill them,” said Mr Ubhare.
Yet some activists want to stop the rat killers. Earlier this summer, the Animal Welfare Board of India, a statutory body that advises the government, wrote to the BMC asking them to stop clubbing the rats and instead catch them and euthanise them humanely.
The organisation’s vice chairman, Chinny Krishna, said if there was a less cruel way of killing the rats it should be used. He added: “It’s not just that it’s cruel. We asked them to stop because it desensitises the human beings who are doing it. We have no business desensitising people in this way.” A spokesman for the BMC said a committee would be formed to look into the request.
Earlier this year, audiences at Cannes were shown an award-winning documentary, The Rat Race, which details the lives the night rat killers. It was subsequently shown at cinemas in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Among those featured was an employee with 37 years’ experience.
The director, Miriam Chandy Menacherry, said she did not believe the men had become traumatised by their work and said they were performing an invaluable task. “The rat killers should be given better facilities when they are sick or get hurt on the job and better equipment to do their job,” she said. “Most importantly, they should be recognised and given the respect they deserve as they work past midnight when the rest of the city is asleep and no one even knew about their work until my documentary.”
The rat killers themselves say they are proud of the work they do and their roles. Sometime after lunchtime the day after the trio of rat killers had been working in Lower Parel, Milind Ganapat answered his phone with an update on the night’s haul. “It was not easy,” he said. “But we each met our quota.”