Vilas Ubhare, 23 years old, is getting ready for work. Rolling his trousers to his knees, he reveals a set of well-used calves and then covers his face with a white handkerchief; only his attentive eyes peek out. He then purposefully clatters the metal-head of a wooden stick on the road and checks the battery of his heavy-duty flashlight.
With three other young men in the team, all tiptoeing, Vilas edges down a backstreet. The team has only a couple of hours to finish their job—killing at least 30 rats each before the 4-a.m. rattle of the local train network starts to wake the city up.
Experts say there are about six rats for each citizen of Mumbai. Looking at the subcontinent’s dark history of bubonic plague outbreaks—an infection borne by the fleas of rodents—this numerical threat looms over India’s largest megacity. The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai continues to leave traps and poison to clear the city streets of the diseased vermin. But it’s the presence of the dedicated crew of Night Rat Killers—a team of young men who bring their homegrown experience of street rodent slaying—that residents consider the most effective and ingenious way to push back against the tide.
Picking their way through rotten garbage and slush, Vilas’s team walks into a narrow back alley. they stand quietly, reaching the damp and squalid dead end. It’s pitch dark here, and only the screeching of rats flittering on the mounds of garbage is heard. Ubhare flashes his torch, focused on a rat, blinding it momentarily. With a whack of his metal-head stick, he kills it in an instant. the other members follow suit; a sudden burst of torch flashes in the dark garbage as loud thwacks sound out in the street. When the men walk back into the yellow glow of the streetlight, clenched fists reveal a bunch of dead rats dangling by their tails.
“Its not so difficult to kill them. There are so many of them in the city, wherever you look!” says Mahesh Sawdekar, counting his bunch. More than 1,300 rats are killed every night, averaging more than 400,000 each year.
Sunil Gaekwad is one of the 30 young men chosen from 2,000 who applied for the job. “I killed 14 rats in 20 minutes to pass the test,” beams Gaekwad, speaking about the competitive written and physical test that the applicants prepare for in their own rat-infested neighborhoods. the young recruits in the 44-member team receive 400 rupees (USd 7) every night to kill at least 30 rats. Failure to kill the minimum means daily wages are not paid in full.
As the city wakes up, Vilas’s team returns with their bounty to the city corporation office. A small fraction of the rats will be sent to a laboratory to be tested for bubonic plague; the rest are incinerated or taken to the municipal dump.
The team straggles home from another successful night. Rats are laid out on the rough pavement to be counted and segregated. From above, nearby residents toss garbage from their windows into the fetid back alleys, blissfully unaware of the young men below, who carry on a brutal task to keep a megacity livable.