As India rises, its rat catchers toil in darkness

Sabid Ali Sheikh stands on a prairie of trash — old onions, excrement, animal bones — slowly rotting its way back into an earth riddled with rat burrows. Sometimes the ground gives way under his feet.

It is after midnight, and Sheikh is after the rats. He listens for them. He tries to catch their red eyes in the sweep of his flashlight. Some rat killers say they can smell them in the dark.

Sheikh, 23, is a night rat killer, one of 44 employed by the city of Mumbai to wage its long, losing war against vermin.

Barely taller than the killing stick he uses to ply his trade, Sheikh is a clean man, dressed in elaborately embroidered jeans and a crisp shirt, who thinks himself lucky to have even this dirty work.

When he goes home, he will scrub his body down with soap.

Sheikh's father is also a rat catcher. His brothers sell vegetables from a cart and wish they could be rat catchers too.

If he ever has children, he hopes they sit in an office from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m.

But given what modern India has to offer the Sheikh family, the children may well end up standing precisely where Sheikh stands now: ankle-deep in the soft earth of a stinking dump, wearing old flip-flops.


Even as India's booming economy overflows with opportunities for the educated and well-connected, minting new millionaires by the dozen, some 800 million people toil on the dark side of the Indian dream. India's boom has lifted many people out of poverty, but it has also worsened inequality.

Put aside for a moment those stories about a great nation of engineering geniuses, billionaires and youthful promise, whose economy might one day outpace China's.

The Sheikh family does not live in that India.

Instead, they curl themselves, all 15 of them, into a 13-square-meter (140-square-foot) space with peeling paint, tattered plastic bags to hold their clothes and a fan that leaves everyone sweating.

In this India, a job with the city, even if it involves killing rats, is a thing to fight for. It means security, more precious than wealth.

The competition for rat catcher jobs in Mumbai is stiff. Only men aged 18 to 30 need apply. They must be able to lift a 50 kilogram (110 pound) sack and run a few kilometers (miles). They must demonstrate their ability to catch and kill a rat in the dark within ten minutes.

Each rat catcher must kill 30 rats a night, six nights a week. If he doesn't make the quota, he doesn't get paid.

Arun Bamne of the city's insecticide department, which oversees the rat-catching, says people badly need jobs. The last time the city recruited, he said, over 4,000 people — some with university degrees — applied for 33 rat catcher positions.

Joining the war on rats can lead, with time and diligence, to a desk job in a fan-cooled administrative office. After half a dozen years, a man might be moved to the day shift, laying traps and setting poison bait. But there is little else to look forward to.

As a daily wage laborer, still hoping for a permanent job with the city, Sheikh says he makes 12,000 rupees ($271) a month, if he makes his quota. That's slightly less than a city bus driver, at 13,000 rupees ($293) a month, or an entry-level call center worker, 15,000 rupees ($338).

His father, Jahed Gabul Sheikh, 56, has been a rat catcher for 30 years. He makes 17,000 ($383) rupees a month.

"I am trying my best to get the city to hire my other sons," he said. "All my kids know how to catch rats very well. But the city doesn't employ them."

Sabid, his son, said his friends envy him his steady paycheck.

"A government job is a very secure job," he said. "Everyone wants to be famous and known. But this is my destiny. Everything you wish will not come true."


India seems to exist in multiple historical epochs simultaneously — nowhere more starkly than here, amid the crumbling stone walls and old goat bones of the Sathe Nagar housing colony in a northern suburb of India's financial capital, Mumbai, formerly called Bombay.

One side of the neighborhood is edged by a high shining fence beyond which lies 21st century India: the Bhabha Atomic Research Center, the country's premier nuclear research facility.

On this side of the fence, people live in a vaguely medieval place where need outweighs hope and there is still talk of the plague.

To the south is a 50-acre slaughterhouse, one of the largest in Asia. To the north is a city dump.

In other words, rat heaven.

The alleyways between buildings are frothy with trash.

Look closer.

In the faint light of the windows, the ground is alive with rats. A twitching nose peeks from a crevice in the wall. A rat tail vanishes down a hole.

Sabid Sheikh waits.

The trick is to catch the rat's eye and shine a flashlight in its face. The rodent freezes like a deer in headlights.


If perfectly aimed, a single blow can kill a rat. But most do not surrender meekly.

Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!

And so it goes until the rat lies windmilling its legs and expires in a final, furious shudder.

If the rat catcher's aim or courage fails, the rat may scurry into a hole or drain pipe, forcing the man to reach in, barehanded, and extract it by the tail.

If the rodent ventures too far in, the catcher may daub the end of his killing stick with rat's blood to lure it out.

Sheikh's favorite technique is to grab the rat by the tail and twirl it above his head like a whirligig before bashing its head against a wall. If it still doesn't die, he will grind its head into the ground with his heel.

By 1:30 a.m., Sheikh and two other rat catchers have packed 94 dead and dying rats into two bloodied sacks to be carted away in a rickshaw, counted by the city, and samplings taken to be tested for bubonic plague.

They smell so bad that the rickshaw driver pulls over and vomits.


Sheikh's youngest brother, Wasim, tagged along and killed a few rats too. He is about 14, and some months back his father made a cell phone video of him in action. There is young Wasim, dragging a rat as big as his forearm from a trap and smacking it to death. His mom giggles as she watches the video.

Such is the parents' pride, they could be watching their son playing the heroic lead in a school play.

"Now he's putting his hand in the burrow," the father said, beaming. "I'm never worried about disease. I have faith in God."

He sees himself as a public servant, ridding the city of vermin for the greater good of its citizens.

Besides, he had no choice.

At age 8, he set forth on a 36-hour train ride, alone, from his village to meet his father in Mumbai. Before boarding he went to a mosque. "I prayed to God for a job in Bombay," he said. "I prayed for money. I prayed for a settled life."

For 10 years he hawked peanuts and puffed rice to crowds at a commuter train station while his father did odd jobs, baking the flat bread called roti or collecting scrap metal.

They slept on footpaths.

One day a woman came up to Jahed Sheikh and asked if he wanted to work for the city.

"She changed my life by giving me that job I desperately needed," he said. "Now it's my kids' turn."

Sometimes, drunks would tease him for having nothing in life. Once, he got beaten up. But he knows he has more than nothing: He has nine children and a daughter-in-law who makes excellent biryani. He has a stick-thin wife who sits quietly by his side.

And he has a job, which is not a gift Mumbai gives easily to men like Sheikh. All around him, as India's richest city gets richer, Sheikh and his sons remain trapped in a painfully slow cycle of aspiration. He only hopes his children get as lucky a break as he did.

"I'm happy with what I have. I came to Bombay. I had nothing. I got this job," he said. "Now I pray to God that all my sons get employed."