Mumbai’s rat race

It’s a dirty job, but catchers feel fortunate to do it

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MUMBAI | 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. 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, Mr. 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 down his body with soap.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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 also has worsened inequality.

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

The Sheikh family does not live in that India.

Instead, they curl themselves, all 15 of them, into a 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 ages 18 to 30 need apply. They must be able to lift a 110-pound sack and run a few miles. They must demonstrate their ability to catch and kill a rat in the dark within 10 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 need jobs badly. The last time the city recruited, he said, more than 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 a half-dozen years, a man might be moved to the day shift, laying traps and setting poison bait. But there is little else to pursue.

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