License to kill

November 18, 2011

By Danish Siddiqui


Mumbai provides everyone living in it with an opportunity to earn and survive. Be it a white-collared job in a multinational company located in one of the city’s plush high rise buildings or killing rats by night in the filthiest and dirtiest parts of India’s financial capital. This time, my tryst was with the latter.

I decided I wanted to meet Mumbai’s rat-killer army employed by the city’s civic body. Very little is known about this tireless force that works the bylanes of the metropolis every night. Mumbai’s municipal corporation employs 44 rat killers and also has a freelance contingent, who aspire to be on the payrolls one day. Employees of the pest control department receive a salary of 15,000 to 17,000 Indian Rupees ($294 to 333) while contract laborers are paid 5 Indian rupees ($0.10) per rat they kill. The rat killers are expected to kill at least 30 rodents per night and hand over the carcasses to civic officials in the morning. If they fall short by even one rodent, they are expected to make it up the next night or else they stand to lose a day’s pay.

I zeroed in on a family living in the eastern suburbs of Mumbai, six of whom kill rats for a living. The oldest of them is Javed Sheikh, 61, who has been killing rats for the last four decades. The youngest rat-killer, on the other hand, is Javed’s son, 12-year old Waseem Sheikh. Only the father and the eldest son are employed by the sanitation department of Mumbai’s municipal corporation; the rest work as freelancers.

On the first day, as I went through dingy dark lanes with busted sewage pipelines, I realized this was not going to be easy. The biggest problem was the low light I had to shoot in. I also had to learn how to tread softly so the rats were not alerted by the sound of my shoes. I dropped the idea of wearing a face mask too, as it carries the risk of detaching you from your subject.

The next few days I spent chasing rats and rat killers from open fields to slaughterhouses to lanes that one would not venture into for obvious reasons. The first couple of these days were a bit tough, as I seemed to be making a little too much noise while walking. I made a tough decision to get rid of my shoes for the rest of the shoot days and switched to my flip-flops which made less noise.

The whole business of killing rats may seem easy but it requires really sharp eyesight to spot rats in pitch darkness. After spotting a rat the rat killers switch on the torch and point it directly at the rat’s eyes, blinding it for a few seconds, which gives them an opportunity to hit the rat with a stick. Sometimes, the rat killers put their hands in the holes, pulling the rats out by their tails and then killing them by banging their heads on the ground or a wall.

It all sounds unpleasant and probably unspeakable for some in society, but this is what Javed, his son Waseem and four others in his family have been doing to earn their daily bread. Javed has only known this way to feed the mouths of his family for the past 40 years. Mumbai is regarded as the city of dreams in India but it appears that some dreams have to go through dark and mucky lanes before they can bear fruit.


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This is a truly fascinating subject. Rats are obnoxious creatures.We know the devastation rats had in Europe in the 1500′s. I hope to see this as a indie film soon. As much as those little creatures freak me out, it’s good to know someone is dealing with them in a lethal manner.

Posted by cm3kz0ut | Report as abusive

I hope that the rising wave of capitalist industrialists in India do not get between these rat workers and the government – that will mean less pay for the workers (and even greater enrichment of the ‘rich’ in India.

Posted by algernon3 | Report as abusive

What a hard job. Ones have everything, others have almost nothing. Not easy to believe in justice.

Posted by kasia07 | Report as abusive

I think we should invest more in research for better ways to kill rodents than the conventional beating method

Posted by Rajionline | Report as abusive

I agreewith algernon3….let them work and have dignity!It is a great servicethey provide.

Posted by thommy | Report as abusive

First i would like to congratulate India for a Nature friendly way of killing rats and creating jobs!
Second, i would like to state my huge admiration for Mr. Javed Sheikh’s craft, which he and his sons have been improving over long years of work! I have to recognise how amazing it is to have acquired the know-how of catching and killing rats with an improvised stick and in such an efficient way (900 hundred rats per month!). Defenitly, they are highly skilled workers.
Thirdly, if i get it right, Mr. Sheikh and his family always managed to get money to live from their own work, and i supose they never received benefits from state or other sources, so they have every reason to be proud of themselves. I am sure they are very respectable persons.
Congratulations for the Sheikh family, because you are winners!

Posted by patry | Report as abusive

Rats are undoubtedly a menace to the well being of clean and hygienic living. It is good to learn of the poor how very pathetically they earn their livihood in a country that would be known as an Economical Super Power of the South East Asia.

I suppose the condition would improve if concerned people of India could forget their age old living standard habit in slam area during their days of slavery under British rule.

If they would have forgotten it then they would clean up the entire area infested with rats and engaged the rat killers with new jobs with enhanced salary to contribute meaning fully to the development of the nation.

I sincerely believe that these hard working rat killer labor class is better than the big fat corrupt rats that are eating away the marrow of the country, getting fat salary and contributing to the earning of bad names to the country.

May be the government spend some money to clean up the area infested with rats and other menaces in a city of name and fame. To let it stay as it is would over and above having earned the reputation of bad name of being miser Land grabbing, water source grabbing, and continental shelve grabbing country of neighbor countries, being a Economical Supper Power of South East Asia, does not sound good and goes well with such reputation together with the condition of slam area that the writer of the article has so kindly exposed to open the eyes of the government to take immediate action before long the people rise up against the ineptness of the government for decades.’

It is indeed very regrettable for a rising Super Power. People may differ but with what intent?

Posted by KINGISKING | Report as abusive

Ukraine can offer its stray dogs. They will kill rats for free…just to eat something! dexa.php?asearch=TRUE&event_id=430326

Posted by bavit | Report as abusive

Importing Ukraine stray dogs above the existing Indian stray dogs is a great idea of the economist of India. I am sure Ukraine would be too happy to export its stray dogs.

Why not send a proposal to the Indian government for a quick action on this brilliant break through idea of importing Ukraine dogs to kill Indian rats?

Posted by KINGISKING | Report as abusive

Screw the Ukrainian idea. There are enough Jack Russell Terriers here in the U.S. that nobody wants. They thrive on killing rats!

Posted by visceralcarnage | Report as abusive