Mumbai’s losing battle with rats

Although not yet among 10 worst rat-infested cities in world, Mumbai is an unparalleled haven for rats

Representative image
Representative image

Aparna Joshi

A senior politician hogged headlines by alleging that in 2017, a staggering 319,400 rats were cleared out from inside Mumbai’s Mantralaya. In 2018, an RTI application did elicit the reply that more than 3,000 rats were killed/caught in the previous five years at municipal hospitals, 2,000 of them in the Nair Hospital alone in Mumbai Central.

The state human rights commission the same year ordered a compensation of Rs 2 lakh each to rat bite victims following a public uproar. But nothing has had much effect on the Mumbai rat. The Mumbai rat has emerged a tenacious survivor, much like its human counterpart in the city. It can survive the worst of rain and deluge, can live on anything that’s edible or not, and is remarkably indifferent to the surrounding din and dirt - the quintessential Mumbaikar!

Bombay in the late 1890s had witnessed a sudden and inexplicable increase in rodent population. The frisky creatures littered streets, clogged drains and turned up unwanted in homes.

The notorious Bombay plague had followed shortly thereafter. On an average 1900 people died every week for almost a year. Almost 200,000 people died. Thousands fled Bombay and several thousand others migrated to newer areas. The suburbs were thus born. By late 1899, the newly established Bombay Improvement Trust shifted the city’s main dumping ground from Mahalaxmi to Deonar. The humble rat had permanently altered the geography of Bombay.

Almost 125 years later, rats still hold the upper hand. The rodent population in the city continues to multiply and civic administrations have failed to curb their growth. Leptospirosis caused by bacteria spread by rat urine grabs headlines every monsoon, and the tiny platoon of Mumbai’s unique stick wielding Night Rat Killers keep fighting a losing battle.

Kalpish Ratna’s book ‘Room 000’, which traces the birth of the vaccine against the bubonic plague in the pharmacology department of the JJ Hospital, suggests that rats, not endemic to Bombay, slunk in as stowaways on ships coming from Hong Kong.

The book suggests that rats living in forests around Bombay were displaced by people flocking to the growing city for employment. The disease jumped the species and infected humans because their natural habitat was disturbed and carriers came into contact with humans. The plague called it quits just as suddenly in a few years but the rats have stayed on.

In the last four years, there have been more than half a dozen cases of patients’ toes and eyes being nibbled at in civic hospitals. During the lockdown in 2020, a librarian in the Mumbai small causes court library found that rats had eaten their way through some law books.

Leptospirosis has been the city’s bugbear for decades. Media reports say that since 2015, the city has recorded 1,576 cases of leptospirosis. The figure would be higher if one were to count the number of people being treated in private hospitals.

Rat traps, poison and fumigation have all been tried with mixed results. But the most attention-grabbing strategy has been the stick wielding army of night rat killers, who ferret out the rats from burrows, blind them with torches and bludgeon them with a stick.

A catch of 30 rats per night fetches them the promised income at the end of the night. To add to the problem, however, the rat killers are confined to the island city, and their numbers are woefully limited. Documentaries and films tracing their work and plight have done the film festival rounds but the Mumbai rats are unfazed.

All eight varieties of the rat species that call Mumbai home, continue to thrive. And like it or not, Mumbai’s for - tunes continue to be linked with the humble animal which once was responsible for altering its geography!

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