Bombay's Rat Patrol Takes on the Plague
BOMBAY--The pit is about a dozen feet wide, roughly 60 feet deep, and contains exactly 442,186 dead rats. No more, no less; the sanitation authorities in the Bombay suburb of Deonar have not been able to make their incinerator function in years, but they can keep books. Jumbled together are slick sewer rats, cat-size bandicoots and members of the genus Rattus rattus, the common house rat, which has brought the plague back to western India after nearly a half century's respite. "Outdoor vermin we can gas in their burrows," says Deepak Adsul, ratcatcher. "But indoor rodents must be trapped one by one." The favored bait is a blend of wheat, vegetable oil and coriander. A few of the trapped rats are taken to a laboratory for examination. The rest are drowned, doused with formaldehyde and dumped in the pit.
Man kills rat and rat kills man. Fleas carried by rats caused the first outbreak of plague two weeks ago in Surat, a few hours' north of here. There, 54 people died, 600 more were apparently infected and a fourth of the population--400,000 people--fled. The exodus spread the disease to numerous other towns. Although no cases were reported in Bombay, two people died last week in New Delhi, India's capital.
Rupees and rat tails. Early in this century, Bombay tried to combat the plague by paying members of the Vaddar caste 1 rupee for every 100 rats caught. More than 13 million rat tails were turned in--roughly one for each human victim during the plague's worst years. Antibiotics, introduced in the 1940s, will cure plague but cannot prevent it. Dr. Alka Karande, a Bombay municipal health officer, bemoans the fact that so many healthy residents are dosing themselves with tetracycline. "Beyond a few days," she says, "this actually weakens their immunity." Only vast improvements in urban hygiene will cut off future outbreaks.
Surat has long borne the moniker "Filthiest City" in India. Waterlogged carcasses of nearly 1,000 cattle, victims of a heavy monsoon season, have littered streets since August. But vast accumulations of garbage afflict much of the subcontinent. "It is utopian to think we will control the vermin through traps and poison alone," says P.R. Deobhankar, head of Bombay's rat patrol. "We must wholly deprive them of food and shelter." Trash is collected only on public streets, and residents of close-packed housing blocks often leave their refuse to rot in courtyards, alleys and hallways. "Our employees are only 115," Deobhankar says, "while our enemy numbers over 50 million."
On a street corner far from Deonar's dump, a woman is picking through a huge pile of rubbish. She competes against a posse of crows, stray cats and two pariah dogs with sagging teats stained brown by raw sewage. This is not in a slum but in Bombay's swank Malabar Hill. As a result of corrupt contractors and paralytic unions, even posh neighborhoods find their garbage collected only occasionally, and they are now on the brink of a statewide emergency. The woman's daughter is playing happily with a plastic bottle she found in the trash. Trash, home to the rat. Rat, home to the flea. Flea, home to the plague.
[Map is not available.]
[Map labels]: INDIA; Bombay; Surat; Delhi; PAKISTAN; CHINA; Bay of Bengal; Arabian Sea
This story appears in the October 10, 1994 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.