Forget dog bites, try rats

Recently, a scandalous news item about horrific numbers of dog bites in Mumbai raised questions on what is being done about the menace of stray dogs in Mumbai. But there is worse. Rat bites. Every night.

Recently, my maid was using her hand carefully while working, and on inquiry I found out that she had been bitten by a rat in her sleep. Three days back, she got bitten on her foot. Last night, her husband got bitten quite severely on his foot. Last week, her daughter got bitten on her foot. This is a known and growing menace in slums that adjoin sewers in particular. Last New Year’s eve, along with all kinds of celebration and preparations being reported was the story of a 4 month old baby who died when rats nibbled off his arm.

This is also not a problem limited to babies or Mumbai or India. A Google search ought to bring up enough fodder to keep you awake in terror. Kannappa, 34 died in Sadananda Nursing home. Rats had bitten his face, eyes, nose… his relatives thought that the hospital had stolen his eyes, but it was rats. 2 month old Natalie Hill was found dead in a blood soaked crib. Dead from blood loss from hundreds of bites.

Here is what my maid’s situation looks like.

She says they have a lot of rats in their area. The normal, small house rats are one thing, but the large ones that come from outside from the nearby sewer are the stuff of nightmares. They don’t fear cats, they have tunneled through the cheap cement floor repeatedly, they damage food, clothes… and at night, they bite people when they sleep.

She has three young daughters and is terrified for them. She earlier lived in the Eksar Koliwada, where there are rats, but the routine “guard your food” variety. Ever since she has shifted to Bhim Nagar in Gorai I, it has become a daily battle. She can’t sleep in peace for worry for her children (rats can carry hideous stuff like plague and rabies) and absolutely nothing she has tried has managed to keep them at bay. There are cats in the locality, but she has never seen or heard of one tangling with these big rats. And with all the open garbage and easily available food, they don’t need to.

Initially when they discovered the rat bites, they tried keeping the light on all night. It worked for about a week or so, then the rats started biting even with the light on. She says that the rats nibble on the skin to form bruise like injuries that the person doesn’t come to know, and only if it bites deep does a person wake up. Or they discover that they have been nibbled on in the morning.

Other than the actual bites, the rats mean economic devastation to this family. They earn about 6-7 thousand rupees between the two of them, and even with the children’s schooling taken care of by the government, with rent and food, they barely make ends meet. With the damage from rats, all that is changing fast. Here are some things she listed.

  • When she bought rations after getting paid and she had money, they were destroyed by the rats (more below). So now she has neither the money, nor the supply to feed family when money runs out.
  • They had purchased a much needed inexpensive mattress when they moved in. Within two days, it had huge holes in it from the rats chewing away at it during the day when no one was home.
  • She can’t afford steel containers, the rats chew through plastic containers to get at the food.
  • Clothes get destroyed routinely.
  • And of course, the bites when they sleep.
  • There is free treatment for rat bites in all government hospitals, but the place she stays is at such a distance from the nearest hospital and out of bus route, that she ends up taking a rickshaw for these injections about 2-3 times a month for some or the other member of the family. They have now started ignoring minor bites under the assumption that the protection from the previous injection still works. Going to a local doctor costs about Rs. 100/- So one way or the other, there is a cost of rs.150/- to Rs.300/- on treating rat bats, not to mention cost in health.
  • She purchases food just enough for each meal, they cook and finish it, because it gets wasted otherwise. This is more expensive than buying supplies in bulk, or at least by the kilo.

All this, put together is fast making life unaffordable for her. From a hand to mouth situation, they are now in a place where they end up spending more on damage, on buying more expensive (on a monthly basis) smaller quantities daily, treatments for rat bites, etc. She is hugely depressed and doesn’t know what to do, because she can’t even afford to move.

She says pest control doesn’t work, because new rats keep coming in from the sewer. They chew through the floors, widen gaps in wall/roof/under doors, they chew through plastic containers, they ignore rat poison mostly, and often run away with a rat trap if they get caught. Obviously not dead. Switching on the light has stopped being a deterrence. Often, shaking/kicking them away when bitten only makes them back off a little out of reach rather than scampering away in fear. They return when bitee sleeps. Some say that the rat poison works on them if they eat it, but that makes no difference because there are plenty outside waiting to come in.

She is terrified of an epidemic of the plague or rabies or other illness, because short of staying awake and guarding human bodies from bites, they have no way of being safe, and they can’t do that for contamination of food, clothes and other things from the rats anyway. Babies are not safe at all. And that they are powerless about the invasion of their homes by these monsters because they find sanctuary and thrive in the sewers and garbage dumps.

They have tried asking the BMC for larger pest control of the area in the interests of health, but so far, the rats are still thriving.

When we look at facilities for the masses, or governance and then look at the things we do spend money on, it is also clear that the rats are thriving.

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