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Fifth column

March 31, 2018

The rats


March 31, 2018

Much before the term ‘underworld’ was associated with organised urban crime, rats were linked with subterranean activity. They have always had a very bad reputation and are seen as unwelcome invaders that evoke alarm, fear and even terror – or, at the least, unpleasant feelings.

Historically, they have been seen as agents of death for they have been blamed for causing plagues that decimated populations across the world. The 14th century’s plague killed an estimated 25 million people or one-quarter of Europe’s population. The Great Plague of London in the mid-17th century killed more than 100,000 people – nearly one-fourth of the population.

Despite advancements in city planning and hygiene management, rats in Western cities run a parallel network across rail and transport networks, sewers, public parks and communal spaces amid the swelling trash, including the piling mountains of food waste that offer a reliable and unending food supply. The 2006 British-American animation film, ‘Flushed Away’ depicts Ratropolis, a city that resembles London, running underground in the sewers of London where life is as bountiful and competitive as the world above, dictated by the competition between various scavengers of the animal kingdom, with rats playing the lead role. Rat infestation becomes a marker of the decline of an urban estate and provokes serious concerns for residents and the authorities. That is why large cities such as New York have been allocating a considerable amount of money to control the problem. Last year, Bill de Blasio, the mayor, announced a $32 million war chest “to severely decrease the rat population using a variety of methods”.

Rats have created quite a bit of news recently in both India and Pakistan. This is related to their growing proximity to the corridors of official power. Since rats are often associated with filthy and unkempt environs, their increasing presence within the corridors of power is perhaps a potent symbol to denote the decline of politics and the corruption of power that it engenders.

In late March, news surfaced that the state secretariat in the Indian province of Maharashtra, which was infested with rats, had contracted a private company that claimed to kill nearly 3.2 lakh rats in seven days. A whopping 45,628 rats were killed every day – roughly a rat every second. Smelling the rat, Eknath Khadse, a former minister, wondered how there could be so many rats in the secretariat. According to the reports, the General Administration Department issued the work order to the company based on a survey that allegedly claimed there were 319,400 rats in the building.

The contractor was given a six-month period that was eventually reduced to two months. The company conveniently finished the job in a week. To give some perspective to the super-efficient claims of the rodent-killing company, Khadse said that the Mumbai Municipal Corporation had managed to kill six lakh rats in two years in the entire city. Interestingly, within the whole secretariat, no one saw the company chasing these rodents.

In late February, Geo News broke the story that Parliament House had been taken over by rats. According to a survey conducted by the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council, there were more than 50,000 rats in parliament. A newspaper report even claimed that “rats live and roam around likes kings in parliament lodges, [the] cafeteria, Prime Minister’s House and President House and a company was being paid Rs650,000 annually to ‘rid the house of the gnarly animals’”.

While the takeover of rats could symbolise the diminishing power of politics, a female MNA even claimed that rats have invaded her room – an unwanted trespass into a woman’s private space that could easily mark these rodents as ‘love rats’. The information about rat infestation came during the meeting of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Food Security and Research. Interestingly, no one seemed to question the effectiveness of the company that is contracted to keep the problem in check.

Although this may not be related to their politics or the style of governance, the reports about the first wide-scale rat infestation came from the PTI-ruled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in early 2016. The issue surfaced when an infant was bitten to death by a rat on the outskirts of Peshawar, followed by the mass horror as hospitals were filled with dozens of rat-bite cases on a daily basis. This provoked the local administration to announce a bounty of Rs300 for each kill while the Peshawar Cantonment Board put the head money at Rs 25 apiece. The scheme failed terribly, earning wide-scale ridicule for the government. But it was soon forgotten like everything else.

What I found intriguing was that the wide difference in the prize money depicted the huge gulf in the threat perceptions of the civilian and military administrations about the issue. Regardless, rats continued to grow and found new sanctuaries. The famous Algerian writer Rachid Boudjedra’s protagonist in his well-known novel, ‘The Obstinate Snail’, rues that: “My fellow citizens are unreasonable. They should be made to march to the tune of catastrophic slogans. Fortunately, they are not as quick as rats, snails and pigs! The lower you descend in animal classification the more important reproduction is”.

In July 2017, rats were back in the news as they’d entered the KP Assembly building and scared officials. A newspaper report quoted an unnamed official saying: “Rats the size of cats have ‘invaded’ the assembly building, nibbling away at food and cables…I was surprised to see a rat the size of a cat in my office and then it escaped through a hole three times smaller than its size”.

The precision in the official’s observations was admirable and showed the alertness of KP’s bureaucracy. The scenes depicted find a strange resemblance with the rats in the award-winning Lebanese writer Rabee Jaber’s rats in his novel, ‘The Mehlis Report’ (2005). They are giants, as big as donkeys, but they are not evil. “They’re more like underworld workers, coming out when there’s death and destruction”. In comparison, ‘The Rats’, a 2002 Hollywood film depicts the infestation of dangerous mutant rats in New York. When the health officials and politicians are pleaded to deal with the issue, they prefer to cover the problem to protect the economic interests of powerful groups.

Twitter: @murtaza_shibli

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