Two decades ago, Ramesh Haralkar’s day often began with a mountain of dead rats—the remnants of a myriad mysterious experiments at Mumbai’s Haffkine laboratories. In the dim basement where the decaying rodents were dumped, Haralkar and his team would get to work. They’d pick the rats with their bare hands and pitch them onto the dump truck. Then they’d climb aboard and spread a sheet on the mess. "The truck was so overloaded we had to sit on the rats, hoping desperately that the bodies wouldn’t break beneath us," he shudders. At the dumping ground, they had to dodge the swoop-and-strike of predatory crows. "At first, it was terrifying. I thought they’d get my eye," says Haralkar.
That’s all in a day’s work for the hundreds who clean Mumbai’s muck. Plunging their arms into sludge, scraping the hide and flesh of animals knocked down by speeding cars off the streets, handling toxic hospital waste, carrying mounds of putrefying garbage to the dumping grounds. Cleaning the kind of filth most of us would not touch even in a nightmare. Would never need to.