The BMC’s fight against the world’s deadliest insect starts with a suction tube.
In the fleeting pre-dawn stillness, Rohidas Owalkar knocks on the door of a shanty in Kherwadi, in Bandra East. The bleary-eyed man who opens the door nods at Owalkar, and invites him in. Everyone around here knows Owalkar. He has been a familiar face since the late 1980s when he joined the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation as an insect collector. Owalkar and his colleague Pran Mokal retrieve suction tubes from their backpacks and peer into the corners of the hut. In less than a minute, they have spotted their quarries, and there are several of them – mosquitoes sitting on the clothesline, on the walls, stuck in cobwebs.
The day’s agenda is to trap mosquitoes – obviously females – that cause filaria. “Most of these Culex mosquitoes are sluggish after a night of sucking blood, and it’s not all that difficult to catch them if you are used to doing this,” says Owalkar. His suction tube is attached to a test tube, and separated from the latter by a netting to prevent the critters from being sucked into the mouth.
Owalkar sort of hovers the suction tube over his target, and then, as if he were drinking Bubble tea, sucks the mosquito in, and proceeds to turn his attention to other potential guilty parties. He replaces the test tube at appropriate intervals. By afternoon, after they have wandered around several neighbourhoods, mostly slums, and peered into dark corners in various hutments, they will deposit the catch of the day at the BMC’s laboratory in Grant Road.
You’d think the foot soldiers – nine in all — of the BMC’s drive against the world’s deadliest animal (mosquitoes kill about 700,000 people every year globally, according to the Barcelonabased Institute for Global Health) deserve better, especially since their employer is the country’s richest municipal body. A quick online check reveals a range of battery-powered aspirators, but the civic body’s Insecticide Control Officer says that he has personally not come across any other method “more modern than this”. “We’ve done our research online, and we don’t think there is anything to beat this. More importantly, the present method is giving us excellent results – why should we change it?” says Rajan Naringrekar.
For once, the BMC, which has, for the last five-odd years, been relatively successful in keeping mosquito-borne diseases in check, is not talking through its hat. Dr Neena Valecha, who heads the Delhi-based National Institute of Malaria Research, says that batter-powered mouth aspirators may not have any disadvantage operationally and technically over mouth aspirators. But she adds: “The provision of battery-powered aspirators will make the technique relevant to the present day.”
Naringrekar says that the early morning chukkars are targeted only at mosquitoes that cause filarial and dengue. “We get samples of infected mosquitoes once in six months, but we can’t take chances and monitor it on a daily basis. If we find any infected mosquitoes, we immediately destroy all breeding grounds in the vicinity,” he says.
What about the Anopheles mosquito that causes malaria? “The thing is, we are focused on filarial and dengue mosquitoes at the moment. You don’t have filaria in Mumbai, and we want to ensure it remains that way. When it comes to malaria, we know it exists in Mumbai, and whenever we come across breeding spots, we simply destroy it,” says Naringrekar.
Like their superior, Owalkar and Mokal, too, seem unaware of batterypowered aspirators, and happy with their suction- and test tubes. They do have to wake up six days a week at the crack of dawn, but they say they are happy with their jobs, even as they quickly furnish information about their children and their academic accomplishments that far surpasses their parents’. The only issue they have is with the filth they have to put up with, especially when it rains. “Imagine going mosquito-hunting when everything around you is wet and squelchy. Everybody is grumpy on such days,” says Owalkar.