No money for meat, so we eat rats: The Indian snake catcher

A snake catcher earns a steady income for only half the year, but his small abode always has room for one more.

Kali demonstrates how he catches snakes
Kali demonstrates how he catches snakes [Courtesy of Kali C]
Kali demonstrates how he catches snakes [Courtesy of Kali C]

What's your money worth? A series from the front lines of the cost of living crisis, in which people who have been hit hard share their monthly expenses

Name: Kali C

Age: 43

Occupation: snake catcher

Lives with: his wife, Alamelu (38), a dog, four rabbits and a rescue mongoose. Their two daughters, Sindhu (22) and Sandya (21), stay with them during holidays.

Lives in: an 11sq-metre (120sq-foot) single-room house in Chengalpettu, Tamil Nadu, about 50km (31 miles) from Chennai in eastern India. The house has kitchen supplies stored on one side and a living area that doubles as a bedroom at night on the other. They have an independent bathroom unit and a small guest room behind their house; their daughters stay here during visits.

Monthly household income: As a contract employee with the Irula Snake Catchers Industrial Cooperative Society, Kali earns a basic salary of 19,000 rupees ($228.72) per month for seven months of the year.

In addition to this, he receives about 4,800 rupees ($57.78) per month in commission payments (paid per snake caught) from the cooperative society, which extracts venom from the snakes.

During the snake breeding season (April to August) when the government bans snake catching, Kali takes on odd jobs in farming and fishing, earning from 7,000 rupees to 10,000 rupees ($84.27 to $120.38) per month. Kali’s wife chips in by weaving baskets for additional income of a few hundred rupees.

Total expenses for the month: 22,800 rupees ($274). After making loan repayments of 8,700 rupees ($104.73), Kali spends about 14,100 rupees ($169.73) on his family’s living costs.

Kali and Alamelu
Kali and Alamelu with their rescued mongoose [Maveeran Somasundaram/Al Jazeera]
Kali and Alamelu with their rescued mongoose [Maveeran Somasundaram/Al Jazeera]

Like a soldier who wears his battle scars with pride, Kali shows off his impressive collection of snake bite marks and bruises, seemingly curated with care on his body.

Each scar has a story to tell - from the Russell’s viper that bit a chunk off his finger, leaving it permanently damaged, to the cobra that lashed back after being dropped into a bag, leaving Kali in a coma. His profession - snake catching - is one of the most dangerous in the world.

For generations, Kali’s ancestral tribe, the Irulas, were known for their snake hunting skills. They made their living from selling snake skins. But after India’s Wild Life (Protection) Act was passed in 1972, it seemed that men like Kali’s father, Chokalingam, had lost their only livelihood.

Kali C
Kali C working as a snake catcher [Courtesy of Kali C]

Fortunately, conservationists found a way to use the Irulas’ traditional knowledge of snakes for another purpose - to produce antivenom. The Irulas now used their excellent tracking skills to capture snakes and extract venom without harming the reptiles.

“The snakes are then released back into the wild by the Forest Department,” Kali says.

Kali’s father was instrumental in setting up the Irula Snake Catchers Industrial Cooperative Society in Tamil Nadu. Young Kali saw his father as a hero who braved death every day to save the lives of countless strangers.

In fact, snakebites still remain a cause of concern for modern India. A 2020 study found that 58,000 Indians die of snake bites every year.

“As a child, I had watched my father in awe as he handled dangerous snakes with ease. Even as a seven-year-old, I used to sit through half my classes and bunk the rest to track snakes in my neighbourhood. I looked out for their trails and even practised catching some of the non-venomous snakes.”

Kali's wife, Alamelu, often helps him in his work as a snake catcher [Courtesy of Kali C]

Unfortunately for young Kali, he was caught by his father during one of his escapades. As punishment for missing school, Chokalingam tied Kali to a tree and burned his leg with a hot iron.

But Kali remembers the last walk he took with his father when a pensive Chokalingam told him: “It is up to you to choose your [future] path.”

Following in his father’s footsteps

Soon after, when Kali was just seven years old, Chokalingam passed away due to illness. Despite his father’s reservations, Kali strongly believed that snake catching was his calling, and he left school to join his mother to help catch snakes for the cooperative society.

From listening to owl calls that indicate the presence of snakes and tracking shed snake skins to being able to capture snakes straight out of their burrows, he learned everything from the elders in his community.

At 18, he received his government license to work for the Tamil Nadu Forest Department as a snake catcher. “I remember my mom used to get paid 25 rupees ($0.30) for catching snakes and she used to give me 20 paisa [0.2 rupees] for helping her. I would spend 10 paisa on a biscuit and save the rest.

“Now, I get incentives for capturing saw-scaled vipers or cobras as well as our monthly payout.”

Kali works six days a week and is proud of his work. “I would like to believe that every time we risk our lives, someone else is saved.”

When asked if he regrets taking on his ancestral profession instead of finding an easier way to make money, Kali shakes his head. “I used to eat only two meals a day when I was a child, but now, I can afford to have three proper meals even with this temporary government job. I am content with what we have.”

Alamelu weaves baskets to earn extra income
Alamelu weaves baskets to earn extra income [Maveeran Somasundaram/Al Jazeera]

At the age of 22, Kali parted ways with his first wife and married Alamelu, who had lost her first husband to illness. He took responsibility for her two daughters and raised them as his own.

Their elder daughter, Sindhu, 22, is married and lives 40km (25 miles) away. She visits Kali and Alamelu often while her younger sister, Sandhya, 21, lives with her so she can commute to her job as a farmhand more easily. Sandhya shuttles between the two homes.

At their home, Kali and Alamelu also care for a family of four rabbits, a dog named Mani as well as injured birds and animals they find on their field visits to catch snakes.

Pointing to a little mongoose trotting around their small house, Kali says: “This baby mongoose had lost its mother. Alamelu wouldn’t budge till we brought it home.” He smiles at the mongoose, which has leapt onto his lap. “We will nurse it till it becomes independent.”


From October 15 to November 15 as part of a collaborative project, Kali tracked his expenses with reporter Catherine Gilon.

Expenses over one month

Kali and his motor scooter
Kali and Alamelu ride on his motor scooter, his most prized possession [Maveeran Somasundaram/Al Jazeera]
Kali and Alamelu ride on his motor scooter, his most prized possession [Maveeran Somasundaram/Al Jazeera]

Petrol and transport

Kali’s motor scooter, which he bought in September, is one of his most prized possessions. It has made travelling around for work a great deal easier than taking the bus. But this method of transport is also more expensive and accounts for a large chunk of his monthly budget.

Having learned how to repair motor scooters, he does not spend much money on maintenance, but he does spend a whopping 6,000 rupees ($72.23) per month on fuel for commuting 26km (16 miles) each day. If he takes the bus to travel to different districts to catch snakes, the cost is a minimum of 100 rupees ($1.20) per trip and he would need to take around an average of three trips per day.

The price of petrol hit a record high of 100 rupees ($1.20) per litre (1 quart) in 2021 and has not fallen since then despite varying crude oil prices. Analysts believe India will keep the prices from surging ahead of this year's general election.

October-November 2023: 102.63 rupees ($1.23) per litre of petrol 

October-November 2022: 102.62 rupees ($1.23) per litre of petrol

pricesGroceries and vegetables

“We spend nearly 3,000 rupees [$36.11] on groceries every month and spend around 500 rupees [$6.02] per week on vegetables and eggs,” Kali says. He laments that rising prices for essential vegetables like tomatoes and onions often increase their expenditures. “When tomatoes hit the 100 rupees ($1.20) mark [per kilo], we simply stopped using them in our curries,” he says. “I now buy directly from a farm near my house to save some money. At least I know it is fresh.”

Alamelu says rising prices don’t, however, seem to stop Kali from indulging the pets in the family with fresh vegetables every day.

Alamelu says she has had to stop making her flavourful Sambar, a traditional South Indian curry made of vegetables and tur dal (split peas). It is no longer a regular meal in their house because of the ever-increasing prices of the ingredients.

Because of rising prices, Alamelu fears her dreams of one day having a washing machine will be put on hold indefinitely. She currently has to undertake the back-breaking work of doing all the family's washing by hand.

October-November 2023: 158 rupees ($1.90) for 1kg (2.2lb) of tur dal and 180 rupees ($2.17) for 1kg of shallots

October-November 2022: 112 rupees ($1.35) for 1kg of tur dal and 110 rupees ($1.32) for 1kg of shallots

Alamelu doesn't waste any food in her kitchen [Maveeran Somasundaram/Al Jazeera]

Dairy and seafood

Milk is a staple at Kali’s house and a constant expenditure. “We spend around 44 rupees [$0.53] for 1 litre of milk each day. By the end of the month, we usually dilute it with water. But with the government reducing the fat content in a standard milk packet, the trick may not work for us any more,” Kali says.

His rescue pets also indulge in milk, but Kali doesn’t seem to mind the extra burden.

The family does eat fish and meat regularly, but during the snake mating season, he says, they rely on the fish and rats he catches to save money. “I fish only between April and August when we do not have our regular income coming in. Otherwise, we buy fish at the local market.”

Since 2022, however, the cost of fresh pomfret fish has risen by 50 percent from 400 rupees ($4.82) to 600 rupees ($7.22) per kilo, meaning Kali will have to catch more himself if they want to keep eating it regularly.

October-November 2023: 44 rupees ($0.53) per litre of milk, 600 rupees ($7.22) for 1kg of pomfret fish 

October-November 2022: 44 rupees ($0.53) per litre of milk, 400 rupees ($4.82) for 1kg of pomfret fish

Alamelu hopes that one day she will be able to afford a washing machine, a luxury that is still beyond their reach [Maveeran Somasundaram/Al Jazeera]

Diwali expenses

At Diwali, one of the major Hindu festivals celebrated in India, the family comes together to feast, wear new clothes and distribute sweets to friends and family members.

For the celebrations in November, Kali says, “Alamelu bought me a shirt, and I gifted her a vibrant cotton sari - she rarely buys anything for herself. We then bought a new dress for our grandchild.”

In November, Kali paid 5,000 rupees (just over $60) to repay a loan he had taken out to pay for his daughter’s pregnancy ceremony when friends and family are invited to bless the expectant mother. As a result, he did not have as much money to splurge on the usual firework crackers, sweets and new clothes for the entire family for the holiday.

Kali was not alone - economists have noted that spending on Diwali in India declined last year because of rising costs.

However, Kali and Alamelu did invite their elder daughter, her family and their younger daughter to celebrate the festival at their home for a few days. “We spent close to 1,000 rupees ($12) on the meat, but it was totally worth it,” Alamelu says.

November 2023: About 2,000 rupees ($24) for food and clothing

November 2022: About 3,000 rupees ($36) for food and clothing 

Kali and Alamelu pray
Kali and Alamelu pray, asking that they be kept safe while at work [Maveeran Somasundaram/Al Jazeera]

Six quick questions for Kali

1. What is one thing you had to forego this month? We could not buy crackers (fireworks) for Diwali.

2. What is the hardest financial decision you had to make this month? While we [Kali and Alamelu] were riding the motorcycle back home on a rainy evening, an old lady slid right in front of us. We bumped into her, and she fell down. Fortunately, she suffered only minor bruises. We took her to the hospital and stayed with her overnight to ensure that there was no concussion. We did not have money to run her tests, so we had to pawn the gold earring we had bought for our granddaughter. The scans were normal, but we did what we had to.

3. What has been the most worthwhile expense from this month? Buying meat for our entire family for Diwali dinner.

4. When finances get tough, what advice do you have? Do not waste. We always eat whatever is left from lunch for dinner or ferment it into porridge for the next day. And we spend only on bare essentials.

5. What is your biggest money worry? I want to save enough for my second daughter’s wedding. I also need to create an emergency fund for her, so that she doesn’t have to rely on anyone for the rest of her life. I was not there when these girls grew up, and I couldn’t help them complete their education. They had quit to help their then-single mother. I hope I can work until the day I die, so that my daughters and their children live a better life.

6. What is the saving hack you are proudest of? Whenever we make some extra cash, I buy little trinkets in gold for my wife and daughters, and that has helped us out in times of need. We can pawn them or sell them if we have an emergency; otherwise, it remains as an investment that grows. But with the gold price doubling over the past four years, it may not be easy for us to buy gold any more.

Read more stories from the series: What's your money worth?

Source: Al Jazeera