Sat, Nov 17, 2007 - Page 9 News List

New Delhi vows no more monkeying around with simian antics


The authorities here managed to do very little about the city's soaring wild monkey population -- until the deputy mayor toppled from his terrace to his death as he tried to fend off a gang of the animals.

Sawinder Singh Bajwa, 52, was reading a paper on his balcony on a Sunday morning late last month when four monkeys appeared. As he brandished a stick to scare them away, he lost his balance and fell, his son said.

While publicly lamenting the accident, the mayor's office fought off criticism for failing to remove the aggressive troops of monkeys that coexist uneasily alongside humans.

The phenomenon is a side effect of India's rapid urbanization.

As New Delhi expands, with half a million new residents moving in every year, the green areas in and around the capital, which for centuries have been the monkeys' habitat, grow smaller. Their territory encroached on, many monkeys uproot to settle in the city center.

Particularly irritating for the authorities is the monkeys' attachment to some of the capital's most prestigious monuments. While most of the bleaker manifestations of the anarchic expansion -- the slums, the urban squalor -- are hidden from the government's showpiece center, the monkey invasion is visible at the heart of the leafy city of New Delhi, remarked upon by every visiting foreign dignitary.

Guards watching over Rashtrapati Bhavan, the stately sandstone president's palace, are there as much to fend off the hundreds of monkeys that swing from the parapets as to contend with human intruders. At dusk, mother monkeys bathe their infants in the ceremonial fountains, while males fight noisily on the clipped lawns.

Politicians with residences in the area have resorted to hiring private monkey catchers, men who use a larger, dark-faced monkey, the langur, to scare away the smaller wild ones.

In 2000, a lawsuit was filed accusing the government of failing to take any action, and legal proceedings dragged on with little perceptible progress until January, when the Delhi High Court summoned senior officials to explain themselves.

Official embarrassment intensified when a newspaper said that the only monkey catcher employed by the city, Nand Lal, who had two decades of experience, had resigned and returned to his village, fed up with being harassed by animal rights advocates.

When a three-month court deadline to remove the entire monkey population expired in June, a member of the enforcement committee asked for an extension, arguing that it was cruel to capture the animals in summer because so many were pregnant then.

The monkeys that were caught were held in specially built structures at the edge of the city, while officials waited for a deal to be negotiated with neighboring states so they could be released into forest areas far from the capital. But those states refused to take the refugees, and the animals remained in captivity, enraging wildlife protection agencies, until a disused mine area on the fringe of the city was declared a sanctuary.

The lawyer charged by the High Court with ensuring the monkeys' removal said recently that things were as bad as ever, even in some leading hospitals.

"They attack patients who are being rolled inside the hospital, pull out IV tubes and scamper off to drink the fluids," the lawyer, Meera Bhatia, told local journalists.

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