Monkeying around

Powerful officials walk warily down the corridors of the North and South Blocks, alert for ambushes by monkeys.

Thousands of homeless monkeys have been living for decades in or around New Delhi's government buildings, including the prime minister's office and several city hospitals. But in recent years their numbers have swelled. Now under a new get-tough policy, squatting simians are to be arrested, kept in special halfway houses for three months before being exiled to neighbouring states.

The crackdown by India's federal environment ministry will snare over 5000 Rhesus macaques. The monkeys will first be gaoled in a city suburb before being transported to jungles in neighbouring Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. "We have tried putting the monkeys in forests around Delhi but they keep returning because food is easily available in the offices," said H.C. Dewan, chief wildlife warden.

Maybe this time they will stay where they belong. But till then, powerful officials walk warily down the corridors of the North and South Blocks, alert for ambushes by monkeys. North Block houses India's home and finance ministries, while the prime minister's secretariat, the foreign office and the defence ministry are in South Block. Monkeys there frequently steal files and tear them up at leisure on the sprawling lawns outside.

Besides top-level government offices, monkey habitats extends to the campus of the nearby All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, India's flagship research institution. At the Institute, windows of all wards are bolted shut against gangs of rhesus, descendants of those who escaped from the Institute's laboratories over 25 years ago. The sight of monkeys chasing nurses and patients down the Institute's labyrinthine corridors is not uncommon.

Doctors say years of experience and familiarity have merely enhanced simian ingenuity. Patients in postoperative wards have been known to surface from the mists of anaesthesia to be greeted by a grinning, red-bottomed monkey sharing their bed or casually playing with their blood-transfusion drip. Those trying to shoo the intruders end up being chased themselves or viciously bitten. Scores of monkey-bite victims have been treated in the Institute with expensive anti-rabies vaccine.

Monkey nuisance is not confined to Delhi, of course. In Patiala, some 300 km north in Punjab state, monkeys arrested for harassing people are locked up in a special jail for varying periods before being declared fit' enough to be released back into society. One hardcore inmate arrested from the campus of Punjab Agricultural University at Ludhiana for attacking students has been there for nearly a year while another ferocious pair, apprehended from a Patiala neighbourhood for snatching ladies' handbags and lunch boxes are reportedly coming up for parole.

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