Group President, Group Managing Director & Editor In Chief: Dr.Shelly Ahmed

Friday, March 20, 2009

India battles its urban wild

By Priyanka Bhardwaj

Often it becomes apparent that India's slow-to-move government agencies are caught in a time warp, struggling to catch up with the efficient private sector rooted in high-tech paperless functioning.

Take the case of the state of Haryana that adjoins Delhi and boasts of modern cities such as Chandigarh and Gurgaon, the hub of multinational, global outsourcing and software firms, operating out of state-of-the-art office spaces.

Saddled with reams of hard copy files, the Haryana police, which does not boast the best anti-crime record, has been grappling with rats devouring official records stored in usually dilapidated conditions.

To deal with file eating rodents, Haryana officials have arrived at a solution that may seem rather offbeat. Rather than spruce and clean up the place, the police are experimenting with white mice to take on the numerous black rats.

A senior police official in the Haryana city of Karnal was quoted as saying: “We have brought two white rats in on a trial basis. We have been told that white mice do not eat paper and cloth and are a deterrent for the black ones.”

The Haryana case follows the instances of the income tax office in New Delhi and the Delhi Development Authority (that deals with land allotment and real estate development), which are officially allowed to keep cats.

They have been doing so for years to keep mice from nibbling the mountains of stored paperwork in the face of the slow computerization of government offices.

This, of course is also a reflection of overall lax government functioning, whether in education, law and order, health or infrastructure such as roads and power, Though India has been plague-free from 1966, in 1994 there was an outbreak that affected Maharashtra and Gujarat. The city of Surat was badly impacted.

Indeed, even as India transitions as an emerging economy and global business hub, the intermeshing of high growth pockets with arenas that still need reform creates its own set of peculiarities.

Though the government has been one of the slowest to change and move with the times, there are other outfits battling rodents too. The state-owned Indian Railways, the biggest network in the world, has been fighting a losing battle with rats for a while now.

Over a million rats are estimated to infest the extremely dirty and busy four acre area of the New Delhi railway station, a contrast from the glitzy malls that sprinkle the city and the spotless metro train service.

The rodents have been causing a nuisance gnawing at cables, stores and even affecting signaling systems.

Earlier this month, following several failed attempts, desperate rail officials handed a contract of Rs1.7 million (US$33,000) to a private firm to exterminate the menace.

“All our earlier attempts failed miserably to control the rats. We have handed over the area to the firm and hope for a radical change in the next one month itself,'' said a senior railway official.

Indeed, although India is changing there is a long way to go. For example, first time foreign visitors to New Delhi are shocked to witness animals that freely roam the streets, alongside traffic jams, modern expressways, flyovers and the world class metro. It is estimated that more than 50,000 cows and buffaloes crowd the roads along with armies' of monkeys, pigs, stray dogs, camels and an occasional elephant, often causing chaos and accidents.

Traffic routinely comes to a halt on highways to allow animals to walk, sleep, defecate and procreate. Animals are sometimes injured, with stinking carcasses lying in the streets for days given lax municipal authorities.

All of this is due to a rapidly spreading urban sprawl that devours erstwhile open, rural areas and villages where the animals once roamed freely.

The courts have been waging a losing battle to rid Delhi roads of its animals. Apart from the usual lethargy in implementation, cows are revered by Hindus, the majority Indian population, so any strong arm action is a politically sensitive move.

Dogs, meanwhile, proliferate as they are readily adopted by people, who do not have the space to keep them inside the house, but generally feed, pamper them and resist attempts by authorities to act.

Such is the nuisance of monkeys in the national capital that a couple of langurs (bigger-sized white monkeys) continue to be leashed every day at the forecourts of the Rashtrapati Bhavan (President's House) and the adjoining north and south blocks that house the prime minister, top administration and military offices.

The langurs scare off the smaller Indian brown rhesus monkeys that are a menace in the area, biting officials, running away with secret files and entering the inner precincts of offices and president's quarters.

There are also reports that for some time stray dogs moved in and out of the highly protected residence of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. There were fears that the strays could easily be fitted with remote bombs that could be set off inside the premises. Given brazen terror attacks, such as at Mumbai in November, anything is possible.

Fighting rats, of course, is another issue all together.
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