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Obama’s Visit India: Monkeys and Cows ‘detained’

NEW DELHI — When an important guest is on his way over, it is common practice to sweep up one’s odds and ends and hide them all in the back room. So it was in New Delhi this week.

With days to go before President Obama’s arrival on Sunday, the order went out to “sanitize.” Municipal cow catchers were ordered to round up the stray cattle that amble down the city’s thoroughfares, unperturbed by the backup of traffic behind them. Men with slingshots have fanned out in the neighborhood around the Indian president’s sandstone palace, shrieking and barking in an effort to frighten away hundreds of rosy-bottomed monkeys.

City workers have been making the rounds on downtown streets, trying to persuade beggars to spend three days in a shelter, but they have had varied success. (“You see, beyond a point, I cannot do a military operation,” said Jalaj Shrivastava, the chairman of the New Delhi Municipal Council.) The sweets sellers are disappearing, and the sidewalk cobblers, and the sellers of feather-dusters and bead necklaces and black-market novels.


A monkey stole a street vendor’s banana in Delhi. Officials in India want monkeys and vendors out of President Obama’s sight. Credit Kuni Takahashi for The New York Times

“Suppose there is a marriage in your family: You whitewash your house — that is what our government is doing, whitewashing our city,” said Vinod Pahuja, 65, looking out at a curiously tidy street from his book stall near the commercial hub Connaught Place. And on Tuesday evening, when Mr. Obama flies out? “Then,” Mr. Pahuja said cheerfully, “everything will be the same as it was before.”

Cities all over the world hide their ragged edges ahead of such events. When South Korea hosted the Olympics in 1988, teams of municipal workers in Seoul cleaned the grooves in the sidewalks with toothbrushes. But New Delhi presents officials with a particular set of messy problems, especially when it comes to the stray animals that inhabit its markets and roadways.

With populations swelling, “the basic mentality of any Indian not to harm any animal is still there, so we cannot use any stringent measures,” explained Dr. Shukla Saumya, a medical officer with the New Delhi Municipal Council.

Consider the monkeys, mainly rhesus macaques: Bold enough to climb in kitchen windows to check the contents of refrigerators, they are also viewed as a representation of the Hindu deity Hanuman, so they cannot be harmed without prompting a major outcry. As forest cover melted away, many resettled in the luxurious tree canopy that surrounds the homes of India’s top officials.

“I have had any number of such complaints from senior government officers — of my rank and senior,” said Mr. Shrivastava, the municipal council chairman. “They ring me up on my mobile and say, ‘I am stuck in my house, there is a horde of monkeys outside, and I can’t get out, and here is a guy breaking the kitchen window.’ I say, ‘Sir, please bear with us.’ ”

But his options are limited. Catching them is dangerous, euthanizing them is out of the question, and a metal trap introduced a few years ago was effective only until the monkeys figured out how to spring it, which was immediately. Until two years ago, monkey handlers used to frighten rhesus monkeys away using trained langur monkeys, a larger species. But the government started enforcing a rule against keeping langurs in captivity.

Desperate, the municipal council has trained 40 men to imitate the guttural grunts and shrieks of the langurs and has begun dumping food in a forested area, hoping it will keep the monkeys away from officials’ residences. City officials also visit Hindu priests, hoping to dissuade believers from feeding monkeys on Tuesday, a traditional offering to Hanuman, but the task can often seem futile.


These men have been trained to frighten away rhesus macaque monkeys by imitating the grunts and shrieks of a larger species. Credit Kuni Takahashi for The New York Times

“They will not listen,” Dr. Ramesh Kumar, the municipal council’s chief medical officer, said glumly. “In their blood they have a religious feeling.”

The cows, venerated as a symbol of motherhood, present a similar problem when it is necessary to dislodge them. They can be seen, lounging in intersections or grazing peacefully on garbage, in many parts of the city — including the southern area close to the airport, where Mr. Obama’s motorcade is expected to pass.

But catching stray cows is easier said than done. The more alert among them may recognize the truck used by the city’s cow catchers, and, seeing a ramp, react by bolting or going limp. The crowds typically take the cow’s side. V. K. Singh, a veterinary officer for the city, said he plans to bring a police escort along on a cow sweep on Saturday “because at times local people oppose catching the animals.”

“Because President Obama is coming, we are more alert on those roads on which he will be traveling,” said Radhe Shyam Sharma, a south Delhi municipal official.

By Friday, familiar faces had disappeared from Connaught Place, where a pack of children, barefoot and with matted hair, usually sell ballpoint pens and bead necklaces to tourists. The police regularly ask vendors and beggars to leave an area whenever “big people” visit, most recently when China’s president, Xi Jinping, wanted to tour a nearby craft emporium, said Ravi Shankar, 18, who sells necklaces.

“First they do it with affection,” he said, “and then, if we do not come, they beat us up.”

Mr. Shrivastava, the municipal council chairman, said he had hoped to remove all the panhandlers to nearby night shelters for the duration of Mr. Obama’s visit but had met with resistance from nongovernmental advocacy groups that “are resisting them being taken by force.”

Late Friday, Mr. Pahuja, the bookseller, looked out from the shop where he has sat for 30 years. He was a little wistful, noting that the beggars would surely be back next week. “We want to show that our government is doing lots for them, but these people can’t work,” he said. “The Indian government doesn’t have enough money to give them. What do they do? They beg.”

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