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Thursday, 29 August 2013 20:37

Danger at Twilight

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Darkness comes swiftly to the villages of Garhwal. The sun sets behind the huge mountains and almost immediately it is night. In one little village near the town of Agustamuni, lives Rajeshwari. She is normally a bright-eyed, gutsy little girl, all of twelve. Today something is wrong, as the evening shadows lengthen her mother calls out to her son to come in and lock the door. The leopard might be about. Rajeshwari freezes. She starts to shiver uncontrollably and nothing anybody can do will calm her.

A week ago as her family sat down to dinner, a leopard crept into the house and pounced. It dug its claws into Rajeshwari's back and dragged her out into the darkness. It stopped briefly to secure its hold then made for the forest. Rajeshwari's grandmother and father ran behind the leopard and the screaming child for a distance, shouting and beating tin vessels. Annoyed and disconcerted the animal dropped Rajeshwari and disappeared into the night. As Rajeshwari lay bleeding its rasping calls could still be heard.

The little girl's back was torn open and her right cheek was deeply scratched. She needed to be rushed to the hospital in Agustamuni. It took hours to arrange for the slow transport and finally almost at midnight, they reached the hospital.

The doctor was in no mood to be disturbed from his night's sleep. He hated his posting and couldn't wait to be back in civilization. He sent word that he would deal with the patient in the morning. The villagers lost control and in a rage Rajeshwari's grandfather threatened to burn down the hospital. It was only then that the doctor grudgingly treated her wounds. Rajeshwari has seven stitches on her cheek and her back might never heal completely.

In Pakhi, a village near the town of Pipalkoti, seven year old Nidhi was returning from the outdoor toilet with her mother. Dusk was falling. A leopard appeared suddenly and jumped at the little girl. Her mother shouted and surprisingly the animal dropped Nidhi and disappeared. But not before injuring her gravely. Her father rushed her to the nearest hospital at Gopeshwar thirty-five kilometers away. Today a month later, Nidhi is still fighting for her life. In the neighboring district of Pauri, in a village called Dunga, twelve year old Aarti was saved by villagers.

Eleven year old Rani and four year old Nirmala were not so lucky. Badel is yet another village in these dangerous mountains. Thirty-five year old Sarojini Devi had gone with her two daughters to the forest to gather fodder. A daily chore. As they returned they were attacked by a leopard. In a desperate bid to save her daughters Sarojini Devi struck out at the animal with her axe. It was futile. In a few swift moments the leopard overpowered her and dragged her away. Later the villagers found her half-eaten body.

And these are just a few examples spanning a time frame of a few months. The horror of man eaters haunts the entire region. In a study of the Pauha Block of the Pauri district, an area covering seven villages, the findings were chilling. In 1998 alone seventeen people were killed. Mostly women and children. Many families have migrated to the plains out of fear. Skewed government laws are in many ways responsible. Humans are low on the priority list. An animal on the rampage is not declared a man eater until it kills at least three humans. Identification of the animal is virtually impossible as the forest department infrastructure is criminally inadequate, and most victims are attacked under cover of darkness. So while the Wildlife Protection Acts secures the future of wild animals, villagers in mortal danger abandon their homes and fields. This situation is made more complex by decreasing forest cover and prey. For which the forest and timber mafia are hugely responsible.

Meanwhile in these dark mountains some villages become ghost towns after dark and in some the villagers don't sleep. While India advances towards the twenty-first century, replete with state of the art technology and nuclear bombs, some of its people still fight wild animals to stay alive. Where with every sunset childhood comes to a grinding halt.

J.P. Maithani is a social activist based in the Chamoli district of Garhwal. This story was printed in Uttarakhand: Children in the Himalaya, an SBMA publication.

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