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Wanted, a monkey-handler

New Delhi, Dec. 30: India’s foreign office is desperately searching for a one-man army to protect the country’s top diplomats — not from the US marshals who arrested Devyani Khobragade earlier this month, but from simian attacks at its headquarters here.

The move by the external affairs ministry seeking tenders for the “deployment of a monkey-handler” at South Block follows repeated scares over the past few months with monkeys almost attacking senior diplomats and visitors on multiple occasions, officials said.

But like efforts to resolve a diplomatic feud with the US over Khobragade’s arrest, the battle against monkeys isn’t proving easy for the foreign office.

“The country and the world think we’re only preoccupied with the Khobragade case,” a mid-level official said, before breaking into a half-smile. “That’s important. But there’s a big problem facing us right here, every day when we come in or leave.”

South Block, the Herbert Baker-built over-100-year-old row of buildings that also houses the defence ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office, has long attracted rhesus macaques — the common Indian monkeys — that are found clambering over parapets that jut out of the complex.

But till late 2012, the government offices here recruited a team of men and langurs — the long-limbed cousins that the macaques fear — to scare away monkeys.

That changed when BJP MP and animal rights activist Maneka Gandhi nudged Delhi police into arresting a langur handler outside South Block on charges of violating India’s wildlife protection law that describes langurs as a protected species.

Security agencies that provided langurs and their handlers stopped supplying the creatures, but have not trained guards to directly tackle monkeys, face to face, without any back up.

“It’s a really strange request to put out a tender for,” a senior executive of one of the nation’s top private security firms said, speaking on condition of anonymity because his company serves multiple government establishments and foreign embassies in India.

“Unlike langur handlers, monkey handlers risk direct physical battle with monkeys. No professional security agency I know trains its people for such a job.”

Many government agencies that have hired monkey handlers over the past year have ended up recruiting groups of individuals through word of mouth. But like the foreign ministry, officials in these agencies — like the home ministry across the road from South Block — accepted that they too had to seek tenders first because government rules prohibit any contract to a private individual firm without tendering.

The job of the monkey handler eventually hired by the foreign ministry will be far from easy.

The recruit will have to work from 8.30 in the morning to 8.30 at night, six days a week with only Sundays off. He will have no paid leave.

The agency that wins the contract — if a firm does win the competition — will have to provide the monkey handler a stick and a whistle, the foreign ministry notice inviting tenders states.

The monkey handler must have a mobile phone, and his number will be circulated among all officers in the ministry.

“An officer may contact the monkey handler directly over phone if his services are required at any point of time,” the foreign ministry notice says. “The monkey handler shall respond immediately and assist the concerned officer without delay.”

But the foreign office will bear no responsibility if the monkey handler is injured, the notice says.