A Tiger at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park /Photo by Ipshita B

Neha Puntambekar becomes a human yo-yo at an Indian government office.

MY GLASSES KEEP slipping out of place and my cotton shirt is soaked, pasted to my back. Despite the thick forest cover, the heat pierces through at Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park.

As a child, this was a place for family picnics and school trips – for paddle-boat rides, chutney sandwiches, and the ‘safari’ – a ride around the park’s animal enclosures. Today it’s a green patch in a concrete jungle.

The National Park

For all practical purposes, the National Park is a human settlement with an attached zoo. Children scuttle about in their blue and white school uniforms. Vendors offer me cooling cucumber slices from their baskets, “Tai, only Rs. 10.” The staff run errands at a relaxed pace, exchanging greetings and gossip. Visitors, young couples mostly, sit under trees and along the water, their fingers intertwined.

Park Vendor Photo and Feature Photo by author

I’m here with my sister-in-law, Nisha, to learn more about the Park’s latest ‘adopt an animal’ scheme.

We spotted an advert in the Times of India inviting citizens (and businesses) to adopt park animals for a (minimum) period of one year for a set sum. A promising initiative, I wanted to know more. Nisha saw the scheme, and a white tiger, as a perfect fit for her company.

The Sub-divisional Office or the Yo-Yo Effect

The office, a large white building, is surprisingly cramped from the inside. It holds at least six desks and a cabin. Steel almirahs, typical of Indian government offices, stand against the wall. They are as sturdy as they are shabby. Files are stacked in wobbling piles on the tables and floor.

We approach the closest officer. Unsure, she consults a passing peon. They have an elaborate discussion before passing us off to an officer sitting right behind us. We turn around, wait for the man to finish his phone call, and ask him about the scheme. “Haan, haan!” he says, and promptly sends us across the room to a corner desk. We take four steps in that direction and repeat our now stale query.

Santoshi has a nervous manner about her. Her face registers nothing as we speak. I brace myself from more yo-yoing when she pulls out a magenta paper file and hands us a copy of the official dossier.

“Write an application for the animal of your interest along with your contact details. We’ll consider the application and get back to you,” she says in one rushed breath.

But what does the scheme entail? How will the animals benefit? How will the park utilize additional funds? She adjusts the perfectly placed pink duppatta across her shoulders and points to a green structure across the road. We will get answers there, she assures us.

The Lion and Tiger Safari Superintendent’s Office or the Waiting Game

Only one of the three offices is open. Two clerks are organizing a stack of papers, the almirah is partly open. The officer isn’t in.

“Sir is in the field, I don’t know when he’ll be back.”

Photo by author

“Can you check with him on the phone?”

“We don’t have his number.” We laugh.

“Sir’s official phone is out of order. We don’t have his personal number,” she clarifies.

“Will he be back for lunch?”

“I can’t say.”

“Do you know details of the scheme?”

Haan, write an application for the animal of your interest along with your contact details. They’ll consider the application and get back to you.” When we don’t budge, “You can wait if you like, but I don’t know when he will be back.”

“But he will stop by before leaving for the day?”

“I can’t say.”

The Animal Adoption Scheme or the Aha! Moment

We wait. We gossip, we complain for the next few hours. In the office, the clerk and her colleagues discuss her impending nuptials. They give her grooming advice – what creams to use and when to apply for leave. Outside a dog yawns and settles close to the porch for an afternoon nap.

Just as we are about to break, two cars pull up. The cars are expensive and the men rough – politicians, or goons, we guess – generally an intersecting set.

The guy with a bushy moustache and bully voice asks for the officer. “Tenna phone lava.” Call him, he orders, walking into the closed office. The superintendent appears within minutes, a bureaucratic cliché. Jaws clenched we stay on.

Once the group leaves we are ushered in. We put forth our questions, too tired to bother with pleasantries. His answer: “Write an application for the animal of your interest along with your contact details. We’ll consider the application and get back to you.”

We probe for details.

The money that comes in will be used to run the enclosures as it is run today. There will be no additions, no changes, except a sponsor’s board on the enclosure. In short, no improvements will be implemented.

Photo by magiceye

“Sponsors will not be entitled to dictate terms or interfere in the functioning of the park,” he repeats over and over again.

Why initiate the scheme then?

“So that government money meant for park upkeep can be diverted towards other (important) projects.”

When is the project scheduled?

“Madam, the proposal for the scheme has been sent to the State Government. Once they approved the scheme, we will put it into action.”

The scheme isn’t approved yet? What about the ad?

“We wanted to see if the public would respond to such a scheme before we sent the paperwork to the ministry. The response was very good; we are sure the scheme will be approved.”

It’s four hours later; we leave the park exhausted and without a tiger.

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