Nothing in 40 years of service has prepared Colonel Katoch for this kind of guerilla warfare.
Pellet gun in his hand, he awaits the enemy: The marauding troops of monkeys who, every day, invade his one acre Palampur farm.
They eat everything he grows: Apples, litchis, guavas , potatoes and gourd. Even flowers are not spared.
"They are everywhere," Katoch complains. "And they aren't afraid of anything. An alpha male leads a pack of 10 or 15. They destroy everything they can't eat. I've taken to growing chillies and ginger but how much chillies can you eat ? Anyone who promises to deal with the monkey menace this election has my vote."
In 2005, the Virbhadra Singh government launched a sterilisation campaign to curb the monkey population. Eight vasectomy centres were opened, Rs 20 crore was spent, 1.98 lakh monkeys were sterilised. And yet their population continues to grow.
Now, with elections in Himachal Pradesh slated for 9 November, the two major political parties in the fray, the BJP and Congress, are promising to put an end to this monkey business.
The BJP's chief ministerial candidate Prem Kumar Dhumal is blaming the ruling Congress: "Crores have been spent on the vasectomy centers by the Virbhadra Singh government. But the monkey population is only increasing."
The Congress camp has admitted failure and promised to do more.
Ashish Butail, 39, the Congress candidate from Palampur, said solving the monkey menace is a key plank of his campaign.
"I admit the sterilisation programme hasn't worked the way it was expected to. But I am asking people to give me a chance. Once I win, I will deal with the problem."
According to the latest census, there are 2.6 lakh monkeys in the state, many of them a daily nuisance for people in Himachal Pradesh's 2,300 villages and cities. Shimla alone has 2,400 monkeys. The government has deployed monkey watchers near schools to keep an eye on them.
In the past three years, over 700 people—especially women and children—have been bitten by monkeys who roam around temples, highways and rooftops in both rural and urban areas.
Anuradha Dev, a student in Shimla said she has stopped going to the famous Jakhu Temple due to the monkey menace.
"It is the fault of people as well," Dev complained "Why do they feed monkeys at the temple or on the roads? It only encourages them to approach humans. No one is safe. Try walking down the temple steps and see what happens. Even your prasad packet will be snatched away. I now carry a big stick when I go for a walk."
At Palampur's Himachal Pradesh Agricultural University, a veterinary professor who does not wish to be named, says the sterilisation approach is short-sighted.
"Sterilisation alone cannot solve the problem. You sterilise one alpha male in the group and another will emerge. Monkeys also reproduce quickly. Some bureaucrats sitting in their comfortable air-conditioned offices with no clue of animal behaviour decided sterilisation would work. It hasn't worked for the past 12 years. Where I live, we had around 40 monkeys. That number has multiplied to 200. We don't even bring babies out in the sun anymore. Because who knows what could happen," the professor said.
Monkeys have been declared vermin in 39 tehsils. The state even offers monetary rewards to anyone who kills them. But religious sentiments often stop people from killing monkeys.
As American satirist HL Mencken once famously said: Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from a monkey cage.
Looks like the circus is back in town.
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Updated Date: Nov 05, 2017 17:31:21 IST