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This is a collection of articles archived for the excellence of their content.


Kartik Purnima fair

Transcending religion, caste

Harveer Dabas, Nov 12, 2019: The Times of India

Suraj, 6, giggled in amusement as wet locks of his hair fell on the lap and he felt the morning breeze on the bald patches of his head. The barber, Kareem, who was at the he-lm of his head and was tonsuring him, was also a happy man. Suraj was his 12th customer.

Just like Kareem, more than 800 people from the minority community make hay during the week-long Kartik Purnima fair in UP’s Bijnor every year, notwithstanding the religious divide. Ranging from flower vendors to balloon sellers and barbers, they fan out in the entire ‘mela’ area and help run the show smoothly.

“They are catering to lakhs of pilgrims. The man who supervised the fair arrangement is also from the Muslim community. Their cooperation is invaluable,” said Shyam Bahadur Sharma, apar mukhya adhikari of district panchayat.

Ali Hasan, a 60-year-old vendor selling toys said, “I am from nearby Mandawar town. These fairs do not belong to any community or caste. They are of all communities. ”

“Bikes of Bijnor” 


Dipak Dash, April 5, 2021: The Times of India

Bijnor, a small city in Uttar Pradesh, has set an example of how bicycle sharing can be rolled out with little investment at a time when several big cities are struggling to start such initiatives. The “Bikes of Bijnor” scheme utilised 100 refurbished bicycles left behind by migrant labourers, which would have become junk by now.

This experiment in the past one month involving government officers and civil society has received appreciation from central government agencies and even Union road transport minister Nitin Gadkari. He pointed out in Parliament that this was an affordable model to promote non-motorised transport in urban areas. These bicycles are currently available to riders without any charge but soon users would have to pay a token Rs 5 for a four-hour ride and Rs 10 for 12 hours.

The scheme was conceived by Vikramaditya Singh Malik, a 2018 batch IAS officer, who took charge as SDM in the district last August. Malik said he spotted a number of bicycles lying at a police post when he was on a tour in October and their conditions had deteriorated. These cycles belonged to migrant labourers who were returning home during the lockdown.

Bijnor lies on the way from Punjab, Haryana and Uttarakhand and several migrant labourers on cycles took this route to reach their homes in eastern UP and Bihar. The administration had made arrangements to provide food and shelter and to send them to their homes in special trains and buses. Hence, they left their cycles in Bijnor. “For months, these cycles were stacked up at vari ous centres facing severe wear and tear sometimes. Around 400 cycles were lying abandoned. So, we planned how to utilise them before they became junk,” Malik told TOI. These cycles were brought to the district headquarters and an independent valuation assessment was done, which was worked out at Rs 600. The district administration tried to reach out to the actual owners to find if they want to take back their cycles or would take Rs 600. Very few owners took back the cycles. The price for each cycle was paid from the DM Covid Relief Fund.

A society was formed and contributions came from different groups to operationalise the scheme.


Migration to J&K

Harveer Dabas, Labourers from J&K head back to Valley, say `situation normal'Dec 20 2016 : The Times of India

Kashmir is considered the hub of bakeries, painting shops and garments, especially leather jackets. According to a rough estimate, around 1,500 workers (including construction workers, barbers and washermen) from the district, including Mandawali, Kaziwala, Barkala, Chandpura, Madhusudanpur, Bhoganwala, Kotwali and Dehat areas, used to depend on Kashmir for their livelihood.Many of them had been staying in the Valley for years, living in areas like Badgaon, Chanapora, Sopore, Rambag, Nawata, Tral, etc. Out of the 1500, over 1,000 had returned [in mid 2015] after unrest in the Valley resulted in loss of their jobs.

“We lived in Sopore for years. My shop was running well. But all went downhill after the clashes started in Kashmir four months ago. As the situation deteriorated, markets closed down indefinitely,“ said Mohammed Intezar, a barber. Intezar decided to return after he heard that the situation had improved in the Valley


As in 2023

Sandeep Rai & Harveer Dabas, Nov 18, 2023: The Times of India

Leopard terror in Bijnor’s villages

17 people have been killed by the big cats in just the past 8 months. UP officials estimate there are around 300 leopards in the area

Sandeep Rai & Harveer Dabas | TNN

The link roads of Shahpur Jamal village in Uttar Pradesh’s Bijnor district used to be eerily quiet as dusk turned into darkness, but now they echo with the shrill sounds of plastic horns almost every evening as schoolchildren and teachers head home past the dense sugarcane fields.

“We have been told to blow them to ward off leopards,” says Divya Kumari, a class 5 student at a government primary school in Mahsanpur village, barely a kilometre from Shahpur Jamal.

17 Kills In 8 Months

The local people have reason to be scared – 17 have lost their lives and more than 50 have been injured in leopard attacks in the region in just the past eight months. The forest department has designated 75-odd villages as “leopardprone hamlets”.

It’s a region surrounded by numerous wildlife corridors, including the Amangarh Tiger Reserve in Bijnor and Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand. While the forest department has tried everything to prevent attacks – continuous combing on trained elephants, issuing shooton-sight orders, and capturing more than two dozen leopards – the toll continues to rise.

So, left with no choice, the villagers have been trying to protect themselves with traditional methods.

Protect Your Neck

Vivek Chaudhary, a farmer from Faridpur Bhogi village, told TOI they work on their farms in groups, even though it is not always practical, especially in the sugarcane harvest season. They also bind their necks in thick cloth “to survive if we are attacked by a prowling leopard”.

Baljit Singh, a government-certified hunter who has killed 13 maneaters over five decades, says the wrap can save lives. “Leopards and tigers mostly target the neck. Protecting it can significantly increase a person’s chances of surviving an ambush.”

Nights are a time of heightened vigil, with families in villages taking turns to keep a watch. Suresh Kumar, a labourer in Mannagar village, says, “We live in dread. Days are relatively safe but nights can be terrifying. The slightest rustle startles us. Even indoors, we sleep with lathis beside our beds.”

Kids Are Easy Prey

Late last summer, Zebunissa, 40, lost her fiveyear-old niece to a leopard. “She was snatched from our front yard. We ran after the leopard, but it was too late. Her partially eaten body was found about 200 metres from our home,” she says.

In September, an 11-year-old boy from the village was killed on his way to buy groceries. His mother, Puja Devi, says he ran into a leopard on a link road beside a sugarcane field: “We found his lifeless body in a pool of blood a few hours later.”

Zebunissa’s family have raised the height of their boundary wall and installed steel mesh around their cattle shed. “No one goes outside this safe bubble at night unless absolutely necessary,” she says.

The villagers feel powerless against the leopards. “We are trapped with nowhere to go,” says Durbesh Kumar, a resident of Afzalgarh whose mother Gomti Devi (65) was killed by a leopard while collecting fodder in August. All they found was her headless body. “We cannot harm leopards as it is illegal under the Wildlife Protection Act,” he rues.

Unintended Victims?

The forest department is authorised to hunt down ‘man-eaters’, but RK Singh, deputy chief veterinary officer at the animal husbandry department in UP, says every leopard that attacks a human is not a man-eater.

“These incidents are cases of mistaken identity – the animals cannot distinguish between prey and humans. Also, there have been instances where we found injured leopards, who had lost their ability to hunt, eating parts of human bodies. Labelling them as man-eaters would be unfair,” says the expert who has years of experience in rescuing tigers and leopards.

Breeding Amid Cane

The risk of leopard attacks is higher in the sugarcane belt because cane fields are breeding grounds for leopards, RK Singh explains. “The mothers are highly protective of their cubs and get startled by human presence. Besides, during the mating season these animals become more aggressive due to their increased hormone levels.”

Gyan Singh, sub-divisional forest officer of Bijnor, says geography also plays a role: “Apart from dense forests and tiger reserves in the vicinity, Bijnor district has numerous dams and barrages. Their catchment areas get inundated, forcing the animals out of their habitats and resulting in such attacks.”

Although there’s no official count of leopards in the district, Gyan Singh says they expect the number to be around 300. “We have captured nearly 30 leopards and also issued a list of do’s and don’ts to the villagers,” he adds. Zoos Don’t Want Them

But capturing leopards is not a long-term solution because zoos in Uttar Pradesh are stretched to capacity. Aditi Sharma, director of Lucknow Zoo, says, “With limited resources, we have no choice but to refuse to accommodate more leopards. Releasing them into the wild is pointless as they tend to return to human habitats.”

While leopards have robbed this belt of its tranquillity, they have had one unintended benefit. “Some farmers say that their presence keeps stray animals at bay, ensuring the safety of crops,” says deputy chief veterinary officer Singh.

Shaikh haveli


Harveer Dabas, March 21, 2023: The Times of India

For over 300 years, the Shaikhs of Syohara have held on to their sprawling haveli. So have the sparrows.
From: Harveer Dabas, March 21, 2023: The Times of India

BIJNOR : For over 300 years, the Shaikhs of Syohara have held on to their sprawling haveli. So have the sparrows.

Twenty-three years ago, Akbar Shaikh, the patriarch of the family, bequeathed his ancestral haveli to his eldest son Shaikh Jamal with an oath that had passed down generations — that the structure of the mansion never be altered and that the sparrows that have lived there for centuries not be displaced. Jamal agreed. His forefathers, too, had acquiesced to the “clause”.

The 52-year-old continues to fulfil his father’s wish. According to estimates of the UP forest department, the mansion is currently home to over 2,000 sparrows. On Monday, World Sparrow Day, the sprawling mansion came alive with anevent held by the forest department in collaboration with Jamal’s family.

The mansion is popularly known as “Gauraiya walon ki haveli” and is home to close over 2,000 sparrows — this at a time when the population of the bird has drastically declined in the urban landscape owing to habitat loss and diminishing ecological resources for sustenance.

On Monday, 50 bags of grain and earthen pots were distributed to local residents with an appeal that they would look after the sparrows.“My father, Akbar Shaikh, had six sons. Three of them died early. I was then given the task to look after the haveli — and the birds that had made it their home. I have been ill lately. But my 22-year-old son Sheikh Faraz will take up the responsibility of looking after the sparrows,” Jamal toldTOI on Monday. Jamal added: “This has always been the tradition in our family. Elders while handing over the property to their scions ensure with an oath that the younger generation takes care of thesparrows in the haveli. Our love and affection towards these birds have been passed on through the ages. They are like our children.”

The sparrows can be seen everywhere at “Gauraiya walon ki haveli”. Baskets with grains are laid out for them. Locals do their bit. They contribute what they can.

Faraz said, “I've studied hotel management and am looking for a job now. But I have to say that I find so much peace amid my tiny friends. Serving them is not just a hobby, but our family tradition and duty.” With a coy smile, Faraz shares a secret: “The sparrows have helped me find my love. Before marrying Wania (Siddiqui), I used to send her videos of these birds. She was greatly impressed.”

Wania confessed, “These birds actually brought me to this house. If I don’t hear the chirping, I feel uneasy…”

Sub divisional forest officer Gyan Singh said, “They have set an example for all of us. Conserving sparrows for generations is not easy. Andthey have done it with so much love. Our department appreciates what they have achieved.” Jamal, though, is a tad worried. “The sudden decline in the sparrow population has been attributed to the felling of trees and excessive use of pesticides. Authorities should make it mandatory for residents to plant saplings when they build a house. Most of the houses in urban and semi-urban areas don’t have trees or even small plants these days. Where will the birds go?”



Sandeep Rai & Harveer Dabas, TNN, August 6, 2023: The Times of India

Bhawna Kumari Singh at the Sahanpur fort in Bijnor’s Najibabad block.
From: Sandeep Rai & Harveer Dabas, TNN, August 6, 2023: The Times of India
The Sacred Heart Church that was built by one of the Tajpur royals, whose descendant Inderjeet Singh (inset) resides at the haveli of Bijay Niwas in Noorpur block
From: Sandeep Rai & Harveer Dabas, TNN, August 6, 2023: The Times of India

Less than 200km by road from Delhi lies Bijnor, the UP district known for forests, rivers, and sugarcane fields. It is also home to several palaces of the erstwhile princely states that once ruled the area. With their estates gone and upkeep proving ever more difficult, these havelis have slid into slow disrepair, though their walls and halls are still adorned with tiger skins and hunting trophies that speak of the time when royalty thrived in these parts. 
Now, as it prospers under state protection, it is to the tiger that these havelis are looking for reviving their faded glory. The trump card, the royals hope, will be these havelis’ proximity to the Amangarh tiger reserve, which lies in the buffer zone of the Jim Corbett national park. The reserve opened two of its gates in November last year and welcomed tourists for the first time. With improved road connectivity to the area – the Kashipur-Nainital highway and the Delhi-Pauri road have recently been widened – locals are counting on an uptick in tourist footfall. And the royals are hopeful their havelis can become heritage properties that add value to tiger safaris by offering visitors a taste of a princely past. 

Of Tigers And Other Tales

One such neglected structure is the 280-year-old Bijay Niwas, a sprawling 20-bigha property in Noorpur block of Bijnor. The Tyagi clan that ruled over the erstwhile Tajpur state – it was formed in the 18th century – is believed to be descended from the Taga tribe that fought off invaders in this region. 
One of the Tyagi forbears erected a “monument of love” – the Sacred Heart Church of Tajpur – that sits in a vast mango orchard. It was built around 110 years ago by Shiam Singh Rikh. He fell in love with and married a Frenchwoman and converted to Christianity, becoming Raja Francis Xavier Shiam Rikh. He built his wife this church, currently managed by the Roman Catholic Church, and both now lie buried there.

Covered in cobwebs and thick layers of dust, Bijay Niwas juxtaposes past glory with present decline. Visitors to the haveli are greeted by photographs of the members of the royal household lined on a mantelpiece with stuffed bears at hand as “guards”. A spacious hall contains more stuffed pieces – a tiger standing over a deer as four leopards look on. “The deterioration was gradual,” says Inderjeet Singh, a scion of the Tyagi family, who hopes the government will develop this region along the lines of Jaipur and Udaipur in Rajasthan. 
“First, our agricultural income was cut down in the 1960s. Then, the Wildlife Protection Act in the 1970s shut down our ‘shikaar company’, which arranged hunting trips for foreigners. Property divisions further reduced our income. Maintenance costs are high and that’s why we look forward to the government helping us to turn these properties into heritage hotels,” he says. 
In the district’s Najibabad division stands the Jalpur castle. Built in 1799, it still bears bullet marks from an attack by Daku Sultana, a terror of the Terai forests who earned the moniker of India’s ‘Robin Hood’ from British colonial rulers. Hunter and adventurer Corbett also wrote about Sultana and was part of the team that tracked him down and helped in his arrest. “Our doors still bear Daku Sultana’s bullet marks. I have lost count of the times I have narrated his story,” says Baljeet Singh, the current occupant of Jalpur castle.

Najibabad also has the Patthargarh fort. It was built by an Afghan military commander – his title of Najib ad-Dawlah gives the town its present name – who at one time owed allegiance to Mughal emperor Alamgir II. “The fort is crumbling. But with a little help from the government, we can turn it into a major tourist attraction,” suggests the Delhi-based Saeeda Masrooh Khan, the ninth descendent of Najib ad-Dawlah. 

Hidden Gems

The Sahanpur fort, seat of the erstwhile Sahanpur state, is also in Najibabad. It’s a white building with intricate designs and sprawling courtyards. Bhawna Kumari Singh, wife of Kunwar Bhartendra Singh, a former BJP MP from Bijnor, believes her 400-year-old home can be a hit with tourists. “Haridwar is barely 40km away and the Amangarh reserve is close by. If buildings like these get heritage status, tourists can get a royal treatment,” she says. Bhartendra Singh says he has spoken to UP CM Yogi Adityanath in this regard and “got some positive assurances from him”.

“We once ruled over 1,800 villages but that stream of income has long dried up. Now, we are banking on tourism to bring prosperity and generate jobs. Our ancestors had a sense of responsibility towards these villages, many of which are named after them, like Padrathpur, Preetampur and Devendernagar,” he says. Singh says Sahanpur is known for its thatheras (coppersmiths), “who have magic in their hands”.

The pashmina shawl embroidery here is “matchless”, he adds.
Bijnor DM Umesh Mishra said the government is “thinking seriously” about the proposal to turn forts into heritage properties. “The UP tourism department has promised to help.

We can link them (forts, palaces) to some important ashrams on the proposed Mahabharata circuit as well. We are in touch with some major players who can take these properties on lease and give visitors a five-star experience,” says Mishra, who lists the Haiderpur wetland, dolphin safari, and water sports in Peeli Dam as other tourist attractions that the area can offer.

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