India is no longer a country of snake charmers. Today, this ceases to be just a symbol one can be proud of. For India is literally losing its beguiling and dwindling lot of snake charmers because of the enforcement of stringent wildlife laws and raucous rigour of various animal-rights activists.
"The only snakes that are visible in our lives," says Shambu Nath - an 80-year-old man from Sapera Basti (hamlet), a community of about 200 families on the Northeastern outskirts of New Delhi - pointing to the tarred road beyond, "are the ones on which other mobile units move." Snakes, the sole route to their livelihood has been snuffed out of their lives with no provisions of or guidance to alternate modes of living. The snakes in their possession have starved to death and their charmers are on their way.
A snake charmer usually seeks the attention of a snake by playing a long clarinet-like instrument (been) that is bloated at the bottom. For the common man the snake sways to its tunes but herpetologists say that the snakes can't hear sounds in the same frequency band as humans. They are actually preparing themselves to face the music rather than enjoying it.
Today, these snake charmers have been asked to drop their beens and strip their skins or perish in penury. "This is the only work that we have learnt to do," says Lalan Nath. Tradition and its afterthought has crippled them beyond redemption. Most of the hutments they live in this village with thatched roofs and mud kilns are spare structures that reflect the state of depravation that the snake charmers have been subjected to ever since the the ban on keeping sakes under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. The Act was enforced in 2003.
Lalan, who has had no education, refuses to move out of Sapera Basti saying that even cable television is partially responsible for the threat that they face in theior lives. He is sitting in a small room that also functions as the office of Pahalwan Band where some youngsters are sitting and watching a Hindi film on cable TV.
The band does some scarce musical performances at marriages and has a few times gone abroad to perform at the government's Inda festivals. "It is ironic that the government still wants to project our image as representatives of the Indian culture abroad while back home they are trying to snuff the lives out of us," says 52-year-old Paras.
He has handled snakes as venomous as cobras and kraits but now carries gas cylinders as he has joined a cooking gas supplying agency as a delivery vendor, the only slithering thing he handles is the blue gas pipe that connects the cylinder to the stove. "I often wonder if it will come alive and move and dance to my tune," he says. He among thousands others are surely an endangered species. And it is a problem that the government has not sunk its teeth into.
Now these snake charmers are, particularly, the younger lot have got into rag-picking, collection of iron waste, polythene, and so on because these odd jobs offer better remuneration.