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How beasts shrug off burdens

When bullock cart owners send their animals to PETA’s sanctuary in Gurugram, they are saved from backbreaking labour and get a chance to live with their own kind

The Capital city is host to about 250 bullocks walking day in day out with heavy loads on their backs. Rain or shine or cold winds, they do back-breaking work so that their owners can eke out an existence. It’s a hard life for both man and animal.

Better days might be coming, as PETA is persuading bullock cart owners to switch to eco-friendlier e-rickshaw. We met three such individuals who within 10-15 days of this move already feel the difference.

Over burdened no more 

Ramji Lal and his wife Roopvati live in a one-room house in a slum colony in Nangloi. Life has been a struggle for them, raising two daughters and a son who could not study beyond 8th and 9th grade — their youngest son is now in first grade.

The banter they share cannot hide their hardships. Hitting her husband playfully, Roopvati says, “I tell him not to wear such old clothes, buy new ones, but he wears them till they are worn out”.

Their younger daughter, like her mother, works in the shoe factory around the corner. “If I could have, I would have run away, leaving him long ago. But how could I? I have held his hand so I couldn’t leave it and what about the kids?” she says.

Lal moved to Delhi from UP’s Bulandshahr 25 years back and since then had been using a bullock cart to transport oil drums and timber. “I have taken my bullock to Faridabad and even Gurgaon — not just me, the poor animal would get so tired,” he says.

People would stop him on the road and tell him to feed the animal, give him rest, and even accuse him of abusing it. He agrees though that he couldn’t give the animal proper care. “When the trader gave a heavy consignment, I would object but then they would not relent and I had to earn.”

His wife adds that even when they didn’t have enough food at home, they would make sure to feed their bullock the little they had, mostly rotis.

Despite the labour, Lal could earn only about Rs 500 in a day’s work. The wife says that as they couldn’t manage in such low income, she started working in the factory two years ago. But leaving aside the high cost of maintaining a bullock and the low earnings, what was also difficult was Lal’s absence: “He would sometimes be gone for three days.”

For the bullock, even at home there would be no rest. He would be left out on the street amidst the rush of automobiles and people. Locals would object. “The poor thing would keep walking morning  to night. It’s not like he could speak and say he was tired so let’s stop,” Roopvati said.

Now, both husband and wife are happier. Lal went to see his bullock in the Gurugram sanctuary where he is lodged. “He gets good food, he is left free outside where there are no vehicles to disturb him, there are people looking after all his needs.”

The family themselves hope for a better future. Lal now has the choice of an afternoon break and not working odd hours, nor staying away from home for days at a time.

Change right on time

Just around the corner from Ramji Lal’s home lives Bani Singh, Lal’s elder brother. He was the first in this part of town to take the offer of an e-rickshaw, forgoing his bullock cart. He lives with his wife Kanta and youngest son — a graduate working in a private bank — out of six children.

In their native Bulandshahr they have land but no home built on it as they don’t have enough money. Here in Delhi, they have managed to buy themselves this home in the slum.

“The change is great,” Singh says. “I feel better now. Earlier, whether I had work or not I would have to constantly look after our bullock. We had no rest.” Now he leaves his e-rickshaw at the designated parking spot where it gets re-charged overnight for Rs 100.

“Earlier, I would spend a whole week without work, sometimes. There was no respectability. No one would allow us to even stand on the street corner, let alone come inside and take shelter from the heat.”

His bullock would have to be reined in heavy traffic which meant pulling at the rope which went through his nose. It was a painful and tremendously hard job, Singh accepts. And for him too the job became far too difficult. “Most of the time, no one would help me load the drums onto the cart. I would have to do it myself.”

Now all he has to do is stop and let on passengers to drop off in and around his area, as he pleases. “I take what they give me. I don’t really know the cost so anything is fine for now.”

He gave up his bullock over 15 days back and has since gone to meet it twice. “I called out to him and he recognised me. He looked clean and healthy. We couldn’t clean him that often: He would stay on the road and get filthy. He is given good food and water. When it’s cool outside he is let out and when it’s hot he is let back in. This makes me happy.”

But he says, not everyone backs this change. The traders rue the loss of the cheap means of transporting goods.

Hope rides on

Around 15 minutes away in Prem Nagar lives Ved Prakash. His house is reached via a dusty, uneven road filled with boulders. Lack of sanitation and smell of sewage is overwhelming.

He stays at the edge of the colony next to the railway tracks, where sewage has leaked, and garbage is thrown by residents. They can never sit outside in the evenings, even indoors they are attacked by swarms of mosquitos.

Prakash’s wife Nisha works in a soft toy factory, while his younger sister Uma is studying for BEd and simultaneously providing tailoring and ‘parlour’ services. His father, who has not been keeping well, and his grandfather, all made their living from bullock carts.

“My father didn’t study, and started working when he was 15 in Paharganj,” Prakash says. He himself worked in the same profession for over 10 years.

Then the mandi moved from Paharganj to Naraina, and they had to ride all the way to look for work. “Life was tough for us and also for the bullock. No matter how hot or how much traffic there was, we would work.” What was worse, he alleges, people would sometimes poison his bullock. It would become sick and be sent to their village in Hapur, UP.

It has only been 10 days since he got the e-rickshaw and he’s still getting used to driving. He went to see his bullock and was happy with the environs. “There was no noise except of other animals and birds. No traffic, no honking. The animals are happy there.”

ROAD AHEAD

Mahesh Tyagi, PETA’s India Mechanisation Project Coordinator, says the transition was successful as they were able to show examples from earlier beneficiaries of the scheme.

Eleven bullock cart owners have been given e-rickshaws via this project while Animal Rahat, another NGO, helped five equine owners and five bullock cart owners change their means of livelihood. There’s still a long way to go. Along with 250 bullock carts, there also 150 horses pulling carriages in seven areas of Delhi. “When the animal first reaches the sanctuary, we remove the rope which goes through its nose, and then we garland him,” says Tyagi. He is then given jaggery and dana (grains) and his happiness is obvious.”

“Some animals come from Shahdara, some Nangloi. It looks like they are getting to know each other,” Tyagi says adding that they perhaps never came in contact with another animal of their kind — even if they did, not in this environment, where they are free.

Most owners, he says, feel very strongly for their animals. One such man cried, Tyagi says, when he saw his animal in the sanctuary. His reward is clearly when the families see better days and the animal lives a peaceful life.

Tongas are being used despite the MCD ban in the run-up to Commonwealth Games 2010. CEO of PETA India Manilal Valliyate says they hope the MCD starts inducing owners to abandon this form of work.

PETA gives Rs 50,000 as down payment for a rickshaw, after which they get finance of Rs 60,000. The Delhi government’s Rs 30,000 subsidy for e-rickshaws goes to PETA. Rs 20,000, Valliyate says, is written off if the owner gives up his animal.

The organisation thus hopes that the MCD and the Delhi government promote this scheme as it would help not just the animals who live in tragic conditions but their owners too. A spinoff would be boost in sales of e-rickshaws.