Pratima Devi, 80, commonly known as Amma in Saket, a posh south Delhi locality, had been running a shelter home for stray dogs for three decades before she and her dogs were rendered homeless in the extreme cold of Delhi as her shanty and shelter were razed on January 2 by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi on grounds of encroachment.
Devi had been selling tea out of a modest tea shop for a living and taking care of stray dogs too before the authorities swooped on her.
“It’s been 30 years now and I don’t know what I’ve done wrong to get this kind of treatment? They have attempted to destroy my shelter home multiple times in the past – in 2003, 2008, 2017 and 2021. Am I hurting anyone? Am I stealing or doing something illegal? You tell me, I am just making ends meet by running a small tea shop and taking care of these dogs — is that a wrong thing to do?” asks an upset Devi.
Devi moved to Delhi from West Bengal in 1984 in search of her son, who used to work in Delhi and live with her sister. However, she was unable to contact him and began working as a domestic servant at a salary of Rs 200 per month.
The octogenarian was penniless when she started off in Kolkata (then Calcutta).
“I worked for around 12 years in Calcutta but couldn’t save anything since the daily wages were quite low, and occasionally individuals wouldn’t give me money for my labour. They instead paid me in kind, like one kilogramme of rice and wheat. My spouse used to get low wages and left me after I came to Delhi,” recalls Devi.
Her first employers were so happy with her work that just after the first six months of her employment, they decided to create a modest tea shop for her.
“I used to sell tea for five and 10 paisa. The dogs would come to my modest shop and sit. That’s when I began looking after these pets,” adds Devi.
“I’ve always had a soft spot for dogs. Once the number of dogs increased, my responsibilities also increased. They became my family. I devoted my life to them. It wasn’t easy as I was regularly bothered by the policemen and MCD workers, but it was the love for these pure souls (dogs) that kept me going.”
Devi alleges that it is the people in the nearby marketplace (PVR Anupam, Saket), who have complained against her, as they don’t want a tea stall with a dog shelter that garners public attention near the big fancy shops.
She also hints at conspiracy.
“A tea-stall owner has managed to stay here on her own for whole 30 years — that makes other people jealous. It’s all a conspiracy,” says Devi.
“The MCD workers also destroyed the drums in which grains were stored. Saara chawal barbaadhogaya (the rice from the drums also fell and is of no use now). Since we haven’t been able to cook food for the last four days, the public has been sending us food.”
The stray dogs are on the streets but good Samaritans who are helping her are also bringing food for the dogs, like leaving boxes of dog food.
“I’m not worrying about anything. I know God is with me now, and so is the public. I’ve devoted my life to taking care of around a thousand dogs. I have faced a lot of difficulties along the way. There were times when people used to come and leave their dogs in the shelter or tie them here and leave. But I never gave up on the dogs and I am sure God will not give up on me. I’m sure I’ll reap the fruits of my actions,” says Devi hopefully.
While the public has been helpful, there has been no assistance from the government.
“You won’t believe it, but I’ve never seen a government person come to my aid in my whole life,” she says.
“I’ve watched them help everyone but me all these times. I’ve fulfilled my responsibilities as a resident. I have a voter ID card, I vote. I have an Aadhar card as well as a pan card. I am entitled to government assistance. Even during the elections, they won’t visit us,” says Devi.
She credits common people for helping her out during the lockdown, surviving which was tough not only for her but for even the well-to-do people.
“Imagine how difficult it would have been for an 80-year-old woman to live with these animals during the lockdown, especially when many young people who were fit enough to work were also struggling to make ends meet,” she adds.
“We too lost a few dogs. But it was people who stepped forward to help with dog food and in any other manner they could. Even now, all of our help has come from the public and non-profit sectors,” she says further.
Sanjay Mohapatra, who runs an NGO named ‘House of Stray Animals’ and was present at the location when the demolition took place, narrates the incident: “I was present at the location and was detained when I tried to question the grounds on which the demolition took place.”
Mohapatra, who helped get a stay order against the demolition, questions the role of MCD personnel. The stay order has been given until the conclusion of the case hearing.
“This place has belonged to the animals for the last 30 years and let me remind [you] that taking care of these animals should be the government’s responsibility or MCD’s, not Amma’s.
“We all pitched in to take care of these creatures. My NGO has provided shelter homes. We’ve fought and managed to get a stay order for Amma and her dogs. In a way, we’re like helping the authorities in their work, and this is how we’re being treated?” says Mohapatra angrily.
“The authorities demolished the poor woman’s livelihood without any prior notice or information. How will she survive this freezing season with temperatures reaching 3 degrees Celsius?” he says further.
Mohapatra concludes her comments by saying that action taken by MCD will send a negative message throughout the country and the whole world.
“To be honest, a state that does not respect animals is a state that people do not respect. This is happening in the country’s capital so you can imagine how many such catastrophes, taking place on a daily basis, go unnoticed,” says Mohapatra further.
Pawan Kumar, who helps Devi operate the dog sanctuary, says MCD demolition workers arrived in the area at about noon on Monday and began dismantling the shanty.
“There was no previous notice given to us. Amma ji has been sick and is now forced to live outside. We are appealing to everyone to assist us in rebuilding the shelter,” he stated.
Kumar says that when they tried to stop the demolition, they were threatened that they will be detained.
“We don’t even have the right to defend our homes,” he complains.
Mant, 57, a resident of Noida sector-137, has been regularly providing food to the dogs in Devi’s shelter.
He laments the decision and says, “We have not just given these dogs a shelter. We are feeding them, getting them sterilised and adopting them. Everything we’ve done, we’ve done with our own money, and this is the end result. Our prime minister has also asked us to adopt animals and take care of them, but the ground reality is totally different, as you can see for yourselves.”
Jagannath Satpathi, a 45-year-old resident of Faridabad, had been visiting the shelter for the last six months.
“I’ve never felt frightened around these dogs. The idea that these dogs are dangerous for society is totally wrong. Being a pet parent myself, I am aware of these statements. However, I would like to respond to them and call the claims unfounded and a result of people’s phobias. These magnificent creatures have the right to live beside us. All they need in exchange for some love and devotion, is valuable friendship.”
A makeshift shelter is being planned by the patrons.
Patriot tried contacting MCD officials but there was no response to the email.
However, in a statement given to a section of the media, a senior municipal corporation official said the demolition was part of a routine encroachment removal drive as the shanty was built illegally on public land.
“We have also asked the district administration to help in the rehabilitation of any affected through the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB). We also appeal to animal NGOs to come forward and facilitate the adoption of the dogs by citizens,” said the official.
“The MCD veterinary department has sterilised all these dogs and they do not pose any threat. In case there are any personal belongings that have been confiscated during the drive, they will be released,” added the official.