The Donkey Sanctuary India (DSI) oversees the welfare of some 1500 donkeys working on building sites in Delhi and surrounding neighbourhoods. I visited one such site in Gurgaon on October 18 in the company of DSI veterinarian Dr Surajit Nath. These animals work five to six hours per day labouring to move loads of gravel, sand and cement from heaps placed in the broiling sun into the shaded interior where plasterers await fresh building materials. They wait patiently in the heat beside the gravel heaps for loads of 30-40 kg to be built up in saddle bags on their bony backs, then walk into the shaded skeleton of building under construction and up four or even five sets of concrete steps to reach the active work zone. They return, equally sure-footed down the stairs with empty saddle-bags to repeat the process over, and over again. It looks like backbreaking work. And it seems futile when cranes on the same construction site can be seen to lift loads of bricks to the roof-top. Donkeys rest and water for 30 minutes in the afternoon, then graze nearby for 2-3 hours in the evening and are tethered in the shade with grass and forage overnight.
Each donkey costs about €100 to purchase and has a working life of 18-20 years, they then ‘retire’ to villages to perform lighter work until they can work no more. The donkey owner, a subcontractor, is paid €2 per donkey provided per day; he is paid the same for each worker he in turn employs to load, drive and unload his donkeys. The men work in the same stifling, oppressive, and from a Western perspective unsafe conditions as donkeys. Imagine doing this for less than €2 per day! And people say these (donkeys and men) are the lucky ones – they have jobs, they have status, they have food and water, and in the men’s case they have some, albeit meagre income. Because in India work is a necessity, it’s a purpose, it means you have value, it means you have the means to survive.
And so, harsh as the environment and exhausting as the work seems to Western eyes, The Donkey Sanctuary India’s remit is to work to improve conditions and not to seek to ban the use of donkeys on construction sites – for where would they otherwise go, who would value, feed and water them? They might be found even tougher work – in the brick-kilns perhaps – or otherwise discarded as waste - no-one keeps donkeys as companions or pets in India. DSI staff work tirelessly to improve harnesses (replacing rope with webbing so that donkeys don’t get skin chaffing); they seek to fence off hazards (such as unprotected stairwells so that donkeys don’t fall); they work with sub-contractors and building site foremen (to ensure rest, water and shade is provided for donkeys) – they advocate for working equids. I’m not sure who performs this service for the men who work alongside.