The Asswin Project in Gurgaon, run by sexagenarians Bob and Jean Harrison, treats injured donkeys and shelters the ones that have been abused and abandoned
(An edited version of this story appeared, this week, in a local paper called Friday Gurgaon)
Happy meals at the shelter
You follow Bob and Jean Harrison’s Maruti van and animal ambulance as it makes its daily trip to the Asswin donkey shelter at Kerki Majra on the rural outskirts of Gurgaon. Along the way, the British couple, who are in their late sixties and have lived in India since 1994, stop to load the vehicle with sacks of animal feed, shredded jowar and vegetables. Things look like they’re going smoothly and you expect to reach the shelter in good time when the van breaks down under the weight of its load.
“Oh, this happens quite often,” says Jean matter-of-factly as Bob unloads the van and prepares to fix the flat tire. When you eventually get to the shelter, comprising two well-ventilated structures with spacious stalls located on 35 acres of grassland, you are greeted by two workers Sonu and Raju and the small resident pack of rescued dogs who respond enthusiastically to Enid Blytonesque names like Ginger and Snowy. Next, Sid comes up and nibbles at your trousers. “Oh, our Sid likes the ladies to pay attention,” says Bob. Sid is a lovely little blue-grey donkey with such an adorable face that you just have to pat his head and murmur endearments in his long ears.
Bob and Jean preparing veggie treats
Everywhere on the plot, given to the project by the Gurgaon municipal corporation, the shelter’s 61 donkeys and mules and four horses nibble at the grass, flick their tails at the flies and bray happily to each other. Really, the shelter of the Asswin Project for Donkeys and other Animals in India is the closest thing to quadruped heaven in a country where animals are usually worked to death and treated merely as a means to a lucrative end.
Donkeys have always been used as beasts of burden in India but earlier generations perhaps had a more humane approach to the animals in their care. “Rudyard Kipling’s father, John Lockwood Kipling, wrote Beast and Man in India: A Popular Sketch of Indian Animals in Their Relations with the People about the country’s working animals where he mentioned that donkeys were used by washer men and potters to transport loads,” says Bob as he shakes the bran and jowar into feeding troughs, occasionally throwing in a juicy radish as a treat. Life as a dhobi’s donkey was probably idyllic in comparison to the horrors of Gurgaon’s building sites where donkeys are widely employed. Indeed, the whole of sparkling Gurgaon with its fancy malls and blazing towers that house the offices of every major corporation was built off the backs of these humble animals. Donkeys labour at the sites, at the brick kilns and in the stone quarries of nearby Chhattarpur carrying loads far in excess of the 35kgs mandated under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960. In a country where human life itself is so devalued, it isn’t surprising to learn that donkeys are beaten mercilessly, made to work endless hours with suppurating sores on their bodies and broken legs and that the labour often results in them dying of a broken back.
"Wait, baby," Sonu implores an impatient donkey!
Almost all the rescued donkeys at the shelter hobble. One, regally named Edwina, was abandoned after her hoof was torn off, others bear scars, a few have ripped ears and a white mare called Lily, who was once the star at numerous weddings, has a hip that juts out from being made to dance on her hind legs. “You just have to place a finger on the backs of some donkeys for them to collapse. The nerves have been so worn down by overloading,” says Bob, a former employee of the British High Commission, who officially set up the Asswin Project – named after the twin gods of medicine in Indian mythology – in July 2006. The project, which currently runs on about Rs 70,000 a month, is financed almost entirely from Bob’s pension and a few donations mostly from the UK. Indian donors are few and far between.
Edwina, her best friend Lily, the white wedding mare, and her foal Fleur
Perhaps it’s because donkeys are inextricably connected with labour and with rituals of humiliation – until recently offenders were garlanded with chappals and paraded on donkeys – that most Indians consider the donkey ridiculous and entirely overlook its loyal and hardworking nature. So, while there are many who are eager to protect cows, traditionally considered holy, there are few protectors of donkeys.
Whatever the roots of the Indian distaste for donkeys, it is a shame that we ill-treat this animal which continues to play such a crucial though unrecognised role in India’s growth.
If Bob has any fears it is that there will be no one to carry on the Asswin Project’s good work after they are gone. “We hope we can find someone who can take over so we can retire again,” he says as you leave.
For the sake of the hardworking donkeys of Gurgaon, you hope someone as capable, upright, and committed as the Harrisons turns up soon.