Friday, April 16, 2010

The controversial elephant ride at Amer Fort, Jaipur

Every now and then, I keep hearing cries from activists to stop the elephant rides in Amer Fort.

These are ten minute rides, from the bottom of the hill to the fort, with a maximum of two riders to an elephant. The rides start around 8:00 a.m. and end by about 11:00 a.m.

Those who call for banning the rides say that it is cruel to the elephants, that they toil in the sun, and that the stone terrain is hard on their feet.

It is a complex issue, so to all those asking for the rides to be stopped, I say, please don't oversimplify it.

There are 4-5 traditional communities in India that work with animals - the madaris with their monkeys, the kalandars with bears, the elephant handlers, the saperas with their snakes, and there are also communities in Rajasthan who specialise in tiger hunting, and so on and so forth. Apart from these, there are many, many others in rural and small-town India who depend on animals for a living. When you advocate a course of action that impacts both people and animals, it is worthwhile to pause and think about not just the moral issues but also the practical ones.

For me, the first and larger dilemma comes when I ask myself - is domestication of animals ethically right? Do humans have the right to capture, tame and use wild animals? Do humans really have the right to tame and use other animals like camels, horses, donkeys, and bullocks? Do humans have the right to even confine dogs, whose natural habitat is the wild, and who would much prefer to run free in their own packs? Taking that a step further, is it correct to restrict the freedom of sheep, pigs, goats etc for slaughter? Is it correct to subject mice, monkeys and rabbits to pain in laboratories?

Bullock cart in Agra - are they toiling any less in the sun?

Overladen mule-cart in Old Delhi in peak April summer

There are many inspiring schools of Indian thought which say that cruelty to living creatures is not acceptable. We all learn even as schoolchildren about the Boddhisatva who takes monkey form, or elephant form, or bird and other forms, to teach humans compassion for all living creatures. Many religions forbid the killing of animals, and religions like Jainism forbid the use of animal products like leather.

My personal view is that the restriction of freedom of any animals by humans is an unfortunate historical necessity and an unavoidable fact, but is morally incorrect. That applies not just to elephants, but to all animals who are victims of what I call "human conquest". Taking the argument to its logical extension, to me the raising of sheep for slaughter is no different from the raising of elephants for commercial use. I do not like either of these.

However, the moral dimension of the issue is different from the practical dimension.

Practically speaking, the planet probably can't support all of us if no one ate meat. Practically speaking, the camel is the best and perhaps only affordable solution for humans in the desert areas of Rajasthan. Elephants were probably the most effective way to get timber from forests. Dogs were probably the most effective warning mechanism and hunting help for humans. And so on and so forth.

These practicalities change with time and technology. Therefore from a purely practical point of view, leaving the morals/ethics aside, the use of animals has to be constantly re-evaluated to see if it makes sense, and if it is unavoidable as a means to secure human welfare.

When you evaluate the situation in such terms, it becomes obvious that some uses of animals have now outlived their necessity and that it is time to stop it. Some other uses have still enormous practical value, and stopping it would lead to loss of human welfare (for example, oxen for ploughs, or camels for the desert, even with the advent of tractors and jeeps, there is really no cost-effective subsitute).
Tribal Rabari woman with her camels. These are their only wealth.

It is not always easy to make these decisions, and there are definitely shades of grey in these.

But it is quite clear to me that we have only two ways forward:

1. Where the use of animals is unavoidable, regulate and police actively to ensure minimum pain and maximum compassion

2. Where the use of animals is avoidable, phase out with a sensitive and practical understanding of the issues.

The elephants at Amer are merely joyrides, and nowhere in the unavoidable category. So it is quite clear to me that they must be stopped. However, I am not willing to see the elephants at Amber starve to death simply because there is no employment for them forcing their owners to abandon them.

The solution is obvious and two-pronged, but I will state it anyway. We need the following:
a) The creation of a government or private sponsored facility to "retire" the elephants and look after them until they die
b) A program to re-skill and provide gainful employment the mahouts so that their families don't starve

I have just visited the Bear Rescue Centre in Agra where over 275 'dancing bears' have been brought from various places in India. The Bear rescue centre is a permanent home for these bears because they cannot be released into the wild. The kalandar community from whom they have been purchased have been compensated for the bears (Rs 50,000 for a bear) and they have been taught other skills. Some of them work at the centre. Craft products and jewellery made by kalandar women is sold at the centre.

The Bear Rescue Centre at Agra provides a successful, practical model to follow

Simply saying "Stop the rides at Amber" is not the solution. Without the necessary support system in place to provide alternative rescue for the elephants, stopping the rides would mean taking away the elephants' only earning.

So if you're visiting Jaipur, and wondering whether to do the ride, I say, until there is a viable alternative for the elephants, do it. If you see mistreatment, report it (there is an Elephant Welfare Office at the fort). If you want to contribute towards their welfare, then donate to wild life rescue organisations who are working in the field. I would recommend these guys: Wildlife SOS (the same guys running the Bear Rescue Centre in Agra). I visited them and was very impressed not just by their understanding of the issues involved, but their very practical approach, collaborating with difficult government departments etc. They have a captive Elephant Welfare Project and are trying to start a sanctuary in Haryana for elephants similar to their Bear facility in Agra. I wish them luck.

- Deepa

Saturday, April 3, 2010

I walk into a wheat field

Have you seen wheat being harvested anywhere in India?

I hadn't seen wheat farming up close, until I walked into a golden-yellow wheat field in Rajasthan last week.

I was on a trip to Agra and Bharatpur, with my friend Stephane. Everywhere along the highway we saw big overloaded tractors, looking like very pregnant cows, trundling along.

"What are they carrying", I asked our driver. "Is it wheat?" I knew that in North India, March / April is the month when the wheat crop that is sown in November is harvested. Mustard too is harvested at this time.

The driver smiled at my city-bred ignorance, but said kindly "Na, na, madam, it is the left over dry grass after the wheat is harvested. It is used for fodder."

Ah, I nodded, realising my stupidity. Of course. The wheat is harvested in the field, threshed, and only the grains are transported to the market. These huge overstuffed straw bags were too flimsy to possibly contain the precious grain.

We drove further along, and in many fields, I saw women and men harvesting the crop by hand.

"I'd love to go into these fields", I said to Stephane. "Just to see what it's like, you know?"

As luck would have it, we met a guide in Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, who was also a farmer. He was perhaps 50 years old, a grizzled and seasoned birder. We chatted about birds and Bharatpur's seasons; but it was too hot to go bird-watching.

So I asked the guide: "Can you take me to see the harvest?" He said yes, and in 20 minutes, Stephane and I found ourselves rather unexpectedly walking through a golden wheat field!

On both sides of the small dirt embankment, the wheat crop was ready for harvesting. The first thing we did was to pluck a single stalk, rub it to remove the chaff, and taste the wheat. You know the most surprising thing? The grains were soft, not hard. I was expecting it to be exactly like store-bought grain, hard to bite. But no, it was chewy and lovely to nibble. I remembered the famous Aesop's fable about the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. I felt like I had actually transformed into that Country Mouse! Wholesome wheat grains everywhere but no fancy pantry with sugar and treacle and ham and sausages in sight!

We walked further along and came to where the women were at work. It is not an easy job. Work starts early in the morning, and continues through the day, although temperatures at noon can be something like 30 - 35 C.

We were a welcome diversion; but not until our guide walked away did the women begin to chat with me. I didn't understand their silence at first, until our guide explained it to me - he was the senior member of their family, and in his presence, the women would maintain a modest silence, and would not unveil themselves.

But when he left, the women transformed into a chatty, laughing trio. They were as curious about me, as I was about them. Where do you live? What work do you do? Where are you going? They peppered me with as many questions as I did them.

I was curious about the sickles, so one of the women lent her sickle to me. I hunkered down to examine it. It was surprisingly light, and unlike the smooth curve that I was envisaging, it had a pointy inside edge. I realised the women were actually using wrist /muscle power to hook the knife around the wheat and pull it at a particular angle, slicing through the wheat stalks with a smooth technique.

"Man, how do they sit like this the whole day long", asked Stephane, who - in true tourist fashion - was quite amazed by how comfortable the women were in the squatting position. "Isn't it murder on the knees?"

I very wisely decided to find a more comfortable cross-legged position on the edge of the field. (Behind us you can see the other side of the field, which the women had already harvested)

I spent a happy 15 minutes sitting cross-legged, chatting and exchanging stories. Although initially I was a "city-mem", a stranger to the women, somewhere along the conversation, things changed and we became friends on a more equal sort of footing. Must you go? Can't you stay longer?, I was asked. I was invited home for dinner, and to stay the night if I wished. (I am always humbled by the hospitality and kindness I experience in rural India - no matter how poor people are, the genuine warmth that they extend to complete strangers is amazing).

I was also offered some advice on the importance of having male children. In fact, the women were quite distressed to hear I had no sons.

"Kya? Aapka beta nahi hai?", they asked me. What? You have no son? (what a tragedy!)

I said no, I had only one daughter, but she was pure gold ("Lakhon mein ek hai meri beti").

They shook their heads. That apparently didn't count.

"Ek beta hona chahiye", I was told, somewhat sadly. You must have a son.

I tried again. "Meri beti badi hokar khoob padegi, kamayegi, hamara naam roshan karegi" My daughter will study and work and do well and make me proud.

Uh-uh. No dice. I had to have a son, for my own good. "Phir bhi, ek beta to hona chahiye, behen. Ek beta jaroor kar lo aap"

It was advice lovingly offered, to someone who they thought would benefit by listening to it. What could I say in the face of such utter conviction? I gave up, and smiled and told them, ok, next time I'll come here with a baby in my arms! We all laughed, and I waved goodbye...

...But as I was walking out with our guide, I wondered when these attitudes would change, and when these women would stop viewing themselves as second class citizens. Will the new Women's Reservation Bill be able to change anything in this village? I don't know. Not in this lifetime, perhaps.

Still, I was glad I spent some part of the afternoon here with these women. Living in my elitist "emancipated" world, I had forgotten the ground realities. Seeing the lives and beliefs of these women brought me sharply back in touch with the real India. I remembered Mahatma Gandhi's famous trip through the country, to meet the people of rural India. How much he must have learnt and observed as he spoke to his fellow countrymen!! Not surprisingly, it transformed his life and influenced his economic and political policy.

As usual, the brush with rural India had left me both elated as well as depressed. This sort of contradiction defines my love-hate relationship with my country. I marvel at its beauty, delight in its simplicity, but know there are many changes needed, and that there is a grim, long road ahead.