Christine Purdy, a Trustee of The Donkey Sanctuary, is on a 12-day tour of our projects in India and Nepal with Julia Smith and Natasha Chamberlain of the International Department. In her first blog from the field, she writes about the people and donkeys that work in a brick kiln in the Rajakhera area of Rajasthan.
Despite the fog of morning, the Donkey Sanctuary India team and I left Agra, the promised sight of the Taj Mahal completely obscured, to the much more important sight of the Rajakhera Brick Kilns. Rajasthan, where we were, is familiar to visitors from around the world for its fabled palaces and hotels. However, invisible to most eyes, it is also home to thousands of brick kilns. The Rajakhera site alone has 100 such kilns, creating a forest of chimneys belching smoke. Each kiln creates work for hundreds of people, meaning wealth for some, a pittance for others, and potential misery for the more than 1,000 donkeys that work there.
These donkeys make an extraordinary picture of patience and obedience despite the immense burdens placed on their backs. But first let me talk about the brick kiln operational structure. It's quite fascinating. Then I'll come back to the role of the donkey. A single brick kiln site may cover some 15 hectares (around 30 acres), and its owner may work the land himself or lease it (usually for about 5 years) to others. Whichever that person is, he must then employ a tenant who pays for the privilege of "farming" the topsoil to create bricks. The next level is a muneem, or manager, recruited to organise the work, people and animals, who in turn recruits the thekedar who brings in and organises the donkeys and their owners. Even the people who actually deal with the bricks are themselves divided: there are those who dig the soil, mix with water and make the bricks to dry in the sun; there are those who stoke the furnaces; and finally there are those who own and work the donkeys.
Ah yes, finally, the donkeys. A villager may have walked anywhere up to a 100 kilometres with his three or four donkeys to work in the brick kilns for the December-June season. For the donkey and its owner it's work every day throughout the season, then the rest of the year unpaid. The donkeys sleep in or outside especially constructed brick shelters alongside their owners, and the slog continues day in day out, weekends and public holidays such as today, India’s Republic Day, included.
The donkeys are a critical part of the team that transports the sun dried bricks to the furnaces for firing. Now here's where it gets even more interesting. Each donkey (or occasionally mule) has a cloth quilt on its back and a pannier on either side which its owner fills with bricks, each brick weighing 2.8 kg. In most kilns, some sixty bricks are carried on each trip to the furnace. When you do the math you quickly realise that every animal, every trip, carries more than its own body weight in bricks. When it's cooler, as now in January, that means 30,000-40,000 bricks per day by 15-25 animals. When it's hotter and the sun drying takes less time, that is a massive 70,000 bricks. Per day.
And this is just one brick kiln. The overall result is an unbelievable number of bricks when multiplied by the 22 kilns in the Rajakhera area that employ working donkeys, and staggering when multiplied by the number of brick kilns in the whole of India. And remember, the large proportion of these bricks is carried by our patient donkey.
Of course most owners understand that a healthy donkey will work harder and better than a sick one, but more often than not overloading and unbalanced loading take their toll. Even at the very beginning of the season we could see leg and foot wounds, saddle wounds, coughing and so on. By the end of the season, when the temperature gets up to 45 degrees Centigrade and they have been working daily for three months or more, well I leave it to you to imagine.
Our teams work with the donkeys to treat such wounds as possible and, equally, possibly more importantly, work to educate their poor owners. We then go up the chain to ensure the managers and land owners also understand that compassion and care for these animals leads to greater economic return. We also talk to veterinary departments in government institutions and universities and the pharmacies that supply any medicines prescribed, with the single aim of improving donkey welfare.
So next time you see a building site resulting from this booming economy, don't just look at glass and steel. Spare a thought for the families and the extraordinarily hard-working donkeys who make it all possible, right at the very beginning.