In many ways Arjun is a typical 12-year-old boy. He gets bored learning his ABC and 1-2-3 in English and is proud of his school bag. Outside his lessons, however, his life allows little room for being a child. He is growing up at MA Ambapur, a brick kiln near Ahmedabad in Gujarat, India, where hundreds of people and donkeys work to produce clay-fired bricks.
To avoid the heat of the harsh sunshine, Arjun works with donkeys during the night, moving raw, unfired bricks from the stacks where they are dried to the kiln. Each donkey has to carry 1,000 bricks a day. In the summer work starts at 2am and finishes at 9.30am.
India is the second largest producer of clay-fired bricks, accounting for more than 10 percent of global production. There are approximately 100,000 brick kilns across the country, employing around 10 million people. Conditions are harsh for everyone. Families are poorly paid and there is typically a lack of basic facilities, such as access to regular clean drinking water and sanitation. The donkeys working at the kilns suffer from serious welfare issues resulting from overloading, beatings and other harmful handling, poor food and harness. Tethering and hobbling using plastic strings can add to their misery. Much of this stems from poor communication between donkey and owner.
For Arjun and the donkeys at MA Ambapur, however, life has improved. Funded by the Donkey Sanctuary, staff from the Donkey Sanctuary India have been working at the kiln to encourage better understanding between donkey and human. Part of their job is to reach out to the many children who work with donkeys every day. Education Officer Binal Ashok works by providing some of the fun that is missing in other parts of their lives. Today she is using puppets of donkeys to start discussions about how best to interact with them. After extensive work with the community, the team have given the kiln a “green” rating. The donkeys work swiftly and willingly, commanded only by clicks, rattles and gentle touching. Around 25 bricks are loaded carefully on each donkey. More attention is given to how the work is organised, ensuring the donkeys have adequate water and food.
For Arjun there is little hope of a formal education as his family will return to their village once the brick kiln season is over, meaning he can never finish a year of school. In the front row of Binal’s puppet show, however, he is transfixed, a grin stretched across his face.
- The Donkey Sanctuary funds donkey welfare projects in brick kilns in six states across India as well as in other countries including Egypt and Nepal.
- Donkeys, mules and horses work at the kilns.