The story is familiar, repeated since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in rural Shropshire, where I’m from, and still unfolding here in Rajasthan in the little village of Banmor. The village itself looks old, squeezed in between the busy dual carriageway between nearby cities of Gwalior and Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, and the equally busy rail track. We sit under a tree with local donkey and mule owners. Small tin cups of the rich spicy chai (tea) are passed around and folk start to talk.
I’m with some of the Donkey Sanctuary India team who work in this area, Sushil and Sanjay, and I am travelling with Aditja, the new Community Partnership & Education Coordinator based in Delhi. This week is hard, the Indian government has suddenly and with no warning withdrawn 500 and 1000 rupee notes in an effort to catch out counterfeiters who have been flooding the market. There is a quiet sort of panic going on. Most people here don’t have bank cards, or even accounts. Many of the donkey owners we have met on this trip do not even have ID. These are the poor, the forgotten people. The queues at the banks are 3 hours long as people desperately try to change their notes into something useable. No shops or businesses will take them - life savings turned to waste paper. They have one week to change them or they are too late. Today it is still the focal talking point, but it is just the latest camouflage for a deeper underlying problem - progress.
Work is scarce here, it wasn’t always so. For hundreds of years this village has ambled along, secure and smug in its ability to survive. There was work for all. In addition to the farming and building needs there was the demand for clay. This is a pot-making area, has been for generations. There are also the brick kilns that run six months a year, so work was guaranteed. Many families keep a mix of mules and donkeys, traditionally used to fetch the clay for the pots, carry the crops from the fields, move produce and materials around the neighbourhood. Over the last few years now the pots are not wanted, prices are halved, plastic rules. Tractors hammer up and down the narrow streets dragging trailer loads of produce. Now all that is left is the kilns and they too in this area are reducing. The youngsters are leaving, just like youngsters all over the world, heading for the cities in search of streets paved with gold, or at least a better, easier life.
Yet, the mules remain. I was surprised to see so many. If there’s no work, why keep them? Grazing is hard to find, fodder is expensive, yet families are keeping typically five or six mules and a donkey, it seems, just for the chance of a day’s work and the sheer joy of having them. They have always had them, and they say, though I suspect this will change, that they will always have them. Why does every family keep one donkey in amongst the mules? Luck, well that was the nearest translation. The donkey is the representative of the local Goddess, Banjaran Mata, the Gypsy Goddess. People want their donkeys, people love their donkeys - mules as well. That, in a world where the donkey is abused on a regular basis, is a nice change.
Is there a future? People are telling me that they have known the Donkey Sanctuary India for about ten years and things have changed for the better.
For the last couple of years the service has been limited to community partnership work, headed by Sushil. Pramud is a young man who works in the brick kilns with his animals when there is work.
“Mr Sushil and Sanjay help us so much”, he tells us to a general nod of heads. “In the last two years we have gained so much knowledge about the donkeys and mules. The animals don’t get sick as we now have access to vaccinations. We feed better, give more water and the stables are kept clean.”
Pramud goes on to tell me how he talks to people from other villages who don’t know us. “They are all keen to learn and Mr Sushil and Mr Sanjay tell us to spread the knowledge so we do. It helps a lot, these things that we learn, the animals pay us back for the extra care. How? We reduce the loads, and they carry more! They don’t get tired or worn out legs and wounds so they work faster.”
“Any other benefits?” I ask.
“Yes, the animals are happier! No Mr Chris, we are serious, the animals are happier, they are friendlier and work better. We are so happy that the Donkey Sanctuary India came here.”
So, with the Donkey Sanctuary India’s help one small village has a little more time to adapt. There is at least the option, for the few young men that want it, to stay and maybe one day when traditional values and ways become popular again there will be a small population of mule and donkey owners who will remember and teach those who are lost.