A developing nation’s helplessness in the face of poverty
Anuradha Sawhney, chief functionary of the Indian affiliate of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) tells the moving story of Shiva, a bullock, in India who was saved from the slaughterhouse after his helpless farmer-owner decided to sell him off for a few coins to meet family expenses after a failed monsoon
This is the story of a bullock named after Shiva, the Indian god of destruction. It is also the story of the helplessness of a farmer who had decided to sell his dear Shiva at an animal market so that he could make ends meet in a dry season.
Maybe it was luck, maybe it was a classic example of the right person turning up at the right time at the right place which saved Shiva, a sturdy, healthy animal, from being sold off to Shylocks in the guise of middlemen.
Shiva would have become dead meat in a few days time. I saved Shiva but God only knows how many Shivas die untimely, cruel deaths every hour in this huge country of India. And all in the name of a few coins and helpless, starving farmers.
One place where one can notice the devastating impact of a delayed or failed monsoon in India is in an animal market, This is where one can really understand the socio-economic and cultural impact of climate change. In my role as the chief functionary of PETA India, I often travel to different animal markets across the country where farmers sell their animals to middlemen who, in a chain system, eventually turn these cattle into burgers, hand bags or shoes.
I have, over the years, noticed that that these markets are at their bustling best when the monsoon fails. Farmers, ever so dependent on monsoons to irrigate their lands, have no money to feed themselves and are ensnared by local moneylenders and pawnbrokers. The farmers end up consuming the grains that they would have otherwise stored and end up with their granaries empty for the next season. It is then that the system takes over and the vultures close in for the kill.
On my last trip to an animal market in semi-arid Sangli, a town in the western Indian province of Maharashtra, I noticed something that I had not seen before. Standing among the teeming thousands was a bullock decorated with bright colours with small lamps around its neck. Usually such lamps are lit for deities and is part of worship ritual in India.
Curious, I walked up to the farmer-owner, Shankar, and introduced myself. The story that emerged was heart-rending.
Shiva had been an integral part of Shankar’s family for the past 15 years. With tears in his eyes, Shankar told me that he fondly remembered the day when Shiva had been brought home; it was as if a child had been born in the house. Since then, Shiva had been tilling the land for Shankar and Gauri, Shankar’s wife, always ensured that first bread that was cooked in the house was fed to Shiva as a daily ritual. Shiva was that important and loved.
Shankar, Gauri and their three children lived a modest life, making just enough to feed themselves. They were happy and content, not aiming for more in life. But then suddenly, things changed a year ago when the crops failed due to scant rainfall. Shankar said that he was driven to a point that he had no money to buy seeds to sow for the next cultivation, and whatever grain he had stored to sell had been used up in feeding himself and his family.
Shankar pawned his wife’s jewelry at a local pawnshop. He got a paltry amount for the jewellery since the pawnbroker knew that Shankar had no alternative. Soon, Shankar was forced to take a loan from the local moneylender too. However, that money dried up in no time and Shankar was left with no cash to feed the family.
Finally, he decided to move to a nearby city and try and get work as a construction labourer. Before doing that, he decided to sell Shiva since not only could he no longer afford to feed the bull but he had no use for the animal in the city. Gauri and the children started crying but Shankar asked them to face reality.
I had caught up with them when the family had brought Shiva to the Sangli animal market and was looking for a prospective buyer. They were decorating Shankar as a final farewell gesture, reserved for near ones in the family. I asked Shankar where he thought Siva would go from this market and Shankar told me he hoped that a rich landlord would buy Shiva and give him a better life. A middleman at the market had promised him that he would ensure this. At that moment, I knew Shankar had been conned.
What Shankar did not know was that the middleman would send Shiva to a slaughterhouse. Before that, Shiva would have his nose threaded alongwith other bullocks tightly, not allowing for movement. He would then be transported a long distance by foot without food or water for days.
If Shiva happened to fall down with exhaustion, the transporters would break his tail bones and rub red chilly pepper in his eyes in a bid to get him moving. At some point in the journey, Shiva would be loaded on to a truck with the ‘help’ of sticks and beatings. He would be crammed so tightly with other bullocks and cows that his horns would easily pierce the stomach of another animal.
If he did not die on this journey, then he would be forced down from the high truck without a ramp, at which point even an elephant’s body would give in. And then the wait would begin for the slaughter with pecking crows and patient vultures hovering nearby.
His feet would be tied and then a butcher would give him a slow cut across the throat, leaving Shiva to die a painful death.
I told Shanker this in detail because I knew that this was the practice. He was inconsolable. This was when I came face to face with his helplessness; and I realised that I needed to do something.
I contacted Animal Rahat for help. Animal Rahat (Rahat means relief in Hindi) is a non-profit organisation which tries to make a difference in the lives of working bullocks, donkeys, ponies and horses.
The Animal Rahat vets spoke with Shankar and told him about their scheme for retired working animals. They told him how they keep animals like Shiva in their retirement home, ensure that these animals get regular veterinary treatment and live the rest of their lives in peace.
Shankar was all too ready to retire Shiva at the Animal Rahat retirement home. Shiva was taken to the retirement home and Shankar and his family said they would now shift to the city to become casual labourers. Shiva now has a nice home at the retirement home and his old master still comes to visit him once a fortnight.