[Reader-list] Sarai Posting - Rethinking Animal Activism in the Urban Context

Santana Issar santanaissar at gmail.com
Mon Aug 6 16:49:57 IST 2007

Hello everyone. This is our third posting, on our visit to one of the
foremost AWOs in Delhi, Jeevashram.

Just off National Highway 8, Jeevashram can be accessed from two directions-
one takes you through a tree-lined avenue reminiscent of a posh country
resort and flanked by plush, high walled farmhouses, the other through the
narrow, dusty but clean lanes of village Rajokri – through shops, *chai *stalls
and painted brick houses. Their walls often function as signboards – what
appears to be a cul-de-sac has "Jeevashram" scrawled in black paint over
arrows pointing into a barely visible lane.

Jeevashram itself is located just outside the maze of the market, in a
quieter, greener spot. We drive past a heap of garbage, and a big depression
– a *khai* – that clearly functioned as a sort of local *ghaat* once upon a
time. The flight of steps going down to the dry and grassy bottom is still
intact. A large white building with board that reads "Holistic Health
Centre" stands about 20 meters away.

Jeevashram was founded in 1990 by Lekha Poddar who provided the
infrastructure and requisite finances. It is our favourite animal welfare
organisation by far – clean, green, peaceful and spacious. We wander all
over while waiting for Chief Veterinary Officer-in-Charge, Dr. Vinod Sharma
to return from making a call. It is just after lunchtime and the strains of
old Hindi film music emanating from electronic bullhorns strung up on trees
and posts can be heard all over the 2 acre compound, mingling with the yelps
of dogs bounding up to greet us. The effect is quite surreal – after a
couple of ineffective tries, 'an Osho ashram with a few hundred tranquil
animals thrown in' is as close to describing the atmosphere as we could get.

It is the dogs who have the best deal at Jeevashram. The friendlier ones
have free run of the place – led by Sher Khan, the shaggy-in-patches,
3-legged mascot of Jeevashram's ambulance service. The rest are housed in a
large shady compound ringed by clean kennels for the sick, visiting or
grumpy. The cats have a rawer deal than the dogs – housed in a cattery, the
felines do not get the free run of the place that their canine counterparts
do. The "big animal shelter" houses sundry cows, donkeys, horses, mules and
a few randy goats. The small aviary accommodates rabbits besides a
belligerent looking cock, a peacock with but half his tail feathers and a
peahen. The 'Garden of Eternal Peace' is the quaint pet cemetery that lies
behind the kennel, with gold letters on marble plaques proclaiming the loss
of dearly departeds (some of the canines are addressed as "Mr" or "Ms")
mourned by their grieving "families". But what may seem as a waste of space
is probably an important revenue generator for a cash-strapped animal
welfare organisation. A stall adjoins the spotlessly clean clinic where
larger animals may be tethered for milking, routine check-ups and the like.

In the 17 years since its establishment, the infrastructure at Jeevashram
has vastly improved. It has a well-equipped operation theatre, gas
anaesthesia and ultrasound facilities, an X-ray room, dental surgery
facilities, a small laboratory, and even a mobile dispensary received as a
donation. There is also a pet shop which offers pet food as well as the
standard dog-owner delights – toys, collars, leashes, dog chews, cushions,

Jeevashram's Jack-of-all-trades and Man-for-all-seasons, Dr. Sharma joined
the organisation in 1994 as the first resident vet of the animal care
shelter as the only doctor on the rolls. As veterinary surgeon he provides
medical care to injured and afflicted animals, but he also oversees the
administration and day-to-day functioning of the institution. Today, he is
assisted by two sharp junior veterinary surgeons and 15 support staff. The
latter help in hospital work, pick-up of animals, upkeep of the environment,
and other assorted activities.

We had a free-wheeling conversation with Dr.S. about our subject, which
provided several leads, insights and a general take on the subject on
ground. What follows are some excerpts and observations.


*"The street is no place for animals – all animals should be well-cared for
in homes"…*

Dr. S appears to be firmly rooted in the welfarist tradition. Responsible
pet ownership and care of livestock are the two main props of his vision.
Neutering of household pets and spaying of stray animals, adoption of stray
animals, medical treatment and care are important elements in the process.
According to Dr. S., city streets are not the place for animals to be, and
neither are zoos, where wild animals are displaced from forests and
relocated in an artificial and highly inadequate environment. He respects
the efforts of the 'animal *rights*" camp and appreciates the work they do,
but does not wish to comment on their views and strategies.


*"The problem with animal welfare in **India** is that it's all heart and no

Although he appreciates the spirit in which they function, Dr. S. does not
consider a single animal welfare organisation in Delhi to be well-managed
and professional. Animal welfare cannot be undertaken solely out of love and
compassion for animals. AWO's need time, space and money to serve their
purpose. In addition to adequate infrastructure, they need qualified vets
and well-trained para-staff.

Decent colleges and courses for animal welfare are needed in order to
produce well-trained professionals. In addition, awareness programmes must
be undertaken to sensitise the general populace to the relevance of animal
welfare. This must be taken very seriously and conducted on an extensive
scale, beginning in the schools.


*"One must make a link between animal welfare and good economics" *

It appears that Dr. Sharma's refusal to get into a "rights versus welfare"
tussle arises in part from an acute awareness of the reality of the animal
products industry, and the fact that it forms an integral part of the
economy. In this context, Dr. S. argues that 'care' and 'kindness' in the
animal industry make good *economic *sense after all. In his opinion, it is
crucial to make this link in order to convince policy makers, bureaucrats
and the people of the relevance of animal welfare – adherence to principles
of animal welfare will help save money and increase productivity. For
instance, slaughter of animals for meat and the processing of meat *at the
same place* can do away with transporting animals over long distances in
packed carriages. This precludes unnecessary animal suffering as well as the
cost of transport, and may give impetus to job creation in the newly created
processing industry


*"They refer to us dismissively as *kutte-billi vale*" …*

Politicians and bureaucrats are primarily concerned with production for the
human population. Most of the government departments having anything to do
with animals are concerned with animal husbandry. The following government
bodies have some bearing – direct and indirect – on our work.

Animal Husbandry Department, Ministry of Agriculture

Animal Welfare Board of India

Ministry of Forests and Environment

Ministry of Social Justice

Municipal Corporation of Delhi

There is an urgent need to update animal laws in India – a penalty of Rs.
25/- makes absolutely no sense today!

(*This is just a preliminary introduction to the State's role in animal
welfare. More research is required on our part and one of our posts will be
dedicated to this aspect. We came out armed with 'Animal Laws of **India**'
by Maneka Gandhi, Ozair Husain and Raj Panjwani which we are in the process
of reading. - S.I. and A.S.)*


*"Some people call Jeevashram a five star hotel for dogs"…*

Rajokri village has a radius of about 1 km and about 4500 inhabitants. The
real estate boom has had a profound impact on the village, and consequently
the quality of life of its animals has definitely taken a turn for the

Dr. S. elucidates on this trend: big players coming in and buying up land
from the villagers at high rates has led to a drastic dwindling in common
pasture lands, backyards, space for cattle-sheds etc. Pools have been filled
up and the animals have been quite literally pushed into a hole. Open spaces
for grazing and exercise, and pools for bathing (an important requirement
for the good health of livestock) have disappeared. Birds used to de-louse
cattle – that isn't possible anymore since the pressure for space means
livestock doesn't have room to lie about in the open where birds have access
to them. The animals are under-exercised and infested with parasites. Since
owners have more money today, more visits to the vet, chemical treatments
and artificial boosting of productivity have become the trend. Though
development and urbanization have made given rise to unhealthy living
environments for livestock, their owners have more money to provide and
sustain them.

According to Dr. S., the *khai* just outside the Jeevashram compound used to
fill up with water every monsoon, but the last time that happened was in
2000. It was a common swimming pool for both people and animals, and
migratory birds would arrive in hordes, as would snakes. Now the pool has
disappeared along with the teeming wildlife that it supported. The new
sewage system diverts the water so that it all collects at the foot of the
traffic signal on the highway. Just a bit of care and foresight in urban
planning can go a long way, feels Dr. S.

However, despite the perception of Jeevashram as a five star hotel for
animals, it has gained the villagers' confidence and respect by the work
that it does. Dr. S. is on the board of 2 schools in the area. Volunteers
from the village often offer their services at the organisation.

The 'holistic health centre' is a hospice for people living with AIDS. Dr.
S. encourages attempts to use the animals in the caring for residents at the

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