Mumbai's Mayor, Sunil Prabhu thinks donkeys are useful. The Solid Waste Management Department of the civic body he heads thinks that they are expensive.
If this standoff between the Mayor and the officials were to continue, the piles of debris and silt removed from the Mithi river would remain where they are, dumped alongside the banks. The clean-up and widening operation are aimed at addressing the flood threat from the river to the city.
The idea of using donkeys was mooted at a meeting in the Mayor’s chambers attended among others by Hemangi Worlikar who represents the Worli Koliwada segment in Ward G-North towards the end of November. She has been complaining that the dumped material has remained. Even builders have left their share apart from the daily garbage.
If the stuff removed from the riverbed was not taken away, why remove them at all from the riverbed? It would be asinine not to because they can find their way back into the Mithi, removed at great cost to the exchequer, albeit ever so slowly.
The reason the stuff has stayed there and the idea of using asses was mooted was the approach to the riverbank is narrow lanes. Earthmoving equipment, being huge, cannot negotiate them. Then using animals as pack-carriers seemed to have occurred to the wise city fathers.
Today, Pudhari, a multi-edition Marathi newspaper has reported that though the officials nodded their heads then, they find employing donkeys to do civic work was too expensive to be unaffordable to the country’s richest civic body, Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai.
Those who can supply the donkeys, numbers unspecified, have quoted the rates, undisclosed, and the officials’ eyes apparently only widened in surprise when they heard them. Perhaps the sellers’ market rate was mentioned and now a tender is to be floated. But they still don’t favour the asses.
Donkeys, I recall reporting from Kurnool, once the capital of Andhra State prior to the linguistic Andhra Pradesh was formed and the headquarters moved to Hyderabad, was just available for anyone to use, no charge.
Kurnool, the principal city of Rayalaseema region from where Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, D Sanjivayya, YC Rajashekara Reddy and several other luminaries hailed, had donkeys as common on the streets as stray dogs are in many a town.
They blocked the road, lumbered much more slowly when honked at by car drivers than buffaloes did. And anyone who wanted to use it just had to prod them to where they were wanted. Sand from the Tungabhadra River and rubble from the roadside was loaded on them using sacks hanging on their either sides.
Once done, they were let off. The donkeys seemed not to mind at all, this use and abandon ways of the humans.
The donkeys, not finicky about their diet for survival, managed with just about anything they found on the streets, even scraps of paper would do. Some kind people threw stale stuff from their kitchens.
They wandered around because they had no specific stables for the night or an owner. There was no point in locking them up because their demand from others was virtually non-existent except as a community asset for those who moved sand and rubble and sometimes even cement bags for minor repairs of a house.
The users were kind by not claiming ownership. They used one today and looked for another tomorrow. They were on the shelf, as it were.
Animals seem to have been put to use wisely by at least another major Andhra town, Warangal, especially by its civic body. Warangal was an important Telengana town, much like Raichur was to Hyderabad-Karnataka and Aurangabad to Marathwada when all the three regions were part of the Nizam’s Hyderabad State.
The town had no underground drainage and all roads on either side had open drains which also had garbage thrown in them, including the kitchen wastes. Often they choked and one waited for the pigs to nose around periodically. Once in a while, the civic body sent its men to clean them up but the regular maintenance was done by the pigs.
Each town had its strange ways making a reporter’s professional life exciting and my editor G Kasturi and News Editor K Narayanan encouraged us to look at them because being considered common, they were not reported in the media. To a Warangal born reporter, pigs were no news; he had seen it from his childhood. A person transferred there looked at it in wonder. Let me paraphrase the conversation I had on telephone with the municipal commissioner of the town then.
"Hello, the drains are choked and the place stinks. I wonder why. Is the conservancy staff on strike or something?"
"No," he replied. "Because a few pigs bit a few people, we have impounded them."
"But what is the connection? I am talking about the drains."
"Pigs clean the drain because it is their daily, available-anywhere-trough. They fatten on it, and save us a lot of bother. They keep the drains flowing, mostly."
"But the stink is unbearable!"
"Yes, I know. I too can bear it no longer. I'll have them released from the pound."
And he did and two days thence, the city was normal to all citizens’ olfactory senses.
These pigs were left to forage in the gutters by those who reared them for pork to be sold for some tribal communities. Pork was cheaper than meat from the butcher and fish and fowl from the market. And on the side, they did an immense service to the town, population about 2,00,000 in 1977.
Now Mumbai has a Mayor, officialdom but not the donkeys. The metropolis could do with a few.