Dr. Hemanta Mishra is a Nepalese conservation biologist who has become interested in the plight of street dogs in South Asia. The following blog provides an anecdote from his visit to Mumbai to meet with the Tata Trusts in 2011.
One mid-morning in 2011 in Mumbai, I was strolling along a side street off the Marine Drive, a scenic seafront boulevard off the coastline of the Arabian Sea. The street was noisy, crowded and disorderly. Slick Mercedes Benz and Jaguars jostled with rugged taxi cabs painted in their distinctive black and yellow regalia. Big and lively Leyland buses competed with shiny Tata sedans and diminutive Maruti compacts to elbow sweaty vendors pressing on with their pushcarts. All part of the daily life in a sea of huffing and puffing humanity in a city of 18-million people and nearly 100-thousand street dogs. Half of the metropolis’ humanity and their canine companions survive side-by-side in the vibrant streets of Mumbai—India’s largest, tinseled and moneyed city—where prosperity and plenty coexist side-by-side with poverty and paucity of food and shelter.
The automobiles were disorderly and impatient. So were the people. Cars blasted their horns impatiently to ward off rebellious pedestrians casually crossing the wide streets at random. Asserting, as if they had the rights of ways, these unruly human foot-warriors hopped, jigged, and jagged to cross the street; totally ignoring the honking automobiles.
Unconcerned with the pandemonium in the street, a petite woman was squatting on the foot-path in a street corner. She was cooking rice over an open fire burning out of a rustic gas-stove. Nearby, a child was fast asleep on top of a bed made out of a heap of rags. Next to the child was a dog. The dog was medium-sized and sported a smooth caramel colored coat.
The stream of passersby was neither bothered nor threatened by the dog. In fact, the humans seemed not even to notice the existence of the woman, her baby, and the dog. In contrast, the dog was alert. It often eyed the hurrying pedestrian: One-by-one. Clearly, the dog was babysitting the child to allow the child’s mother to concentrate on her chores.
The woman was doe-eyed and about 30-years old. She had shiny jet-black hair and a sharp and triangular olive-colored face. She sported a greenish sari, which had seen its days. She finished cooking and mixed rice with yellow-colored dal in a shiny aluminum plate. She moved on to cuddle up to her child. Then, she sat in a lotus posture on the footpath and placed the child on her lap. The dog stood up and went to sit next to her. Humming softly the women fed the child with her right hand.
After feeding, the mother placed her baby back on the tattered bed under the watchful eyes of the dog. Then she ate and drank water from a glass and belched with an air of satisfaction. Lastly, she fed and watered the dog, before she rested next to her child. The dog copied her and sat next to her.
I am not sure why, but this particular street scene caught my attention and touched my heart. I had not expected to see an example of compassion and symbiosis between a dog and a woman living on the streets of Mumbai.
Later that evening, I described the scene to Abodh Aras, the CEO of the Welfare of Stray Dogs (WSD), a Mumbai based non-government organization (NGO). Abodh is one of India’s leading street-dog experts. He also has an MBA and has worked for multi-national corporations. Yet, instead of earning fame and fortune in the private business sector, he chose to become an advocate, an ecologist and a crusader for the welfare of street dogs in India.
Abodh told me that he knew the dog (as he did most dogs in Colaba (Mumbai’s downtown district). He explained that the woman treats the dog as a family member and provides it with food and water. In return, the dog returns the favor by watching out for threats to “its” family and ensuring that no hurrying pedestrian harms the child. At night, the dog guardswoman and child.
Abodh’s explanation was inspiring. It also reinforced for me that the bond between humans and dogs is not constrained by prosperity or poverty.
The Indian stray or street dog is also referred to as the Pariah dog. Yet, it is neither a pariah nor a recluse outsider. Dogs are an “indigenous,” ever-present animal in India’s lively cities and rural villages. For eons, the dog has been the man’s and the woman’s best friend. Dogs do not behave with any bias or discrimination towards human divisions of caste, creed, class, religion, or wealth.
And yet there are significant differences in this human-dog relationship in India. I have been a consultant to Humane Society International for the past decade or so and was part of the team that persuaded the Tata Trusts to support a human-dog wellbeing project in Jamshedpur (the headquarters of Tata Steel). During my time as a consultant, Humane Society International was slowly building a picture of the human-dog relationship in India through surveys and monitored street dog projects. In the state of Haryana, for example, a survey found there are approximately 100 dogs per 1,000 people (80 of which live on the streets). In Mumbai, there are less than 5 dogs per 1,000 people. There are large differences in the number of dogs relative to the human population in different parts of India and yet we are only just beginning to identify those differences. We are still a long way from understanding why they occur.
In the meantime, we can continue to marvel at the power of human-animal relations. “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” remarked Mahatma Gandhi, the founding father of independent India and a global pioneer of compassion and non-violence. The street scene I observed in Mumbai is consistent with the Gandhian ethics and the inherent principles of Ahimsa deeply embedded in Indian culture. It was a small but telling anecdote that again demonstrated the very close symbiotic relationship between humans and their favorite canine partners.