Citizens' Issues
Of beasts of burden and disappearing donkeys

Modern India throws out its donkeys and asses. But Modern business in India wants young men to work harder than the patient—rarely complaining and possibly more efficient—donkeys

The other day I saw an ass.

This may come as no surprise to misanthropes and ever-loving cynics who see asses everywhere they go.

Even I, of humble and mild disposition, meet them often.
They are the ones who have opinions about whether having a convivial drink, or for that matter getting bacchanalian at a celebration deserves a public thrashing. They are the ones that think that who you were born to be more important than who you are, and they don’t actually know the difference; these asses will kill you if you cross imaginary boundaries and talk to someone of the opposite sex who is of ‘nobler’ birth. See I told you, they were asses!

Then there are the others who think that their God is better than your God, and if you don’t have a God, then God help you. Asinine as it may be to think that the all-seeing omnipotent omniscient unbelievably creative ‘it’ up there, here and everywhere actually wants to and is pleased by playing favourites, and that too by just one of the million trillion gazillion things on this and countless other planets, these geniuses will kill you and themselves for it, dying I presume with a self satisfied smug smile on their faces as they explode into nothingness.

There are of course asses of others kinds: white ones who don’t like black ones, brown ones who think white ones are the source of all their problems and possibly striped ones who can’t tell who is to blame at all. There are spectacularly intelligent asses  who believe that the reason the planet turns is because the light shines from, well, their asses and so they blithely go about doing whatever they feel, as the earth burns in their wake.

So as I said I see asses too.

But this was different. I actually saw one on the street. A full blown four-legged ass in the heart of one of the largest cities in the world in the 21st century! Of course, since I am not a zoologist I couldn’t swear it was an ass. It could have been a donkey. Is there a difference?

Anyway here was this lone ass darting across the street to avoid being run over by my car. Now asses aka donkeys as I knew them many years ago before the human varieties that I referred to earlier replaced them, are somewhat phlegmatic creatures, choosing to at best express themselves with an occasional braying sound. But this one seemed like he (maybe she?) was excited about something.

But what got me thinking was where have all the asses gone? At one stage I remember them laden with bricks meandering to a construction site. Or carrying clothes that the ‘dhobi’ was taking away to the local washing place or bringing them back starched and pressed. Or just hanging around in packs at random corners, much like teenagers apparently waiting for something, anything, to happen. And from time to time above the din, you would hear them—the loud braying that was both irritating and somewhat reassuring.

And they were interesting creatures that seemed to have a stoic, and yet not-boring disposition. I was told as a child never to walk behind one for they could and would kick. The saying “dig your heels in” seemed to be inspired by them: I have seen this washer man struggling to get one of them to move. No dice.

Over the years they slipped from sight, even from memory. Till the other day. And I began to wonder, what had happened to them. I know this is not as romantic a notion as musing about the swallows of Capistrano or some such.

But hey I liked these creatures: They were of service, they mostly didn’t complain and in an anthropomorphic way I thought they were cute especially after I had seen Shrek.

Maybe they disappeared or at least were disappearing because we had little use for these beasts of burden and unlike their fellow B of B’s they didn't have other uses like milk and cheese and even the occasional steak. (I hear that Cleo’s complexion was much enhanced by asses’ milk, but Shahnaz Hussein has not revived this Pharaonic tradition.)

And so with a sigh and a heave of the old chest, I went on with my evening and my life.

Till this morning. Same street corner, different day, and headed in the opposite direction: The car is stuck behind a handcart. Now handcarts are not uncommon in India, and the beast of burden in this case is a fellow human being. Unlike donkeys/asses these beasts have not disappeared or are disappearing. They seem to be a “viable” species in India.

Here was the interesting twist: the handcart was for delivery of domestic cooking gas cylinders. The puller of the cart which was admittedly a modernized version of the traditional wooden one, was a uniformed with company Bharatgas logo and all, young man.

It was the oddest thing of all. Modern India throws out its donkeys and asses. Modern India has mined from deep sea, hard-to-extract and then piped and bottled natural gas for Modern India’s kitchens. And Modern business in India wants young men to work harder than the patient—rarely complaining and possibly more efficient—donkeys.

We are a strange land. And I often feel like a stranger in it.
But it seems that we are a country full of asses after all.

(V Shantakumar is the former chairman & CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi in India and now the managing partner of Doing Think)




5 years ago

Shantakumarji has contibuted an article on an animal that is usually the focus of derision and maligning. Law is an ass is clearly witnessed in Calcutta where still richshaw is pulled by the two legged unfortunate animal. In busy metros the most feared vehicle is the two wheeled and motorised fish cart. If any one wishes to experience the fear visit in the early evening the coastal area after the fishermen had off-loaded their catch


5 years ago

What an asinine article. Surely Moneylife has better things to offer than meanderings of a mule!


5 years ago

Dear Shantakumar ji, excellent article, thanks. And presuming that you saw your modern young man pulling or pushing his handcart in Delhi or Mumbai, then you may not have to look further than:-

1) Rules pertaining to entry of motorised commercial vehicles in some parts of these two cities.

2) Rules pertaining to entry of three-wheelers of all sorts, motorised, battery or cycle, in some parts of these two cities.

3) Rules exempting dabba-wallas, mathadi headload workers, peanut and other stuff including country confectionaries made of jaggery only, and some others from not bringing in wheeled vehicles like handcarts and 4-wheel rehris into all parts of the city, including against flow of traffic on one-way streets.

4) Some more rules I will point you to.


By the way, have you seen how labourers brought in for shifting your personal effects to high floors of MS buildings are often not permitted to use the lifts, not even the service lifts if that building has one, along with servants sometimes, and dogs?

Makes me wonder, for whom and where does the ass bray.

Humbly submitted, and I liked your article.

Veeresh Malik


nagesh kini

In Reply to malQ 5 years ago

Well said, dear Veeresh!
I keep wondering why it is said - "Law is an ass".

Some time back I got my office assistant to get a bike to go round in then known as Bombay down town Fort area. A traffic cop deflated the tyres saying 'slow moving not allowed'. So much for non-polluting two-wheelers. Is it why they call law an ass?

We have so many outdated centuries old statutes in our books that need to be scrapped. The Parliament has yet to find time to even pass a one line resolution conveying the Non-Sense of the House!

Why blame the donkeys, our army still needs their cross bred off springs, the mules, to cart heavy military hardware on the slippery northern mountain trails. A task that can't be done by any other animal

We simply can't wish away these hardy beasts of burden. Long live the Ass!

Plunging sales, strikes—a year to forget for auto industry: 2011 Review

After a rough ride in 2011, the Indian auto industry is looking with optimism to the New Year. The industry is hoping that the forthcoming Auto Expo in the national capital will provide the much-needed boost to the sector and will help it cruise in the year ahead

New Delhi: A year that began with a bang only to fizzle out in the end with car sales posting the steepest fall in nearly 11 years; a year marred by strikes—2011 will be one that the Indian automobile industry would like to forget in a hurry, reports PTI.

At a time when sales were hit badly by higher interest rates on automobile loans and costlier fuel, crippling labour disputes affecting firms like Maruti Suzuki, General Motors and MRF made the industry hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Nevertheless, one of the major milestones for the year for the industry was the launch of a new brand identity by the BM Munjal-led Hero Group, following the break-up of erstwhile Hero Honda, and announced its strategies for a solo journey without former Japanese partner Honda.

The year gone by also witnessed some exciting new model launches, including Hyundai’s 800-cc car Eon, and some intense moments between the West Bengal government and Tata Motors on the return of land in Singur following the relocation of the Nano plant.

Yet when it came to sales, it was a case of gravity finally catching up with the zooming sales that were witnessed in the previous year. After bidding adieu to the 2008-09 slowdown and posting robust growth of over 25% last fiscal, it is now likely to see a low, single-digit increase in vehicle sales in 2011-12.

Indian car sales hit an all-time monthly high in January 2011, registering a jump of 26.28% to 1,84,332 units. However, with rising interest rates and fuel prices, the sales started moderating during the year.

With rising inflation, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) started increasing the key policy rates, leading to a hike in interest rates on auto loans. It was a double blow for the auto industry as fuel prices, especially petrol, kept on rising throughout the year.

Vehicle sales started falling again with the industry fearing a comeback of the ghost called ‘recession’.

The Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) lowered its growth forecast for 2011-12 twice during 2011 after announcing it for the first time at the beginning of the fiscal. It is expected to revise it downward again in January on account of sluggish demand in the last couple of months.

On a year-on-year basis, car sales in India have been declining since July, mainly due to the severe impact of labour issues on Maruti Suzuki India’s (MSI) production.

Sales registered their steepest monthly decline in nearly 11 years in October this year, tanking by 23.77% on account of a huge drop in output by MSI due to labour trouble, coupled with high interest rates and fuel prices.

The car segment, however, witnessed a turnaround with 7% growth in sales in November on account of a marginal revival in demand, coupled with a low base. Sales in December are likely to be lower than the November numbers, SIAM said.

Labour strikes, which hit the country's largest car-maker Maruti Suzuki India severely, did not spare other auto-makers either. MSI suffered a total of 60 days of production losses due to three instances of labour unrest at its Manesar plant, which mainly produces the Swift.

In June, a 13-day strike brought production to a standstill. This was followed by another standoff on 29th August between the management and the workers, which lasted for 33 days.

Nevertheless, not all was gloom and doom in 2011 and some raised a toast and said cheers too! India's largest two-wheeler maker, Hero MotoCorp (formerly Hero Honda), announced a new brand identity at a glittering event in London that was attended by tennis player Boris Becker, singer Akon, F1 driver David Coulthard and Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan.

The BM Munjal-led Hero Group announced plans to set up two new manufacturing plants in the country and will pump in more investments in the next five years than it has done in the last 27 years during its partnership with Honda.

Amid the slowdown blues, Korean auto major Hyundai Motor Co launched its entry-level compact car Eon that has been developed specifically for the Indian market. The 814-cc small car was pitted against India’s best-selling Alto model from rival MSI’s stable.

Although Hyundai was planning to sell about 12,000 units of the Eon every month, sales are getting affected because of the overall negative sentiment in the market. It is currently selling around 6,000-7,000 units every month.

During the year, Honda announced a foray into the highly competitive low-price compact car segment in India with the launch of its Brio model, competing against the likes of the Hyundai i10, Maruti WagonR and General Motors Chevrolet Beat, which are priced in a similar range.

Toyota Kirloskar Motor also entered the small-car segment with Liva, the hatchback version of its sedan Etios. The company later introduced it with a diesel option as well.

The year witnessed continuation of the bad blood between West Bengal’s ruling party, the Trinamool Congress and Tata Motors, which had shifted its Nano plant out of the state in 2008 following violent protests.

The 997 acres of land leased to Tata Motors was vested by the state government vide the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, 2011, for return to farmers.

Later, a division bench had stayed distribution of 545 acres of land leased to Tata Motors on an application by the auto-maker, which appealed against the single bench order upholding the vesting of the Singur land leased to it.

After that, 31 component manufacturers had moved the court seeking a stay on distribution of the land allotted to them. The bench stayed distribution of the 290 acres of land allotted to 57 vendors of car components till disposal of the cases challenging the vesting of the land by the government.

Last month, the Calcutta High Court granted a stay on distribution of land allotted to vendors at Singur beside the Tata Motors’ Nano project plot by the West Bengal government.

In other developments during the year, in May, the Cabinet approved divestment of the government’s entire 95.38% stake in three-wheeler maker Scooters India, which has been suffering losses since 2002-03. Its entire net worth had eroded by 2008-09.

However, toward the end of the year, the government put on hold the proposed sale of the sick PSU and decided to review the proposal ‘holistically’ before taking a final decision amid volatile market conditions.

After a rough ride in 2011, the Indian auto industry is looking with optimism to the New Year. The industry is hoping that the forthcoming Auto Expo in the national capital will provide the much-needed boost to the sector and will help it cruise in the year ahead.


Apple, GoDaddy, Adidas, Joe Cool: Intellectual Property

Apple Inc, maker of the iPod and iPhone, is considering powering some portable devices with a hydrogen fuel cell, according an application published in the database of the US Patent and Trademark Office on 22nd December.

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