Late one night this June, a worn down Hyundai Santro made its way through the deserted streets near South Extension in Delhi. A large polythene bag was perched rather precariously on its roof. As I followed the car in a taxi, a number of shadows emerged from the dark. The streets began to come alive.
Once we came to a halt, dozens of stray dogs converged on the car. Some weaved their way through parked cars, others jumped over drains, but the ones who knew best were already waiting in anticipation of their nightly treat. A well-built man, over six feet tall, emerged from the car and was immediately surrounded by 20 dogs. It was enough to frighten me into keeping my distance, but Rohit Prem greeted them with a wide smile. They were old friends. He reached for the polythene bag, which was full of boiled chicken, and began feeding the dogs and playing with them.
Rohit is a 39-year-old milkman who, along with his brother Rahul, feeds over fifty cats and around four hundred dogs on the streets of south Delhi every day. Throughout the two hours I spent following him, I never saw him without a smile. The brothers inherited their love for animals from their father. He was also a milkman, who started out feeding a stray dog he had encountered on his morning route. The brothers have two cars—the rickety Santro and a shinier i10—but their father did his rounds on a humble scooter.
Our next stop was a gated colony near Uday Park, where the roads were truly empty. Rohit let out a few whistles, strolled up to a parked car, got on his haunches and held out a piece of meat between its wheels. A couple of tiny black heads with yellow and green eyes darted out and snatched the meat out of his hands. These cats were not nearly as sociable as the dogs had been. Feeding the cats was a different game, Rohit told me as he held out another piece of meat. “They don’t come out so early. They’re usually out much later.”
We moved to a nearby traffic signal where the brothers stopped to load their cars with milk for their daily rounds. Here, too, a pack of stray dogs had gathered for their treat. Rohit knew the life story of every dog he fed, and had fashioned names for each of them. Sitting on the curb and waiting for the distributor to arrive with the day’s milk, Rohit pointed at one of the dogs. “Shaila was born near Ansal Plaza,” he said. “Her mother passed away recently. Her brother Jhumroo had met with an accident while they were still living at Ansal Plaza. We had to rush him to the hospital. We didn’t think he would make it because he had broken his leg, but he’s okay now.” He occasionally takes recovering dogs back to his house in South Extension, nursing them back to health. Around 30 dogs had seen the inside of his small apartment, he said.
As we talked, a scruffy golden retriever approached and sat next to us. Its fluffy coat distinguished it from the rest—originally a pet, it had been abandoned by its owners. “His name is Labra,” Rohit told me. “He likes to come and sit next to the car in the summer. We’ll put the milk here eventually, and he likes to cool down with the milk.”
The shipment from the distributors arrived, and Rohit and Rahul got to work, quickly transferring packets of milk from the van to their respective cars. Labra squealed with joy. Rohit spends around Rs 20,000 a month on the dogs and refuses any form of monetary assistance for this work. He insists that what he does is seva—selfless service.
When his father started out, the population of stray dogs was relatively low, and they did not require much attention. However, government negligence has allowed their number to rise exponentially. Rohit seemed particularly concerned with this trend. “The dogs are hardly sterilised,” he told me, “and this means that their number will only grow. I don’t know how much more this city can take. They’ll all just be mistreated and seen as a nuisance, and in this city, it’s really easy to fall sick.” The brothers said that they try to have every dog they encounter sterilised.
Feeding the dogs was never their priority. “They can take care of food themselves,” Rohit said. “It’s their health that worries me the most. The dogs get themselves hurt, and then maggots start to infest these wounds. More than maggots, they get into accidents.” Both Rohit’s Santro and Rahul’s Hyundai i10 are outfitted with first-aid kits, in case the dogs they encounter require treatment. “We always carry Himax and Lorexane to treat any dog infested by maggots,” Rohit told me. “This is really important, as the wounds can immediately grow.” The brothers are often mistaken as workers of a non-profit and get calls from all over Delhi whenever a dog is injured. They rush to the spot and help to the best of their ability.
Rahul said that the government ambulances to take strays to the vet are redundant. “They are almost never available. People can’t count on them even if they see an injured dog.” However, although they have learnt first aid, they fear having to deal with serious injuries. Rohit recalled another instance when he was called to New Delhi Railway Station. A dog had lost two limbs, and despite their best efforts, could not be saved.
Rohit said that individual vets are often helpful, “but private hospitals are designed to take care of pets, and they have a much higher rate.” With the average cost of a surgery at around Rs 15,000, the brothers often cannot afford treatment for more serious cases, despite maintaining a pool of funds for that purpose. One dog they came across had broken all four legs. Unable to afford treatment, they kept it at home until it felt better.
Some of their clients occasionally insist on giving tips—which Rohit rarely accepts—but not everybody is sympathetic to their cause. At many stops along his route, Rohit acted with a sense of urgency. “People get upset when they see me feeding the dogs,” he told me. “They think I’m responsible for them being in the colony.” The fact that he feeds them chicken often makes matters worse, he added, as residents fear that his meat-stained hands might pollute the milk he delivers. Rohit held up his hands to show me the improvised gloves, fashioned out of plastic bags, which he was wearing to prevent such pollution.
Rohit was driven out of one neighbourhood, he said, because the residents claimed that the dogs were diseased and that he was the main reason they stayed in the colony. The dogs followed him out—he now feeds them outside the colony gate. “They think that all these dogs do is cause trouble,” Rahul exclaimed. “Their main complaint is that they get in the way of their cars.” He said that he even takes care of strays near Defence Colony, where several NGOs function. “No one here cares for the street dogs,” he added. “We do what we can, and can only hope that the government eventually takes the right steps.”
Finicky residents and negligent government authorities aren’t their only worry. When I first met him at his house, Rohit showed me a harrowing video on his phone of a father and son thrashing a dog. The video was shot by a 10-year-old boy in the east Delhi neighbourhood of Gandhi Nagar this April. An animal-rights activist filed a police complaint. After a candlelight vigil by residents of the area, the duo was arrested.
He also told me about an incident in Uday Park three years ago. A resident took one of the dogs Rohit used to feed, stuffed it in a polythene bag and threw it away outside the colony. The dog survived and found its way back, but Rohit wanted to file a case. “We stayed at the police station from morning to evening, but nothing happened,” he said. “Nothing ever happens.”
Both sets of perpetrators were only fined Rs 50, the standard penalty for first offenders under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. Repeat offenders may be fined Rs 100 or imprisoned for three months, or both, but prison sentences are rare. The Animal Welfare Board of India, which was created by the 1960 Act, drafted a law in 2011 to raise the penalties for such offences, but the environment ministry has not brought it before parliament for a vote.
There is usually little else they can do, Rohit said, and they tend not to get too involved in most cases of cruelty. “Being too confrontational about such matters can backfire—they could poison the dog when we’re not around.”
The first time I went to Rohit’s flat, he was sharing it with four dogs. “I don’t think I can ever go for a vacation,” he told me. “The last time I went was in 1999. I can’t imagine what I’d go through if something happened to any of them.” I reached down to pet one of them—somehow, pets do not scare me nearly as much as strays. “They’re all the same to me,” Rohit said. “I can’t see the difference between the dogs inside a house and outside.”