Dragons’ Den star Deborah Meaden left the den to visit India recently to see for herself how international welfare organisation, The Brooke, is improving the life of horses, donkeys and mules there. Here’s here diary...
Thursday Morning: Meet The Nomads
Packing three days into two due to unforeseen problems with visas, means an early start for the journey to Meerut to meet the Qalander community, a now settled nomadic group of equine breeders who, once suspicious of The Brooke, are working closely with great results.
Nomadic tribes conjure up romantic visions but what we saw was far from that. We were met by desperately poor people living in huts made of mud and straw which frequently get washed away by floods.
Before The Brooke intervention, they were losing eight out of 10 of their horses to a wrongly identified disease, making it worse by using the wrong medicine.
They were proud to show us through diagrams how this had changed, and how The Brooke had taught them how to identify, treat and prevent the diseases. Now they only lose two out of 10 sick animals.
We had been talking to the men’s group but flashes of colour drew our eyes to the women sitting in shade. We walk over to meet and talk with them and learn that it was the women who during the day cut and carried the fodder and cared for the horses.
On our way we stop to see a group of their animals grazing and feel relieved to see them able to do what horses do naturally. Many of the animals we saw live in tight, unnatural conditions, which we would describe as appalling – but then so do the people.
We meet our second group and I wince at the sight of two tethered ponies, one young chestnut foal and the other a very broken pony who I discover is already being closely monitored by The Brooke.
I am close to tears but getting emotional is not going to help and I move over to meet the men who again tell their story – this time through magic tricks – and they tell me how at first they were suspicious, but came to realize just how much The Brooke could improve their livelihoods by keeping their animals healthy. We leave that place with my head full of those ponies and thoughts of how many were out there who needed our help.
Thursday Afternoon: Dragons’ Den, India Style
We have lunch and then drive on to the next village where I am to judge a competition. We walk through mysterious winding mud-lined paths into a small square filled with eager faces. The business pitchers are the men and they surprise me with their preparation, clear thinking and delivery – and I have to remind myself that I have been instructed not to invest.
The winner was making up a mixed balanced feed for equines and was proud he had created two jobs, made a profit, could provide better feed at a lower price to his community, and had a plan for expansion.
It gets dark and chilly before the judging is over, but the audience is committed to see it through and applaud enthusiastically when I present the prizes to the winner. We walk back through the mud brick paths, past the old lady smoking a pipe in the doorway and head for the car. We left Delhi in the dark and arrive back at the hotel in the dark.
Friday Morning: Working Life
It is 6am and still dark in Delhi and I wonder if I will actually see it in the light. Today we are catching the Shatabdi express to Aligarh where we meet the local Brooke team who explain that we are going to see the equines that work in the brick kilns.
It is obvious as soon as we arrive that life here is very hard. We go to see how the bricks are made and meet a tiny woman who already has a small child, throwing the mud into the moulds. I want to try so I can see what this work must be like. She is polite and helps me do it but must wonder why I would want to. She must also wish we would just go as she is paid by the brick but she is polite and gracious.
I am feeling sad but what I see and hear at the next village is very heartening. As soon as we arrive there is energy and I notice that the animals looked markedly healthier. We walk to a tiny square and face an audience clearly divided into the men’s and the women’s groups. The women talk first. They tell us how their own community associations, formed with the help of The Brooke, have given them a voice and a forum.
They ask about my animals. The men tell us of the financial difference the better health of their animals has made. They want to know what job my horses do and then it hits me, how do I talk of leisure riding and pets to these people whose animals MUST work for them to survive? I don’t know what to say.
They proudly show us the blue first aid box the community has bought with its own money and talk me through what each medicine is for. The Brooke has been working here for four years and it shows in the health and energy of its people and animals.
Friday Afternoon: Creativity And Cricket
Our final visit is to a school to present the winners of the painting competition and the community associations. I have chosen three paintings which show all the ingredients needed for a happy horse. As we arrive I am taken aback by the number of people there – well over two hundred – many of whom will have walked miles. The Brooke clearly commands a great deal of respect with these people.
The presentation is surreal. I speak in English they all nod and smile before it is interpreted. We are offered presents, handmade bowls and cups and I appreciate the generosity of a people who have little to give but who do.
When it is over the young winners take me to meet their mules and we stand in a muddy field surrounded by a sea of faces. I take my life in my hands and ask about the cricket score. They look blank.
I catch a five-minute nap on the train back to Delhi and once again arrive in the dark. It is 9pm and we eat our last dinner together. The cricket score appears on the TV screen and now I know why the children were not happy to talk about it as we were clearly winning.
Tomorrow The Brooke UK team return home but we are still travelling so it is goodbye. It is amazing how close we have become through our shared experiences and I feel sad.