Monkeys and bears in forced protest march

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Animal welfare campaigners in India want to banish performing animals from the streets. Peter Popham in New Delhi says it will be a long time before the country accepts Western standards of animal welfare.

It was the saddest, shabbiest little political demonstration you could imagine. Yesterday, in the business heart of New Delhi, outside the Bank of Tokyo- Mitsubishi, several dozen thin, ragged youths sat cross-legged in the middle of the road. A few of them held banners. Maybe half of them were accompanied by the performing animals - monkeys or bears - which enable them to scratch a living of 20 or 30 rupees a day, or around 50p, rather less than pounds 200 a year.

The golden-haired, red-bottomed monkeys, all on chains, quested for fleas in each other's scalps or lashed out at enemies with fierce hind legs. One was wearing a purple velvet coat embroidered with sequins.

The brown bears, muzzled or with the ropes through their noses that make them respond so readily to orders, lay face down on the tarmac as if doped, paws covering their eyes.

For once, the boys and bears were not on show. They had gathered to campaign for the right to continue plying their trade.

For years, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), which is chaired by Maneka Gandhi, the widow of Sanjay, Indira Gandhi's older son, has been fighting to outlaw the barbaric treatment of animals, of which dancing bears and prancing monkeys are such vivid examples.

Also on the list is the mistreatment of elephants for carnival purposes and the charming of pythons and cobras, all a part of the mesmerisingly archaic Indian cityscape and all equally out of tune with modern ideas of animal welfare, let alone animal rights.

But the animal boys have their champions, too. The small gathering outside the bank had spun off from a larger demonstration - the organisers claimed 400 handlers, 60 monkeys and 20 to 30 bears - outside the Presidential Palace, demanding the right to save themselves from starvation.

It is the latest initiative in a campaign that has been running for 10 years, and which claims the support of 100,000 people across the country.

How do they respond to the argument that treating animals like this is intolerably cruel? Direndra Pratap, one of the organisers of the demonstration, said: "This is just propaganda put out by Westernised environmentalists. So many goats and other animals are killed in the country, so many oxen and bullocks are used in farming - this is not a meaningful question to raise in India, because we are not yet a developed country.

"If they offered some alternative way for the handlers to make a living it would be different, but they don't. Without this work, the boys will starve."

Importing Western standards of animal welfare to India is undoubtedly treacherous, because the context is so different.

Some places in Delhi are practically impassable to traffic because of the herds of large cream-coloured cows that stand about in the roads. Visitors may assume that it has always been this way, but the locals will tell you it has got much worse since Mrs Gandhi began campaigning against the slaughter of obstructive cattle by municipal authorities.

The large number of dogs that hang around shops and restaurants are likewise blamed on her.

More sophisticated in our hypocrisy, we turn practised blind eyes to what goes on in our livestock farms and abattoirs. In India, the campaigners strive for consistency - and end up countenancing absurdities.

So at the Presidential Palace yesterday the boys and beasts were in the midst of what has become a monkey playground: Lutyens's heroic architecture is now a vast climbing frame for wild monkeys. They regularly raid the Ministry of Urban Affairs, tearing up the files and intimidating civil servants.

The Booker Prize-winning novelist Arundathi Roy lives in the area, and while she was finishing The God of Small Things she says she dreaded the monkeys coming in through her study window and carrying off the manuscript.

Delhi Zoo has repeatedly been asked to help, but to no avail: they have a monkey problem of their own.

All of which suggests that reducing India's urban chaos to the gleaming sterility of the West will take more than the importing of a few fashionable ideas.

At this rate the campaigners will end up substituting a large population of wild animals for a small population of tame ones. The average Indian is not convinced that this is an improvement.