Being locked in during a pandemic has made me more conscious of the hazards of my environment, most notably the menacing stray dogs. A month back, I was mauled by a rabid dog in a park. The canine also bit a three-year-old child, two pet dogs and three security guards. On my neighbourhood WhatsApp group, there are several horror stories of elderly persons and children being bitten by stray dogs, apparently unusually frisky because their usual biscuit feeders were absent during the lockdown.
But in the eyes of the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), the victims are really the dogs. An AWBI circular actually comments that a person getting in the way of a dog “can be perceived as an example of provocation”. A dog which bites human beings repeatedly cannot necessarily be termed a nuisance and a vet is liable to be sued if he puts the biting dog to sleep at his master’s request. The consequence of such a perverse law is that some time back, the owner of a rabid Great Dane simply threw his dog over the Sunder Nagar nursery wall, where it bit and infected many other canines and humans. Citing AWBI rules, stray dog feeders frequently threaten residents who object to dog bowls at their doorsteps with an FIR charging “criminal intimidation’’. Small wonder that most Resident Welfare Associations are reluctant to tangle with the vocal and aggressive dog minders in their neighbourhood.
Maneka Gandhi, the formidable animal rights activist, has almost single-handedly framed and still oversees the country’s bizarre policy for dogs for some two decades. Officialdom and her political superiors have discreetly distanced themselves, despite the impracticality and unscientific nature of programmes with a cavalier disregard for health issues and human suffering.
When she was first appointed MoS Environment in 1989, Gandhi persuaded then Prime Minister V P Singh to hand to her the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) and detach it from its real home, the Animal Husbandry and Dairying portfolio. This peculiar practice continued and she retained the control of the board as minister of Environment, Social Justice and Empowerment, Culture, and Statistics and Programme Implementation. After Gandhi was left out of the cabinet in Modi 2.0, the AWBI has finally been returned to its rightful home, Animal Husbandry, which is under Giriraj Singh, who is more concerned about cows and Hindutva.
Maneka Gandhi writes | For the love of dog: If we can coexist with animals, we will benefit far more than them
Gandhi’s iron grip over her fiefdom is still evident. Even the fiery Giriraj Singh confesses his ministry has really no effective powers. His private secretary wonders why I should be apprehensive about retaliation from the ferocious dog lobby — after all, even he had an FIR filed against him by these vigilantes. My visit was in the aftermath of a recent near-unanimous proposal from the residents of East Nizamuddin to their welfare association to ensure that the number of feeding spots for stray dogs be cut down from a staggering 33 — in a community of some 270 houses — to a reasonable 10. (Ironically, the dogs are largely fed by paid employees of a woman who lives in a farmhouse miles away from the colony and seldom visits. Like many dog feeders, who shoulder none of the responsibility which goes along with feeding an animal, she perhaps assumes she has earned her place in heaven by her presumed charity.)
The proposal to cut down the feeding spots evoked an angry and threatening phone call from Maneka Gandhi’s sister, Ambika Shukla, who even complained that the elderly in our colony were demonstrating aggressive behaviour by walking around with sticks. (The obvious reason, self-protection, eluded her.) My repeated efforts over the last two years to get an idea from those who have appointed themselves the guardians of the colony’s stray dogs of the actual population and the number who were sterilised and vaccinated proved futile. Gandhi’s formidable army of dog feeders, fashioning themselves in her mould, are accountable to no one.
I recount my neighbourhood’s tale because it is a microcosm of what is happening in the country today. The AWBI, despite all its lofty claims, has not compiled data on the dog population and vaccinations in the last two decades. Two internal reviews by the environment ministry have acknowledged the failure of the Animal Birth Control (ABC ) (dogs) rules, and pointed out misappropriation of funds by some animal welfare organisations patronised by the AWBI.
Experts estimate that barely 10 per cent of India’s dogs have been sterilised and immunised out of a possible 60 million. Since the ABC rules were actually passed by the Ministry of Culture, it is a moot point whether the ministry had the authority in the first place to pass laws on a subject which it lacked domain knowledge. The ABC offers no scientific method for a systematic vaccination drive and stabilising the country’s canine population. ABC rules contravene all Indian state municipal Acts, which mandate removal of straying animals from streets and public places, both for the protection of people and animals.
Unsurprisingly, India has by far the highest number of rabies cases in the world (around 33 per cent), followed by Congo. In contrast, our neighbouring countries have performed fairly well by adopting scientific principles. Our “humanistic” ABC rules miss the rabies component entirely and do not even mention re-immunisation. According to a conservative WHO estimate, there are 20,000 annual rabies deaths in India. But unlike COVID-19 mortalities, there is little concern over these recurring deaths, mostly of children. According to government records, there were six million dog bites in 2017.
The AWBI alone cannot be blamed. Judicial overreach and judicial procrastination are also at fault. In 2010, Justice V K Jain of the Delhi High Court overturned the combined wisdom of the country’s civic laws and disregarded the recommendation of the apostle of ahimsa, Mahatma Gandhi, whose well-considered opinion on the advisability of the elimination of stray dogs is a matter of record. Justice Jain’s order on feeding stray dogs and forbidding the municipality to pick them up opened a Pandora’s box. In 2012, the Karnataka High Court decreed that the authorities did, in fact, have a right to remove stray dogs or practice euthanasia in cases where human lives needed protection. But after eight years, the Supreme Court is in no hurry to pass an order, which could greatly benefit our unprotected street children.
The writer is consulting editor, The Indian Express