From the fables of Panchatantra to the stories of Ganesha and Jatayu, Indian folklore is intertwined with lovable animal characters that have gone on to inspire us and teach us values and morals.
While certain animals have become symbols of ferocity and courage, others have become silent ambassadors of companionship and unyielding loyalty.
Despite our rich history of respect and understanding towards animals, there has been a burgeoning inhumane treatment towards animals across India’s metros and amongst our youth. Shocking videos that depict atrocities towards animals routinely surface only to be forgotten once the media storm around them dies down. This is indicative of a deeper problem that is rooted in our system at the policy level itself.
The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act was a landmark judgment passed in 1960 with the aim of curbing atrocities towards animals. But, it has clearly failed to keep up with the times. Violations under this act come under the category of non-cognizable bailable offences, which roughly translates into the fact that violators usually get off only with a fine. The amount of the fine has been set between Rs 50 and Rs 100, which is also something that has not changed for nearly six decades. None of the recent governments has made any efforts to amend the archaic law. There are also hardly any convictions in cases related to cruelty towards animals.
Personally, I am of the opinion that cruelty towards any life form is a more serious crime than something like theft or adultery. While I understand that these other crimes may also cause pain and suffering, it is my belief that the torturing of any life form, be it human or otherwise, points towards a greater deep-seated issue within the psyche of the perpetrator which either requires a severe punishment or medical attention.
The presence of toothless policy has directly fuelled the rise of crony vigilantism within this space. While it is important to ensure that animals are treated humanely, fear and intimidation are not tools that must be adopted in this endeavour.
Maneka Gandhi, amongst the most prominent politicians in the country today, has championed the cause of animal welfare either through a genuine regard for animals or as a ploy for greater visibility. Her NGO, People for Animals, while doing good work in raising awareness about the importance of humane treatment of animals has also been embroiled in several controversies.
In 2009, members of the NGO had barged into a pet seller’s shop and threatened him by informing him that the animals he was selling were not covered under the Wildlife Protection Act. The shop owner later registered a case with the High Court as he believed that the entire incident had been orchestrated to extort money from him.
During the recent developments regarding Jallikattu, Maneka Gandhi did not come out even once to air her views on the matter. Given her image as a champion for animal rights, her silence was deafening and indicative of the fact that principles came a distant second in the face of politics.
Several cities across India have begun to face a crisis concerning stray animals. While there is legislation that clearly dictates how stray animals can be dealt with, the fear of enraging these animal rights groups has led to an inertia towards tackling issues of public concern.
The Animal Birth Control (Dogs) Rules, 2001 explains the procedures that govern street dog sterilisation within India. The rules state that street dogs can be sterilised, vaccinated and returned to the original location where they had been picked up from. The rationale behind the legislation is that sterilisation can reduce the ferocity of the animals, and since dogs are territorial animals, returning them to their original location would reduce the risk of getting other potentially rabid dogs into the area.
The National Institute of Technology, Karnataka, currently faces a severe problem of stray dogs that roam around terrorising the students on the campus. When the student council decided to go ahead with the relocation of the animals, they were asked to put off any ideas that they may have by members from Maneka Gandhi’s local team who had got wind of the move. This included cancelling arrangements that had been made with the local municipality. Since then, the dogs have been sterilised and returned to their original habitat. However, there are still several animals that roam the grounds, and the problem doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. While none of the students on campus believes in cruelty towards animals, the fact that there are potentially rabid dogs roaming free has led to a certain amount of resentment towards the animals within the student community. It is important to be able to handle this interface between human-animal interactions efficiently and ensure that conflict is not the only means of redressal.
Although the thought process behind the Animal Birth Control Rules seems lucid, the major issue is that it does not look at the situation objectively. In essence, the law mandates picking up dogs and sterilising them at your convenience and then returning them to their original location with the hope that they will protect the area from other rabid dogs. The entire law has been framed keeping the residents of the locality as a priority without any care for the effect that these actions might have on the animals in question.
While I understand that relocation can be a traumatic experience for the animals in question, maybe the way forward requires the setting up of community-run animal shelters in every neighbourhood which can ensure that these animals are within their natural habitat while reducing their chances of conflict with humans.
Recently, keeping in light the attacks on the stray dogs in Kerala, the Supreme Court had ruled, “compassion must be shown towards these animals, yet they must not be allowed to become a menace to society”. The Bench agreed to hear submissions on revisions towards the Animal Birth Control Act, which is a positive sign that can potentially herald more progressive policy measures.
Another interesting incident that perfectly encapsulates the mismatch that exists today comes out from Ahmedabad in 2010. The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation had blacklisted an NGO that year which dealt with the issue of dog sterilisation. It was only after the municipality had blacklisted the organisation did they realise the urgent need to tackle the rampant issue of stray dogs within the city. This was when they decided to approach the Animal Welfare Board for resources to carry out a census of stray dogs and strategize methods to deal with the problem.
Another major issue that crops up in this discussion is the free leeway given in terms of animal slaughter as mandated by religious ceremonies. While it is a fact that India is a secular nation and is tolerant towards all faiths, one must also keep in mind that a lot of atrocities that are committed towards animals happen during such festivals. A critical evaluation must be made about whether these measures are aimed at fulfilling religious sentiments or are a means of playing dirty vote bank politics.
While culture is important, moulding one’s practices as we become more educated and civilised is also of equal importance. It is only when we can say no to mindless ritualistic violence that we can say that our education has been instrumental in transforming us into conscious citizens.
There is also a rampant apathy in the attitude of pet owners within our country. It is the responsibility of the pet owner to make the other pedestrians feel safe about walking in the presence of their pets.
I had recently watched some documentaries that clearly brought to light the evils of the commercial animal husbandry industry today. It highlighted how animals are exploited for food and other products. This is not something that is widely discussed or even common knowledge.
Even a cursory search on YouTube would throw up several videos that show you the inner workings of a poultry industry or a beef slaughterhouse. Animals are kept in dingy conditions with absolute disregard for comfort. Their bodies are pumped with chemicals and hormones to artificially stimulate the requisite body types for commercial production.
No one would even begin to imagine the atrocities that are behind that innocuous glass of milk. Calves are separated from their mothers at birth and the cows are repeatedly artificially inseminated so that they can be made to lactate for longer periods of time. Although scientific studies have proven that milk is an inefficient source of calcium, the milk industry has developed such a strong lobby to protect its interests that any such reports are immediately discredited.
How come violation of animal rights within the commercial animal husbandry industry is not mainstream knowledge? There is an urgent need for a more holistic approach towards animal welfare. It is only when we learn to live compassionately that we can hope to achieve true equilibrium with our surroundings.