Sometime last year, a lettuce-wrapped Ravina Tandon stepped onto Mumbai streets to discourage the use of leather. In June, Volkswagon canned its Polo ad following protests that it encouraged cruelty to animals. And on February 19 this year, over 2,000 activists across 17 cities in India held a candlelight vigil to protest the abuse of animals.

Blips from the loony fringe? Or harbingers of a tide, finally, turning?

India's sobriquet as the land of ahimsa has, ironically, been slow to yield a movement for animals. This is not to discount a few stalwarts such as theosophist and dancer Rukmini Arundale, Diana Ratnagar of Beauty without Cruelty, or more recently, the much-pilloried Ms. Maneka Gandhi who has lobbied for animal rights for over 20 years.

But a sustained, widespread concern and action for animals in and of themselves – beyond the confines of conservation, environment, wildlife or the sugar-candy condescension of “pets” — to acknowledging them as sentient, living beings with a fundamental right to a life without cruelty and exploitation — that recognition, that movement, has been slow to come.

With some exceptions, India has witnessed a mostly benign, cat-dog rescue-and-rehabilitation mode of animal welfare. This is in sharp contrast to the West where attacks on labs, PETA-style in your face campaigns, and icons such as Peter Singer have been the hallmarks of the movement since the 1960s. Simulated meat, vegan restaurants and retail stores such as Body Shop have become social markers for a vibrant, if alternative, animal rights movement.

The reasons for the slow emergence of such a movement in India are complex and many, says activist Arpan Sharma. “I would hesitate to label it a movement, yet. Some of the really critical elements defining other social movements (such as that for women) are missing: a clear agenda, an in-depth understanding of the core issues, and a centre of gravity that is broad-based rather than personality-centric.”

It was precisely to catalyse the movement and facilitate a collective voice that the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO) was established in 2009 by select NGOs, with Sharma as the executive head.

With a current membership of over 35 animal welfare organisations (AWOs), the federation launched a series of workshops across major cities to highlight the exploitation of animals across a wide spectrum of areas. The focus, however, was clearly on the one sphere affecting the largest proportion of animals — factory-farming. A practice fast gaining ground in the country, factory-farming by large industries involves the artificial breeding and raising of thousands of animals in unnatural, inhuman and unhygienic conditions until their slaughter, achieving economies of scale while sacrificing human and animal health, as well as any semblance of humanity.

The first-ever India for Animals conference in Chennai in January this year was a crucial step in this direction. Attended by about 200 participants drawn from AWOs, corporate, media and IT sectors, the conference testified that a concern for animals has started to catch on.

Alarming trends

The timing could not be more opportune. Consumption of meat and dairy in India is at an all-time high, thanks to a booming middle class and skewed notions of modernity and Westernisation. Almost 80 per cent of it is produced through factory-farming. Brighter Green, a U.K.-based environment group, places India as the world's top producer of buffalo meat, the third largest in eggs, and sixth in poultry meat. With more and wealthier Indians eating higher on the food chain, increasing investments in meat and dairy industries, land and water resources are being diverted for livestock farming. Meanwhile, malnourishment, which already haunts 40 per cent of children under five in India, remains persistent and intractable.

Yet, most environmental groups in India balk at the idea of even engaging with the issue. (Remember the infamous media headline from the Copenhagen summit: “We'll do everything we can to save the planet except give up our meat”). Al Gore's much-heralded Inconvenient Truth skirted any reference to the impact of factory-farming on climate change, and IPCC Chairman Dr. R.K. Pachauri's suggestion of a meat-free day in a week caused a huge uproar among some factions.

Eco-feminist scholars such as Carol J. Adams and Marti Kheel would posit that the resistance to addressing animal exploitation stems from the strong parallels between patriarchy, male aggression and domination on the one hand, and the oppression of women, nature and animals on the other. They would argue that veganism is an important part of eco-feminist ethics. Unfortunately, most eco-feminists in India, while taking up cudgels for organic farming and rural livelihoods, remain silent on the issue of animal exploitation.

Glimmers of hope?

In the face of such a genocide, abolition is but a plaintive ideal. Incremental, welfarist measures are crucial and it is with this hope that the Humane Society International (HSI) focuses its advocacy efforts on the poultry industry, among the fastest-growing and most exploitative. Thanks to their efforts, some restaurants and stores are switching to eggs that are cage-free: Nilgiris in Bangalore, Crowne Plaza and Ramada Plaza in Delhi.

Soy milk is becoming increasingly available and the Bhopal-based Bio-Nutrients markets a wide range of soy substitutes for dairy. While the dissection of animals in CBSE and ICSE curricula has been banned, the Vadodara-based Interniche provides humane alternatives such as multimedia simulations and ethically sourced cadavers to animals typically abused in training and experimentation.

Some successes have been notched in the area of legislation: the use of five animal species in circuses was banned in 1998, and the animal birth control programme has been accepted in most states since 2001 to replace culling as a method for controlling the street dog population. Last month, the Animal Welfare Board of India issued an order to poultry farms to discontinue their practice of forcibly starving hens for 14 days at a stretch to induce molting. Equally notable is the recently-issued and progressive Draft Animal Welfare Act. If passed, the Act will replace the outdated 1960 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (PCA), providing specific definitions of cruelty, and increasing the fine for first-time offenders.

Challenges

Alongside legislation, it would be crucial to increase awareness, mainstream and build partnerships, says Jayasimha Nuggehalli, HSI's Campaign Manager. Citing examples, he says, “Rabies and factory-farming are health and environmental issues, but not recognised as such.” FIAPO and HSI are working through a broad coalition of cross-cutting stakeholders representing food safety, pollution and rural livelihoods to partner with the Indian Institute of Public Health Public, Hyderabad to increase awareness of the impacts of industrial animal agriculture.

These efforts are, however, infinitesimal given the sheer genocidal proportions of animal abuse and slaughter, with a spectrum of institutionalised violence that is as widespread as it is invisible. Core to the challenge is an anthropocentric speciesism that prioritises human life at the cost of all other life forms and cosmologies, a path whose dangers are already gravely visible. Current discourse on human rights will necessarily have to expand to one on social justice, which is more inclusive, more acknowledging of our connectedness and responsibilities towards other life forms around us.

Challenging the status quo and raising awareness of deeply-entrenched norms that condone animal exploitation is critical. Few are aware of the horrific conditions involved in factory-farming. Fewer still are aware of the cruelties of the dairy industry, which contributes to the slaughter of male calves at birth, and illegally administers oxytocin and hormones to keep cows artificially lactating throughout the year.

Risky venture

Raising awareness on these issues, however, is a risky undertaking. Unwritten social taboos inhibit discussions on animal exploitation and consumption, thanks to connotations of caste and religion which render it a potentially powder-keg communal issue. Complex, too, are some inherent contradictions: staunch vegetarians who brandish their silk and leather; wildlife enthusiasts who are unhesitatingly carnivore.

Broad-based awareness campaigns are crucial, but resources and capacity are in short supply. One-off, celebrity-centric, anti-KFC campaigns may spin headlines but little real change. Animal activists are dismissed with specious arguments of evolution, “personal choice,” tradition, and livelihoods. Even humane education efforts need to mask themselves as environment or climate change programmes to gain entry into institutions.

The aversion to talking about animal exploitation and slaughter has striking parallels to that of child sexual abuse, notes one activist. “Neither children nor animals are able to speak for themselves, nor have any choice in the matter. Almost always, these acts of violence happen behind closed doors, with strong social taboos to discussing them.”

Breaking these norms is a fundamental obligation. Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma describes an unusual experiment in the U.S.: an organic animal farm that, in a strange subversion of a well-known Paul McCartney quote, features an abattoir with glass walls, providing consumers with the right to view how the animals are slaughtered. Unfortunately, most people would simply not want to know, preferring the sanitised, cellophane-wrapped supermarket product.

But some take hope in the inevitability of change. “There will come a day,” says Erika Abrams, a trustee of FIAPO, “when meat and dairy consumption will be seen as decadent and irresponsible, the way most of us feel about wearing fur, or eating dogs and cats.” But for that to happen, we must lift the veil, ask the questions, start the debate. We must, perforce, disturb the universe.

“The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.” - Alice Walker, African-American feminist scholar and poet

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