It was the twilight hour on February 28. In her rented one-room basement accommodation in Uttar Pradesh’s C.B. Ganj in Bareilly, Kusum Gangwar was gathering her bag to go to the market. She was preparing for the third birthday of her youngest daughter, Pari, on March 3, and she had planned to make halwa (a sweet, thickened porridge). She was stepping out to buy some sugar and get the wheat ground at a local mill.
Outside, she heard a commotion. As she emerged, she saw people running towards the empty plot next to her house. And then she froze. Her daughter lay in a pool of blood, her body torn apart: there was a thick piece of flesh that hung from her neck and one hand was almost detached from her shoulder. She died before anyone from the locality, situated on the fringes of Bareilly, could rush her to a hospital. Later, the hospital staff found that the child had about 200 bite marks on her body. She had been fatally mauled by dogs. Pari, say her distraught parents, was a lover of animals.
A larger debate around strays as a public health concern was revived in 2022 and is gathering momentum after a series of killings across India. Groups of people took up opposite, hostile positions, reflective of the very nature of human-animal conflict. One set of citizens wanted to cull stray dogs with acts of cruelty being played out; another, of animal rights activists, wanted a gentler approach, with better birth control measures and facilities for care of street dogs.
Based on government data from January 2019 to July 2022, as many as 11,467 people get bitten daily in India by dogs. However, Abhijit M. Pawde, principal scientist at the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI), Bareilly, feels the figure is far lower than actual numbers as many people may not get treatment from hospitals.
World Health Organization (WHO) data state that the country accounts for the highest number of rabies deaths in the world, at 36%. However, just 17.8% of the world population lives in India.
Death in the Ganj
Away from data that boil people down to decimal points and make the marginalised unseen, Ms. Gangwar cannot get over her daughter’s death. “ Meri beti ko kutte kha gaye (My daughter was eaten by dogs),” she wails, adding that Pari would feed the cow they own and also throw scraps to the dogs. “All I want is that this should not happen to anyone else,” says Ms. Gangwar, who is unlettered but ready to do whatever it takes, including going to court, to get justice. Sitting in her partially constructed, unplastered home, Ms. Gangwar cries that she does not even have a photograph of her daughter. The only one that exists is on her eldest daughter’s husband’s phone.
A year ago, the family of five moved to their current home in Bandia, within the larger C.B. Ganj. Avdesh, Pari’s father, is a daily wage labourer who works at a construction site earning ₹300 to ₹400 a day. The home has two takhts (hardwood beds), a few vessels, and clothes scattered around. In a corner is a temple.
When Pari, the last of five children, was born more than a decade after the previous child, there was great rejoicing. “ Ghar mein raunak aa gaya tha (She brought light into our lives),” says Ms. Gangwar. In a life with little to look forward to and few joys, Pari was a constant.
Ms. Gangwar says there had been so many instances of dog bites in the vicinity that the family never allowed Pari out of their sight. On that day, she just happened to walk out alone.
In C.B. Ganj, just this year, four children, from three to seven years, have been attacked. Luckily, there were no deaths, but Tasmeelan, who shows signs of coming from the poorest of the poor strata, and lives in the area, said, “This was the third child [to die] in the last two years. The number of dog bite cases [that haven’t caused death] are countless. But they have left our children with multiple stitches and trauma for life.” Ms. Tasmeelan’s son was attacked last year, but survived with wounds on the stomach and thigh. She rants about all the children, giving out names and graphic descriptions of their injuries.
Community dogs, community kids
February and March this year have been particularly bad months for killing by dogs. On February 18, when the whole of Saharanpur’s Bilaspur village was preparing for Shivratri, seven-year-old Kanha, the youngest of three children in the family, was playing in his backyard. Street dogs attacked him, dragging him down the road, ripping his stomach open. His parents have not been able to recover from the trauma of discovering his body lying in the bushes.
Kanha’s father, Vikas Kumar, cannot forgive himself: “We were distracted for a few minutes and never saw our child alive again.” Mr. Kumar, a marginal farmer growing wheat and sugarcane and who runs into frequent farm produce losses, says: “Kanha had begun to come with me to the fields. He was our hope for a better future.”
“I am petrified that my third child will fall prey to the dogs here, so I have sent him away to live with my sister in another part of Delhi”SushmaMother to two boys killed by dogs
In the second week of March, two boys of the same family, seven and five years old, were mauled to death in one of Delhi’s urban slums. Their mother, Sushma, who had moved to the city from a village in Allahabad to give her children a better life, is still in shock. “I keep thinking about how much pain my children would have gone through when they were dragged and lacerated to death,” she says, shaking with grief and disbelief, the voice of someone who has not eaten or slept in days.
Ms. Sushma works at a local beauty parlour. Her husband is back in the village, and she says he is mentally ill. “I am petrified that my third child will fall prey to the dogs here, so I have sent him away to live with my sister in another part of Delhi,” she says, crying. “When there are so many other children around, why did the dogs attack only mine?”
On March 14, a five-year-old boy died after he was attacked by a stray dog while playing outside on the streets in Telangana’s Khammam district. This was the second dog attack on a child in the State this year. The first incident last month, of four-year-old Pradeep, the son of a security guard, being mauled by street dogs in Hyderabad, was recorded in a video. The CCTV footage showed the terrified boy running haplessly as dogs ambushed and killed him. Needless to say, the video went viral, igniting a national debate on how dogs, who children are told are ‘man’s best friend’, have now turned killers.
Situations rarely reach a crescendo for a single reason. Not-for-profits working in the animal protection space, activists, and veterinaries say strays attacking is a many-layered problem.
Shailaja Chandra, former Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Delhi’s first woman Chief Secretary, has been a witness to dog bites in the national capital. When her husband was bitten, she began to dig deeper into where the root of the administrative problem lay. “I was surprised to find that the Animal Welfare Board of India, with 21 members for the entire country [as per the 2019-20 annual report], is given responsibility of making regulations on stray animals. This should be the job of governments and municipal corporations.” But instead of taking the onus, all that the authorities have engaged in is passing the buck and shielding themselves. “We can’t let the streets be overpowered by dogs at the cost of human beings, especially vulnerable groups like the elderly and children,” she says.
There are no standard operating procedures to deal with strays that attack. The Animal Birth Control (ABC) Rules, 2001 (amended in 2010, with an updated version in 2022 still in draft) do not address the problem of human-stray conflict.
According to the 20th Livestock Census in 2019, there are 1.5 crore stray dogs in India. However, the 2022 State of Pet Homelessness Index developed by Mars Petcare, a veterinary care for-profit company, estimates there are about 6.2 crore stray dogs in the country.
But why do these strays attack? “Because they are hungry and feed on leftovers. The improper disposal of garbage, especially hospital waste and non-vegetarian food waste, is another reason dogs start looking for flesh and blood,” Mr. Pawde says, adding that strays mostly attack vulnerable people: toddlers, ragpickers, and the elderly.
Well-meaning dog lovers who feed strays within the community living area don’t realise that irregular feeding may make them aggressive, says Mr. Pawde, adding that if people must feed, they need to consider doing so away from residential areas. Mr. Pawde, who claims that even IVRI had faced a dog menace some years ago, adds that civic bodies have poorly-trained dog catchers, and the animals too have turned smart enough to hide when they see the municipality vans.
“They [the municipality] just sent a van to pick up dogs after my daughter died. This is the third time this van has come to our area in two years. They only catch the friendly dogs... never the ferocious ones”Kusum GangwarMother to a child killed by dogs
Both Ms. Gangwar and Ms. Sushma, who have lost their children, feel that the reactions of the civic bodies were diluted. “They just sent a van to pick up dogs after my daughter died. This is the third time this van has come to our area in two years. They only catch the friendly dogs, as they are easily caught, and never the ferocious ones,” says Ms. Gangwar, who adds that the pack of 10 dogs that had mauled her daughter still roams the locality, looking for another target. Ms. Sushma echoes her: “ Khunkhar kutte abhi bhi yahi hain (The dangerous dogs are still here).”
Dr. Aditya Tiwari, veterinary welfare officer of Bareilly municipal corporation, says 11 dogs were caught from Bandia area, where Pari lived, and that regular sterilisation was taking place.
Keren Nazareth, director, Companion Animals and Engagement, India (Asia), from Humane Society International (India), says the larger subject of controlling the dog population gets lost in the rage towards stray canines.
Also read: Stray dogs bite five in Kasaragod
Ms. Nazareth calls for the strict implementation of the ABC rules in all cities. “In the ABC programmes in coordination with governments, we achieve at least 80% of sterilisation and vaccination in a given dog population in cities. This happens in a span of three to five years,” she says, ABC, as prescribed in its current form of implementation has low impact. She stresses that ABC is just one part of the solution. “The larger part is about engaging with people and ensuring that they are aware of the programme, dog behaviour, animal welfare, and related laws.”
After the deaths of the two brothers, Delhi Mayor Shelly Oberoi held an emergency meeting with officials. She says that the Municipal Corporation of Delhi hadn’t conducted a proper census on the population of stray animals for many years. “I have directed officials to strategise on a solution,” Ms. Oberoi says, vaguely.
Most discussions are “at the policy level”, a phrase that neither Ms. Gangwar nor Ms. Sushma comprehend. All they know is they lost their children to ferocious animals, and right now, they want the dogs dead.
The ‘holy cure’
A 30-km drive away from Bareilly is Hardua, a dusty village of semi-constructed structures. People bitten by dogs flock here. Sitaram Gangwar, 68, is a farmer, but says his ‘ancestral job’ is to serve people water from a well in his house. “This well has miracle water,” he says, adding that his father had passed on this information to him. “A saint had blessed this water and if a person with dog bites takes a sip, he will not die of rabies,” says Mr. Gangwar, who claims that 15 to 20 people visit him daily, with the numbers increasing over the weekend. People from Delhi, Rajasthan, other parts of Uttar Pradesh, and even from Nepal, visit Hardua to drink it, he says.
Jagnnath Singh, a pakora (fritter) seller, visited Mr. Gangwar with dog bites. He was given 750 ‘grams’ of water from the well, after the amount was weighed on a balance. He drank the water, thanked Mr. Gangwar, and offered him ₹20. “I am not superstitious. I believe in science too. I got the rabies vaccine too,” says Mr. Singh, adding that he was a graduate, but that both science and faith had roles to play. “ Vigyan apna kaam karega, bhagwan apna. Hum to dono ki suraksha le rahe hain (I am getting protection from both).”
About 60 km from Hardua, is Faridpur. In Uncha Mohalla here, a cleric, Hafiz Aziz Ur Rehman, also has a ‘miracle’ remedy for dog bite. He says he has a Koran blessed by a fakir (a religious ascetic). “I read the verses of the Koran and take it around the body of the person bitten by the dog. No one has ever complained that he got rabies after visiting me,” he says. In India, people deal with difficult realities in different ways.