In recent weeks, there have been many attacks by stray dogs on people, especially children. With an estimated 1.5-6 crore stray canines roaming around the streets in India, questions are being raised about the implementation of municipality laws and cultural attitudes of tolerance towards stray dogs. In a conversation moderated by Jacob Koshy, Shailaja Chandra and Meghna Uniyal map the scale of the public safety issue and provide legal and administrative context. Edited excerpts:
Is there a stray dog crisis in India? And is this a problem unique to India?
Meghna Uniyal: First, some context. This is not an Indian problem; it is very much a global issue. And this is primarily because of our relationship with dogs. We like dogs, we want to keep them and they breed prolifically.
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Globally, supply always tends to exceed the demand for dogs. As a result, the surplus animals end up on the streets. The difference (between countries) lies in how we address the problem. The U.S. has a zero-tolerance policy for stray dogs and up to three million dogs and cats are euthanised every year. In India, we allow those animals to end up on the streets, and leave them there. This is in violation of our laws. The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (PCA Act), which is the principal Act for the protection of animals, recognises that dogs are domestic animals, suffer on the streets due to homelessness and also impact human beings, and they should therefore be sheltered, re-homed, removed or euthanised. Our State Municipal Acts, which are meant for the protection of people, also mandate capture and removal, and say they should be sheltered, re-homed or euthanised. Historically, euthanasia was done in a crude, haphazard manner. Municipalities would catch dogs and use the cheapest methods of killing them, such as electrocution, gassing or poisoning. So, the problem became about how these animals could be humanely captured, and our laws implemented in a systematic and logical manner. Now, we have gone from mass killing and employing crude, horrific methods to the other end of the spectrum, which is that we leave all of them on the road. Stray dogs are being identified as community dogs and are now considered part of the community akin to squirrels or birds.
Without human supervision and control, dogs will go back to the feral state, which is what we are seeing on the streets. A dog is a loyal animal and thinks ‘this is my house, I’m being fed here.’ Naturally, these large packs of dogs are becoming territorial and aggressive about public spaces where they are fed.
Municipal authorities had the power to euthanise unclaimed street dogs. The 2001 Animal Birth Control Rules took these powers away by creating a category called ‘street dogs’ as opposed to ‘strays’. The PCA Act, while barring cruelty, doesn’t restrict municipalities from euthanising ‘strays’. How did we end up with laws at cross-purposes?
Shailaja Chandra: Municipal corporations are governed by State Acts, but there is also the Ministry of Urban Development (MUD), which is supposed to bring together the policy and technical aspects. Municipalities are expected to provide assistance in technical matters to States, which in turn give such information to the MUD. The MUD, however, is heavily involved in activities such as construction and sewage management. It does not have the bandwidth or interest to get into sections of laws (governing street animals). The Municipal Acts have rigorous provisions for the containment of the menace caused by street dogs, but these are ignored by officers who generally take their cue from the political milieu in which they operate. The political milieu takes its cue from what the greater number of people seem to believe today, which is that you are doing good to the animal and you are doing ‘punya’ (a charitable act for good karma). The general sense is that stray dogs are a public good. Politicians take a cue from this and municipal authorities take a back seat. Municipal bodies can bring matters under control if they want to, but they will not do it because they have no political push.
But it is also common to see people moving around with sticks and thrashing these animals. So, there seems to be a fair bit of public anger.
Meghna Uniyal: This is not only an issue of how nobody follows any laws and the municipalities don’t do what they’re supposed to do. Our laws are there both for the welfare of the people as well as dogs. Laws for the protection of people and animals say that stray animals should be removed from public places, and sheltered, re-homed, or euthanised. People do take out a lot of their anger on the animals. When you pit people against dogs and end up giving stray dogs the same rights as your children, retaliatory attacks on these animals increase because there is no way for people to otherwise protect their families physically. So, now we are seeing increasing stray dog attacks inside gated communities and in hospital premises.
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The PCA Act is an animal welfare-based legislation, which lays down that animals can be used, owned, managed, and even killed but in a humane manner. So, the law is looked at from the lens of human rights. It doesn’t give rights to animals; it vests in us the duty to protect them from unnecessary suffering. But today, we have the Act and a set of subordinate rules that are meant to enforce the Act but make it redundant.
If the power to euthanise strays were restored to, say, municipalities, would it bring down numbers?
Shailaja Chandra: Citizens will not accept euthanasia, even in the case of terminally ill animals. This would have to be built into people’s thinking. When your premises are a breeding ground for mosquitoes, municipal corporations levy a fine. If you have somebody polluting the water with chromium plating or electroplating, you get shut down. However, authorities do nothing of the kind when it comes to dogs that bite and cause rabies. This is a public health responsibility, which is part of a municipal responsibility that ought to be overseen by the Ministries of Health and Family Welfare in the States and at the Centre.
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It is out of the question that Indian society will accept euthanasia. What we can do is to follow certain principles which have been agreed upon, but even those have been thrown to the winds. The courts have said there should be designated places for dogs to be fed and that these should be defined by municipal [bodies] and the Animal Welfare Board and the local Resident Welfare Associations. This sounds good. But these three bodies are unlikely to come together for thousands of streets, societies, and colonies in a State or in a city. And even if designated places are found, who is going to monitor that this is being observed?
Meghna Uniyal: It’s only a small minority of vocal people who make it sound like we don’t kill anything, which is not the case at all. But having said that, euthanasia or sterilisation cannot be the only answer to the problem. For instance, the most fecund and the most prolifically breeding population would have to be sterilised; sick animals, aggressive animals, etc. would have to be euthanised; a segment of the population can be sheltered, and so on. We have to recognise what the Act says, and that is that dogs are domestic companion animals and must be treated as such. They have no role ecologically or otherwise on the streets and in public places without human supervision. This is the starting point of all dog control in the country.
We recently had an update to the Animal Birth Control Rules. Do they work towards solving any of these issues?
Meghna Uniyal: Under the new ABC Rules, stray dogs are not even ‘street’ dogs; they are ‘community’ dogs. So, just the name has been changed.
We see that the brunt of the stray dog problem is borne by the poorest, given their disproportionate representation in dog-bite and child-mauling instances. Does something have to be done so that the crisis has more political resonance?
Shailaja Chandra: It is the duty of officials to implement the law. It is the duty of legislators to amend or modify a law if it is not working. Neither has been done. Unless politicians are shown that they are allowing this to go on under their noses, it will not have any effect. Looking at a plethora of cases reported periodically in the press, this story has been going on for 10 or 15 years in the courts. Sometimes the courts give an absolutely draconian order; the next day that order is stayed. It is high time that the courts stop the ambivalence, and the law is just interpreted in black and white. And this means the Municipal Corporation Act, and not the Animal Welfare Board Rules.
Meghna Uniyal is Director and Co-founder, Humane Foundation for People and Animals; Shailaja Chandra is former Chief Secretary of Delhi