The horror stories continue to pour in. Children, usually from poor families or in rural areas, are being hunted and killed by homeless dogs. State and central governments seem to be helpless to ensure the safety of people on the streets, from what has clearly become a human rights issue and a public health crisis.
The main culprit behind this is the Animal Birth Control (ABC) Rules that were first introduced in 2001 by the Ministry of Culture, and now replaced by even more absurd ABC Rules, 2023. This policy, despite the protestation by those who promoted it, is completely lacking in both science as well as logic.
The policy aims to implement a technique called ‘catch-neuter-vaccinate-release’ to control populations of free-ranging dogs and cats.
However, despite 20 years of this policy and hundreds of crores of rupees being spent, dog population in India is now more than 65 million. Proponents of this method aver that the only reason it did not work is because it has not been implemented properly. But what they fail to understand is that it is unimplementable from a scientific, logistic and economic perspective.
The ABC programme does not seem to have any benchmarks or targets. For example, before the start of the programme, a municipal corporation would be required to estimate the base population of dogs to be sterilised. It would then need to set targets for population reduction within a reasonable time period, say five years, and then calculate how many would need to be sterilised to achieve this objective.
However, municipalities set targets for sterilisation based on budgets and available facilities. In most cases, only a small fraction of the population is sterilised, and in many cases, the programme itself is discontinued after a few cycles.
Dogs are incredibly fecund animals, and reproduce at a high rate if enough resources are available. Both field and modelling studies show that nearly 90% of the dog population needs to be sterilised over a short period of time to achieve a sustained population reduction over a 10-15-year period. This ‘minor’ detail is conveniently skipped by most proponents of the ABC programme.
The other major problem is that the ABC Rules, 2023, bizarrely require people to feed dogs, wherever they may be. The concept of feeding animals in India is associated either with religious beliefs, a false sense of compassion, or at its egregious worst, a wilful misinterpretation of Article 51G of the Constitutional duty to be compassionate to all living beings. Most people either throw a few biscuits on the roadside or leave leftover food outside their houses, but some people, with almost religious fervour, go out of their way to feed dozens of dogs.
A study conducted in Bengaluru found that roadside eateries and a few households that fed dogs were the main factors responsible for high dog densities. This creates huge conflict between feeders and ordinary residents who have to deal with packs of dogs roaming around their neighbourhoods. Although some justify feeding as a way of making dogs friendly and easier to catch for sterilisation, the same study found that, in fact, very few people actually sterilise or vaccinate dogs that they feed.
Reckless feeding tends to congregate dogs and leads to pack formation, territoriality and aggression even amongst sterilised dogs. This behaviour is usually triggered at night. At its very worst, this frenzied hunting behaviour can end up causing severe injury or even death due to mauling, especially of small children and the elderly. Another study also found that in urban areas, dogs were the second leading cause of road accidents.
Despite all these negatives, why does the government persist with a policy that is cruel at multiple levels? It is cruel to dogs, since homeless life on the streets is not easy, with accidents, disease, wanton cruelty and constant fear being their normal state. It is cruel to ordinary citizens, depriving people of their right to life, free movement, and a safe environment. In many areas, dogs are also leading causes of harm to wildlife, and cause immense loss of biodiversity.
The unkindest cut of all is that the ABC Rules ban the euthanasia of rabid animals, making India the only country in the world to follow such a cruel practice. The rules require rabid dogs to “die a natural death”.
However, it does not have to be this way. Solving this problem requires a multi-pronged approach, and some difficult decisions. Strict pet ownership laws, a ban on irresponsible feeding in public places, and encouraging adoption and long-term sheltering of homeless dogs will result in win-win solutions. Since euthanasia is so unacceptable to dog lovers, let them support the permanent sheltering of animals.
Unlike the ABC programme, the expenses incurred in setting up shelters will at least result in removing dogs from streets permanently, whereas the ABC Rules require that the dogs be released back into the same area, where they can be a nuisance in perpetuity. The same people who feed dogs on the streets can supervise shelters to ensure that they are well maintained and also feed them there.
If the “greatness of our nation and its moral progress” is to be judged by how we treat animals, then surely we should not be making the worst enemies of our best friends.
(Abi T. Vanak is a leading authority on the ecology of dogs, and a long-time advocate for true dog welfare. He is currently the Director for the Centre for Policy Design, ATREE, Bengaluru)