Animals and experiments

HAVING LOST HER ministerial job earlier this year on the issue of animal experimentation, Maneka Gandhi has now been summarily stripped of the post that directly monitors such research. The official reason for removing her as Chairperson of the Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision of Animals (CPCSEA) — namely, that it was against the rules for a Member of Parliament to hold an office of profit — is much too inane to convince anyone. Even if one ignores the fact that Ms. Gandhi did not receive a salary as Chairperson, what is the logic in throwing the rulebook suddenly at her now? The former Union Minister and animal activist after all has held the post since 1996. Moreover, the office of profit issue has not been raised before in connection with the CPCSEA. Ironically, the body's first chairperson, Kamal Nayan Bajaj, was an MP. The truth is that Ms. Gandhi's removal caps a longstanding battle she has waged against the callous treatment of animals in the cause of medical research.

As Chairperson of the CPCSEA, Ms. Gandhi has been responsible for reviving what for many years on end was a moribund and ineffective body, which was set up four decades ago under the provisions of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. Among the various objectives of the CPCSEA is to see that animals are not unnecessarily sacrificed in the name of research, that they are not subject to undue suffering due to experiments on them and that whenever possible large animals are given up in favour of small animals in the laboratory. It is pretty evident that, unlike in the past, Ms. Gandhi was determined to use the CPCSEA's statutory powers to actually monitor and regulate animal experimentation. In the last couple of years, for instance, CPCSEA officials visited as many as 590 laboratories all over the country to examine the conditions of the animal houses and the animals that inhabited them.

The manner in which animals are used in experiments in this country leaves a lot to be desired. The controversy over this is sometimes portrayed as an irreconcilable conflict between those interested in animal welfare and those interested in medical research. But in reality, the problem is not so much a conflict as a challenge. And this challenge is to strike the best or most appropriate balance between animal welfare and medical research. It is often not understood that the mandate of bodies such as the CPCSEA is not to ban animal experimentation but rather to ensure that it is carried out in the most humane manner and only when absolutely necessary. Any civilised society must have norms that regulate experiments on animals and it is only appropriate that the stipulated conditions and standards are strictly enforced.

If the controversy reached a head in India, it is because pharmaceutical companies and scientists have complained that the CPCSEA's rules are unrealistic and much too restrictive to undertake research. Medical research has to continue and any specific rule that makes it impossible must be reviewed. But the problems about animal experimentation in India go well beyond a particular stipulation here or a certain condition there. Demands that conditions in animal houses are improved are ignored or resisted (often on the unconvincing ground that there is a paucity of funds). The CPCSEA cannot be attacked merely because it has exposed the pathetic conditions of animal houses belonging to well-established public sector organisations and pharmaceutical companies. Inspection has revealed that animals are often housed in filthy conditions and are so neglected that they suffer from all kinds of diseases and ailments. When it comes to animal welfare, Ms. Gandhi's plain-speaking and blunt ways may not have endeared her to those who disagreed with her. But no one will question her commitment to animal welfare or her success in placing animal experimentation, an issue that hardly received much attention at one time, on the national map.