February 1, 2018
Millions of homeless dogs die every day in India. Source: Wikimedia Commons

DESPITE SPENDING crores of rupees on the birth control programme, the population of stray dogs has been increasing across India resulting in more attacks on humans, especially children, and retaliatory attacks on dogs. Stray dogs are also a great danger to wild animals and livestock in villages and protected areas.

A study done by the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE) found that domesticated dogs, who were no longer living at homes or homesteads, were not only among the commonest carnivores but also transmitted diseases to wild animals. A petition currently being heard in the Supreme Court raises many questions on the government programme to deal with stray dogs.

We talk to dog lover and researcher Meghna Uniyal about the concerns.

Q. Please tell us about the ongoing petition in the court related to stray/feral dogs. What are the submissions made by the petitioners regarding their management?

The current petition in the Supreme Court was filed after a spate of dog attacks on people in various cities. This was then followed by retaliatory attacks on dogs. 

The petition highlights various government reports regarding the failure of the Animal Birth Control (ABC) programme, the misappropriation of public funds by the animal welfare organisations in the name of dog and rabies control and petitions the court to get the government to formulate and implement a humane and scientific policy for dog population and rabies control.

Q. Any demand for curbs on stray dogs often lead to confrontations with animal activists and dog lovers. What do you have to say to them?

I challenge the very notion that this is animal welfare. Self-appointed animal activists should in fact be confronted with the question that if they actually love dogs, why follow a policy of leaving them to suffer and die painful deaths on the streets?  

All civilised countries, dog lovers and our very own Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act recognise the fact that dogs are domestic, companion animals that suffer on the streets and therefore, policies are centered around protecting stray animals from a lifetime of suffering. Why don’t “animal lovers” in India want to do that?

How peculiar that they spend tax payers’ money on running hospitals and boardings for pets but don’t mind millions of homeless dogs dying every day. How does sterilising protect them from diseases, starvation and accidents? If this is such a good and kind idea, why don’t other countries also follow suit? How come dog lovers around the world are doing just the opposite?

Stray populations the world over are the result of surplus populations ending up on the streets. Sterilisations and compounds are the answer everywhere, but the critical issue is knowing what to sterilise and what to do with compounds. 

Sterilisations and compounds are the answer everywhere, but the critical issue is knowing what to sterilise and what to do with compounds 

Q. Rabies is a big challenge in India as it has 100 per cent fatality rate and many dog bite victims don’t get vaccines within the window period. What are the lacunas on this front?

Meghna UniyalRabies is still not a notifiable disease in India. So the actual rabies fatalities in India are much higher than quoted. Prevention and control of rabies requires the annual re-vaccination of at least 80 per cent of the total dog population to break the cycle of the rabies virus.

The ABC programme, India’s official policy for the control of rabies, has no rabies control component whatsoever. It mentions the random, one-time vaccination of dogs caught by municipal authorities. There is no mention of a methodology, or even awareness of annual re-vaccination. 

Q. Why do sterilisation drives fail?

The NGOs have been unable to even grasp as to what and how sterilisation is meant to be done. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) studied dog populations all over the world and concluded, “The straying population of most urban areas consists primarily of unsupervised, lost or abandoned companion animals. In these areas it is important to limit the surplus production of owned dogs. Control of irresponsible dog ownership and education of dog owners therefore is an essential first step in the control of dog reproduction. Animals kept as pets are the group which reproduce most successfully, and so methods aimed at them should have the greatest effect.”

While the entire owned dog population in India roams free and breeds out of the ambit of any control measure, our policy concentrates on and directs all infrastructural and financial resources on that population of dogs that do not belong to anyone, cannot breed successfully, cannot be caught annually for re-vaccination, do not contribute to their own population and who’s welfare is compromised by the very fact that they are homeless. 

It is no surprise that the policy has been a spectacular failure all over the country, Ironically, the biggest losers have been dogs that have borne the brunt of the incompetence and ignorance of the very agencies set up to advance their welfare. 

While the entire owned dog population in India roams free and breeds out of the ambit of any control measure, our policy focuses on stray dogs

Q. What major scientific studies have been done on the subject of stray/feral dogs, especially in India that support your petition?

There have been three internal investigations in to the implementation and efficacy of the ABC programme. They support the current petition’s contention that India must do away with ABC and adopt WHO guidelines to deal with the issue. 

Q. Do you feel that any change has been brought from when you started till now? How are you planning to take up the issue of stray dogs further? 

The issue is currently being heard by the Supreme Court. The law is clear on the issue – unowned domestic animals cannot be roaming in public places. The government itself can scrap the current policy with immediate effect and enact a more appropriate one.

The Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) has spent the last 20 years misinforming the public and the media about the stray dog issue and its policies. It is imperative that all stakeholders (animal and human rights activists, government authorities and the media) work together to achieve the common goal of protection of citizens, saving homeless dogs and exposing the fraud that animal welfare is in this country.  

Q. The government has enacted various laws but implementation is not much effective. Where does the actual problem lie?

The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960 authored by acclaimed dancer and animal lover Rukmini Devi Arundale, was far ahead of its time. India became one of the first countries globally to recognise the rights of domestic and/or homeless animals to live in a safe, disease free environment, where they would be protected against cruelty. 

The only beneficiaries of the birth control programme have been animal welfare organisations who get public funds to keep animals on the streets

The ABC programme is the policy of the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), which it started promoting from 1993. Despite being a failure, it was made India’s official policy for stray dog and rabies control by the Ministry of Culture – a Ministry that has nothing to do with disease control, public health and animals.

Despite claiming that the ABC programme is based on the World Health Organisation’s guidelines for the same, the policy is in fact the complete opposite. After two decades of policy implementation the governments (at both State and Central level) continue to spend crores of rupees on dog attacks, accidents, man hours lost and vaccinations. Citizens continue to deal with stray animals roaming the streets resulting in animal attacks, rabies deaths and accidents.

Homeless, unwanted dogs die everyday from accidents, diseases and starvation, and now, even from retaliatory attacks from the public. The only beneficiaries of the ABC programme have been and continue to be animal welfare organisations who get public funds to keep animals on the streets.

The responsibility of this mess lies squarely on the AWBI, animal welfare organisations and the Ministry of Culture. And not simply the government bodies or departments, but the actual people behind the policies. 

Animal welfare organisations have recklessly wasted tax payer’s money on an ill-defined, lopsided and cruel policy, thereby creating a hate-filled and dangerous environment in the country

Q. The petition also raises the point related to conflict of interest on Union Minister Maneka Gandhi. Tell us more about that.

Maneka Gandhi is a prime example of ministers promoting their private interests and getting involved in issues that they have zero expertise in. She has carried the AWBI with her to various unrelated ministries under her and promoted and funded the ABC programme. The programme requires funding to her own NGO, People For Animals. This is a direct conflict of interest. It is illegal, or at least it should be, for politicians to directly or indirectly fund their own organisations. PFA also has cases filed against it for mismanagement of public funds and land in the name of ABC.

Management and control of animal populations is not a matter of opinion and animal welfare is not the private fiefdom of a few individuals. Animal welfare organisations in India have shown a complete inability to understand and implement a holistic and scientific policy that can eradicate the problem.

They have, on the contrary, recklessly wasted tax payer’s money on an ill-defined, lopsided and cruel policy, thereby creating a hate-filled and dangerous environment in the country. We will take years to recover from this badly managed situation which has led to the suffering and death of thousands of people and dogs. 

Q. What all challenges do you face while working on the issue?

Like everything else in this country, the snail-paced speed at which we function at policy level is challenging and frustrating. Right to Life (which includes the right to live in a safe and disease-free environment) is absolute and both people and dogs can only benefit from corrective legislation. 

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