Stray dog menace. (Manoj Patil/Hindustan Times via GettyImages) 
Snapshot
  • When we look at what the law says about controlling the stray dog menace in India, we find that the laws themselves are a large part of the problem.

Every day, thousands of Indians are attacked by dogs on the streets and at public places, resulting in fatalities in many cases (particularly young children). Last year, an 80-year-old man, a 65-year-old woman and at least 25 children were mauled by packs of freely roaming dogs and succumbed to their injuries, in separate incidents around the country.

This year, in January alone, three children have lost their lives in separate incidents of stray dog attacks. Related issues such as rabies deaths, attacks on livestock and wildlife and gruesome, retaliatory attacks on dogs themselves, have also reached alarming proportions in various parts of the country.

The cause of the stray dog populations is often attributed to a lack of garbage management, existence of slaughter houses, etc. Also, no matter how many children are mauled to death and how many dogs are beaten and poisoned in retaliatory attacks, media reports that follow every gruesome attack say the same thing – that local and municipal authorities have their hands tied as it is ‘illegal’ to do anything with stray dogs except sterilise them and maintain them on the streets and public places. We are also told repeatedly that these are laws and policies of the government and are mandated under the Constitution of India.

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However, a cursory reading of existing laws under the Constitution presents a very different picture.

Animal Welfare And The Indian Constitution

Acclaimed dancer and animal lover Rukmini Devi Arundale, introduced the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (PCAA) in Parliament in 1960. It made India one of the first countries globally, to provide legal rights to domestic animals so that they could be protected against cruelty, abandonment and neglect. The PCAA also established the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), whose functions include “to encourage by grant or financial assistance or otherwise, the formation or establishment of pinjra poles, rescue homes, animal shelters, sanctuaries and the like, where animals and birds may find shelter when they have become old and useless or when they need protection.”

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Section 11(1) of the PCAA explicitly prohibits abandoning animals, diseased or otherwise, and allowing them to suffer from starvation, thirst and/or dying on the streets. The section states that the owners are prohibited to:

(i) without reasonable cause, abandon any animal in circumstances which render it likely that it will suffer pain by reason of starvation or thirst

(ii) wilfully permits any animal, of which he is the owner, to go at large in any street, while the animal is affected with contagious or infectious disease

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(iii) without reasonable excuse permits any diseased or disabled animal, of which he is the owner, to die in any street

Remarkably, the PCAA defines an owner of an animal as “not only the owner but also any other person for the time being in possession or custody of the animal, whether with or without the consent of the owner”. Rightly recognising abandoning domestic animals on the streets to fend for themselves as cruelty, the PCAA makes it an offence for anyone (including municipal authorities and animal welfare organisations, not just pet owners) to abandon them.

Public Health And Safety

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Article 21 guarantees the Right to Life to all citizens and mandates state and local governments to provide a safe and disease-free environment for all citizens. Municipal laws across states make it the statutory, civic duty of municipal authorities to keep the streets free of stray animals, prevent public nuisance and check the spread of diseases. This is the very bedrock of local governance. Without exception and conditions, these require the removal of straying (owned and unowned) animals from the streets and public places, for the protection of people. In fact, 24 out of 29 state municipal acts explicitly mention impounding of straying dogs and licensing of pets.

Therefore, stray dog control, along with the protection of homeless dogs, has already been written in to and clearly defined in the Constitution. These laws are meant to protect both people and dogs.

Illegal Activities Of The Animal Welfare Board Of India

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So why then is the state failing to perform its duty of removing unowned and straying animals from the streets? In 2001, the Ministry of Culture, (that has nothing to do with public health and animal control and welfare) issued the animal birth control (dogs) rules – the ABC rules. These rules state, “If the Municipal Corporation or the local authority thinks it expedient to control street dog population, it shall be incumbent upon them to sterilize and immunize street Dogs with the participation of animal welfare organizations, private individuals and the local authority.”

And that after surgical sterilisation, “the dogs shall be released at the same place or locality from where they were captured”. Therefore, by its own admission, the ABC rules require the release of the very dogs that are biting people or are creating a nuisance or are dangerous in the first place.

Despite being India’s national (and only) policy for dog bites and rabies control, the ABC rules make no mention whatsoever of dog attacks or how they are to be prevented and are also silent on annual re-immunisation of dogs. From an animal welfare perspective, the ABC rules make very little sense as they make no mention at all of homeless dogs, to the extent that they don’t even acknowledge their existence.

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The policy of leaving and maintaining homeless/unwanted dogs on the streets and public places is not mandated anywhere by the Constitution. The unscientific, hazardous and cruel ABC rules stem quite obviously from the AWBI and its members. Any ‘rules’ or ‘guidelines’ authored by the AWBI are either subordinate legislations or advisories and cannot supersede existing laws for the protection of people and/or the Parent Act, the PCAA.

Further, since health is a state subject and because dogs are the largest reservoir of the deadly rabies virus, the control of the disease has to necessarily rest with municipal health departments. By taking away the role of the municipal authorities in this regard, and handing over disease control to voluntary organisations, the ABC rules are also violative of the federal structure. Since the ABC rules end up nullifying existing municipal laws as well as their own Parent Act, they are unlawful.

Animal Welfare Vs False Piety

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Rather than take corrective measures, the AWBI has made every attempt to further its dangerous ABC policy. It has tried to legalise straying animals and normalise the existence of homeless dogs. It quotes Articles 19 and 51 to encourage the feeding of animals on streets and has even invented an occupation called “animal feeder”. It has sent circulars to resident welfare associations with regards to "legal action" of "criminal intimidation" that can be taken against RWAs or citizens that oppose this activity. Shockingly, the AWBI has also declared that all dog attack victims are responsible for the attacks themselves.

Article 19 (1) (g) of the Constitution of India provides the right to practise any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business (and therefore have a livelihood) to all citizens but does not confer the right to do anything illegal in the eyes of the law. Moreover, a citizen whose occupation is unlawful cannot claim the fundamental right to carry on business since fundamental rights cannot be availed in the justification of an unlawful act or in preventing a statutory authority from lawfully discharging its statutory functions.

Article 51(g) elucidates our duties "to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers, and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures". It does not, in any way or manner, envisage any occupation and/or feeding of animals in public places.

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Therefore, Articles 19 and 51 cannot be interpreted to legalise and promote feeding animals on the streets, outside people’s homes and in public places. Nor can they be used to create an occupation called “animal feeder”. Feeding animals on the streets is not a livelihood, it goes against public nuisance laws and prevents local governments from carrying out their statutory, civic duties of keeping the streets free of straying animals. Furthermore, the AWBI has no constitutional authority to list/make up occupations.

Public nuisance laws also rule out any activities that cause nuisance/danger/annoyance to the public, regardless of how “compassionate” they may be considered. Section 268 of the Indian Penal Code provides that, “A person is guilty of a public nuisance, who does any act or is guilty of an illegal omission, which causes any common injury, danger or annoyance to the public or to the people in general who dwell or occupy property in the vicinity, or which must necessarily cause injury, obstruction, danger or annoyance to persons who may have occasion to use any public right. A common nuisance is not excused on the ground that it causes some convenience or advantage.”

Backed by the PCAA, the AWBI has had every opportunity to formulate and implement a scientific and humane policy that controls dog populations, checks the spread of rabies and also protects homeless dogs. It was, most significantly, meant to foster a positive attitude towards dogs and should have done so by not allowing them to be a nuisance on the streets. Instead, through its regressive, cruel and dangerous policies over the last 25 years, it continues to play a very damaging role in maintaining homeless dogs on the streets and inflicting the impact of this on people. Under the RTI Act, government records reveal over 6 million dog bites and 113 recorded rabies deaths in 2017 (rabies is not a notifiable disease in India).

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What Needs To Be Done

By no means is the issue of stray dogs a new problem in India, or anywhere in the world. Humane and effective laws to protect domestic animals already exist in the country. The policies of the AWBI and animal welfare organisations that keep homeless dogs suffering on the streets and in continuous conflict with people, are illegal, dangerous and help neither people nor animals.

If anything, they have ended up perverting the ideals of animal welfare and played havoc with the lives of people and animals. Gandhiji said, “Roving dogs do not show compassion and civilization in society; they betray instead the lethargy and ignorance of its members”. Never have these words been more relevant.

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Indiscriminate killing of dogs or any other animal is cruel and pointless. So is abandoning homeless dogs on the streets to fend for themselves. Therefore, a more humane approach to controlling the stray dog problem needs to be adopted. It first and foremost, requires removing them from the streets, and either finding them homes or keeping them in shelters.

It is the responsibility of animal welfare organisations to manage such shelters to ensure that homeless animals are treated without cruelty so that they may live and die with dignity. They are already funded with tax payers’ money for this purpose.

The government needs to promote responsible pet ownership and municipal and other statutory authorities who are vested with the responsibility of human safety first, should implement municipal laws in the strictest sense possible. The current ABC rules, that neither serve the purpose of managing dog populations and controlling rabies, nor is humane to either animals or humans, must be scrapped with immediate effect.

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