A violent battle is being waged in the streets of urban India. It isn’t between armed gangs fighting to dominate turf. It is a battle between people and the packs of stray dogs permitted to run free under India’s tolerant animal control policy.
Nourished by abundant rubbish — and by soft souls who regularly feed strays as acts of compassion — street dogs have proliferated. The country’s population of feral canines has been estimated at about 25m, many of them highly territorial and aggressive.
These dogs often see children as potential competitors for food. A few years ago, my friend’s little girl was bitten while entering New Delhi’s most popular park. This is a prime location for wealthy city-dwellers to feed stray dogs — and not far from an intersection where impoverished street children sell pens, flowers and balloons, and beg for food.
My friend rushed her daughter to a doctor for vaccinations to prevent rabies. But many of those who are bitten are either not so lucky or do not know they need urgent medical attention. About 18,000 to 20,000 Indians die of rabies annually — about 36 per cent of all rabies deaths in the world, says the World Health Organisation.
The public finally awoke to the menace in August, when a 75-year-old woman in the coastal Kerala state — a popular international tourist destination — was fatally mauled by a pack of strays on a beach in her fishing village.
Her gruesome death came just a year after a young boy in New Delhi was killed by a pack of street dogs after tripping over in his crowded residential neighbourhood.
Keralans now are demanding tough action, including a cull — and the state government has announced plans to permit urban authorities to kill dangerous strays.
These plans have been denounced by animal rights activists, including Maneka Gandhi, a member of the Gandhi political dynasty (she is a daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi). Ms Gandhi, minister for women and child development, says a cull would be “unlawful and unscientific”. It would even make street dogs more hostile and aggressive, she claims.
During the British colonial era, and for decades afterwards, India tried to control its stray dog population — and rabies — through culls. Many cities and states still have rules on their statute books permitting mass elimination. But in 2001, New Delhi unveiled its new national Animal Birth Control (Dogs) rules — known as the ABCD policy — and one that ostensibly superseded city rules. These rules prohibit killing stray dogs and instead require authorities to set up programmes to vaccinate and sterilise them, then release them back to wherever they were picked up.
In the past decade such efforts have proved largely ineffectual, and were constrained by limited financial and human resources. The Animal Welfare Board of India estimates that just 10-15 per cent of street dogs are sterilised.
Meanwhile fury at the authorities’ inability to tackle what some newspapers call the “dog bite menace” is mounting. In September, political activists in Kerala clubbed about 10 stray dogs to death and paraded their carcases around the small town of Kottayam to demand tough action. Less publicly, many people in Kerala have taken to quietly poisoning strays.
The conflict has reached the Supreme Court, where animal rights activists have mounted a long-running defence against city administrations and citizens groups that challenge the ABCD ban on killing stray dogs.
Until now, the court has sought to strike a delicate balance between compassion for animals and the need to protect people, ordering local authorities to become more serious about campaigns to vaccination and sterilisation campaigns.
However, a Supreme Court-appointed fact-finding panel in Kerala has now recommended an “immediate reduction” in the state’s street dog population, calling them a “grave” threat to the residents.
India’s battle between humans and dogs will only escalate in the days ahead. It is unclear how this will play out — but India is clearly in need of a dog control policy with a bit more bite.