Thursday, 8 December 2011

Doggone life

In Death Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James writes of the visit of Sir Miles and Lady Culpepper to London. This resulted in a marital dispute, for Sir Miles’s young wife, much to his chagrin, was “firmly of the view” that money “exists to be spent; how otherwise, as she frequently pointed out, would anyone know that you had it?”

One might delight in James’s caustic, Austen-ish humour, but the truth in it finds resonance in the very visible rise of wealth in urban India. The leading accountancy firm, Deloitte, had said earlier this year that India is likely to see a 405 per cent rise in millionaire wealth by 2020 — most of it driven by new wealth generators like equity stakes and investments. One need not go as far as millionaire wealth to fathom what drastic upward spirals in urban wealth are likely to do to the yawning gap between the rich and the poor in the country. It is also not necessary to wait till 2020 to recognize the signs of new urban wealth.

With great wealth often comes great confusion — about what to do with all that money. Whims and indulgences suddenly seem to gain pride of place among the priorities of the upwardly mobile metropolitan crowd. This is evident not only in the splendour of people’s homes, but also in the growing number of families that buy expensive pets such as pedigree dogs. Suddenly, chihuahuas tucked in the crook of one’s arm (à la Paris Hilton) and Great Danes on stylish leashes abound in cities. Some people even go as far as to buy St Bernard dogs, unmindful of how they suffer in tropical climates. Never mind that a dog is a dog is a dog — not for them the mongrel puppies round the corner who need homes and are very likely to make loving pets. The fact that they did not cost the earth, and would therefore not be a symbol of the family’s wealth, renders them ineligible for adoption.

Except that it isn’t long before the prized Labrador or German Shepherd ceases to be a status symbol as well. Their pedigree can no longer save them when the buyers’ initial heady rush of owning pets simmers down and the responsibilities hit home. And a lot of the urban rich must have suddenly seen the (proverbial) error of their ways, for the number of pedigree dogs that are abandoned in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Calcutta is on the rise. Every year, 100 adult pedigree dogs on an average are abandoned in Delhi. Even more disturbing are the claims made by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Bombay Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, that people make distress calls about injured pet dogs, drive to the BSPCA hospital in their expensive cars, deposit their pets, leave fictitious names, addresses and phone numbers and drive away, never to be traced again. In 2007, the BSPCA was left with 50 such abandoned dogs.

Luxury and the accompanying uncertainties of wealth have had a domino effect, spilling over on to various other spaces of urban life. A skewed perception of reality seems to govern the choices made by the new urban rich. The tendency to view pets as playthings that do not require time and effort and care eventually leads to terrified, hapless animals discarded to roam the streets and fight for survival. 

India has one of the most comprehensive sets of animal protection laws in the world; there are intricate codes of conduct with regard to the treatment of domestic and wild animals. Animal welfare is enshrined in our Constitution, since every citizen is expected to be compassionate towards all living beings. Even so, governments have come and gone without doing anything to implement these laws strictly. Pets are regularly abandoned, and from the warmth of a home they’re suddenly faced with the cruelty of the city that stray dogs endure every day. In Sangli in Karnataka, there are more than 5,000 dogs on the streets, some of them well-bred. Health authorities said they needed Rs 35 lakh to ensure humane birth control operations. But the government has remained silent on the issue. Animals do not fall within the ambit of vote-bank politics, and do not need to be pleased. Animal welfare NGOs and shelters might proliferate, but wealthy urban dog owners who are tiring of their pets need not worry as yet. Dogs don’t fight for their rights, and the people who do so on their behalf usually fight a losing battle.

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