Saturday, 28 January 2012

Mumbai Journal: Let’s Not Forget Our Wildlife

 Animal activists, lawyers and vets say it’s a warped attitude that separates animals along the lines of a caste system. Shown, a horse carriage seen outside the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai on Oct. 4, 2011.

Sunday evenings, single horse-drawn Victorias dash along the seafront by the Taj hotel, carrying in their rickety neon-lit carriages loads of up to 12 people. As the horses slow to a trot to evade whizzing traffic, the carriages appear, as so many colonial relics tend to do, as yet another sad Mumbai anachronism, one that should have met its maker perhaps decades earlier. Indeed, if a Public Interest Litigation goes according to plan, the horse-drawn carriages will soon be phased out, their exhausted, abused carriers sent to rehabilitation homes outside the city, and their owners provided with other means of employment.

On one side, NGOs and animal activists argue that the horses, subject to inhumane working conditions, have no place in a city like Mumbai (tellingly, the local municipal corporation hasn’t issued a license for a horse stable since 1974.) On the other, the Victoria owners argue that these animals provide their only means of income, one that isn’t nearly enough to look after the wellbeing of their families and an animal. “The animal is last on the list because if you want to compromise on something, if you want to cut down, then definitely what is being deducted is what you spend on the animal’s feed,” says vet Manilal Valliyate of PETA India, who has worked extensively with these horses and horse owners. Even the well-intentioned owners, he adds, must make the excruciating choice that most often doesn’t fall in favor of the animal.

Their tussle represents Mumbai’s increasingly tortured relationship with animals, and more significantly our vastly complicated attitude towards animals, wild, working and domesticated. As the near extinction of our tigers and the dilapidated state of our local zoo make abundantly clear, we’ve strayed far from Mahatma Gandhi’s oft-quoted moral check that “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated.” Peculiarly, India’s animal protection laws – the Animal Welfare Act and the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act – are some of the most comprehensive and oldest in the world. The PCA, drafted in 1960, was among the first to grant “performing” animals the right to food, water and shelter, while the AWA gives them the “freedom to express normal behaviour for the species.” A proposed amendment to the AWA, still awaiting approval in Parliament, will significantly increase fines for animal abuse, up from a minimum of 50 rupees ($1) to as high as 100,000 rupees and imprisonment.

For once, India’s laws are not the obstacle. Instead, animal activists, lawyers and vets say it’s a warped attitude that separates animals along the lines of a caste system. Cows, deemed holy, elephants, rats or any creature that either shares a place in the pantheon of our gods or in our mythological tradition, sit high on the totem pole. Dogs and horses, seemingly bereft of status and thus protection, are much lower. Maazie Dallas, an animal therapist who has fought for animal rights for the last 15 years, blames religious classification. “I find the same people who see an elephant on the road and give it money, will not help a stray dog. With an elephant, it reminds them of ganpati [Ganesh], so it comes down to thinking things might go better for me if I give the guy 10 rupees. The same goes for cows,” she says. “And it’s educated people who do this.”

For others, it’s a simpler moral issue. With millions of Indians homeless and malnourished, humans, not animals, should be given first priority. That we haven’t yet been able to accomplish this is beside the point; it’s license enough to abuse and neglect animals, something painfully evident at Mumbai’s zoo, where bears and tigers are viewed for entertainment rather than educational purposes. Visit Byculla Zoo and you’ll see visitors throwing stones and litter at the listless inmates, many of whom look sick and underfed. The zoo, incidentally, is now being investigated on claims of animal cruelty.

At a recent session at the Jaipur Literature Festival, India’s most famous tiger advocate, Valmik Thapar, said tigers will only flourish if state chief ministers exert their authority and make conservation their pet project. A former chief minister of Rajasthan, sitting in the audience, offered this riposte: politicians, she said, only care about the vote bank, and vote banks are made of people, not animals. It wasn’t right she argued, but it was the reality. She may well have been speaking of the fate of all animals in India.

“There is no doubt at all that the veneration Indians had for nature is being eroded,” says Bittu Sahgal, a renowned environmental activist and founder of Sanctuary Asia magazine. “We worship Durga, yet allow the tiger to be killed. We worship Ganesh, yet the ivory trade thrives. We worship Shiv, yet the snake skin trade is booming. What most Indians, and certainly our planners, do not realize is that giving wild species the space to survive is no ‘charity.’” 

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