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Why ‘community dogs’ have inalienable right to be fed in both private and public areas

By Gajanan Khergamker* 

According to Cambridge Dictionary, a Stray when used as a noun means ‘A pet that no longer has a home or cannot find its home.’ According to Merriam Webster's Dictionary, a Stray means ‘A domestic animal that is wandering at large or is lost.’ Collins Dictionary describes a Stray as a noun and provides a usage ‘The dog was a stray which had been adopted.’ Britannica Dictionary defines a Stray as ‘An animal (such as a cat or dog) that is lost or has no home.’
Research reveals the fossilised remains of a canine found in the 1970s in southern Siberia's Altay Mountains is the earliest well-preserved pet dog. Dogs — the oldest domesticated animals — are common in the fossil record up to 14,000 years ago.
Early evidence for close Human–Cat relationships comes from a wildcat interred near a human on Cyprus ca. 9,500 years ago, but the earliest domestic cats are known only from Egyptian Art, dating to 4,000 years ago.
Now, cut to modern times where the rush of life and hurried leisure has restricted the love for man's best friend dog even the unsung cat to a love felt only indoors and, sadly too, towards pedigreed beings relegating the friendliest, most loyal Desi Kutta to the Indian Pariah - the namesake given by the British after the Pariah tribe of the Madras Presidency.
Yet, the history of the Indian Pariah is legendary. A pariah-like dog skull was discovered in the ancient Indian site of Mohenjo-Daro and prehistoric rock art depicting a dog of similar type has been found in the 40,000-years-old Bhimbetka rock shelters.

Accident is considered a natural death

Although being relegated to garbage bins, desolate lanes, damp corners in societies and spaces below parked vehicles, all their 'homes', cats and dogs have struck a familiar chord with their friends, humans who take great pains to seek them out, ensure they are fed and stay safe, even perform last rites when they die to accidents, sadly categorised as a 'natural death' for them. Why, “it's only natural for an animal on the street to die to road accidents in old age or in infirmity,” is the regular retort without most realising the shockingly dismal absurdity of the statement.
More often than not, it's in the very definition of the variable in question that lies the crux of the solution. And, in the absence of a sensitised definition, a permanent solution remains elusive. Animal Welfare Laws, for instance, are a case in point. The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (PCA) passed in 1960 has been bolstered with rules over and over again. The first batch of rules passed in 2001 and the second in 2017 and 2018 strengthened the Act.
In 2001, rules pertaining to performing animals in circuses and movies, slaughterhouses, animal birth control, and the setting up of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals (SPCA) were passed. In 2017 and 2018, rules on the regulation of shops that sell animals as pets, dog breeders, and livestock markets were passed.
Yet, the hatred that perpetrated streets, even among the most well-heeled, supposedly 'cultured' and ‘socially-aware’ sections of people persisted, despite the law. Now, how can you remove hatred from hearts. It's either glaring at you in the face, ready to lash out to the weakest in the dark of the night and, when in majority, or simply slink and hide beneath the pretension of sensitivity and in the face of legal opposition.
Every lane in Mumbai has its family of dogs and cats who live and thrive. They are known by a string of names called out by their humans, either with love or in a sense descriptive of their looks or behaviour. Despite their multiple names, each has an identity and one that has grown stronger over the years. The cat or dog, as the case may be, sleeps at a particular spot in the lane or society compound, plays with others of his sort, has some dog friends, some cat acquaintances but more human friends than most of us.
Why, he'll have that 'one' or more human closely watching his back, even fighting for him tooth and nail unlike most of us who'll swiftly turn our backs to other humans, even friends, in the face of threat or adversity.

A ‘Stray’ is a cruel misnomer

Mind you, not a single cat or dog you've grown up watching in your neighbourhood, all your life, is a Stray, by definition. Each has its own 'home' and isn’t lost by any stretch of imagination. Born here, it’ll stay despite all 'sub'human opposition and die, to 'natural causes' like age, disease or accident.
Having been called 'street' dogs by law and legal definition, till date, as in Animal Welfare Board guidelines or advisories, the nomenclature seems to have done disservice to their identity.
In two far-reaching judgments, delivered independently of each other in March 2023 — the first decided on March 20 by a division Bench comprising Justices Gautam Patel and Dr Neela Gokhale, while the second decided on March 27 by a division Bench of Justices G.S. Kulkarni and R.N. Laddha — the Bombay High Court has unequivocally held that stray dogs not only have an inherent right to live and not be subjected to cruelty but, like all other animals, they also have a right to their basic needs of food and water.
In a clean sweep, the Animal Birth Control Rules, 2022 notified under Section 38 (power to make rules) of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 on 10 March 2023, unambiguously declare ‘street dogs’ as ‘community dogs’ having inalienable rights to being fed in both private and public areas. These Rules are now law.

Now, residents turn caregivers by law

Now, the people residing in the areas in which the dogs have come to reside automatically become their ‘caregivers’: they are now responsible, by law, for their upkeep and well-being.
Till date, the conflicts would lead to animal lovers and feeders of the zone being singled out and abused by others, even Residential Associations, with attempts made to drive the strays away, refusal of permissions for feeding, harassment of feeders and generally creating a sense of hostility towards animals and feeders among the residents.
With the single and simple change in terminology, labelling the strays as ‘community animals’, the Rules have ensured the animals have been given a sense of belonging.
Cats and Dogs are territorial animals and live within defined areas they have earmarked for themselves and being so, they become protective of their territory. They will bark furiously at other dogs or get into ugly fights with other cats who may enter their territorial areas, whether they are within compound walls or roaming free.
Rule 2(j) has defined a community animal as “any animal born in a community, for which no ownership has been claimed by any individual or organisation and excludes wild animals as defined under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.” Community-owned dogs may be local, Indian dogs, or abandoned pedigree dogs that are homeless, who live on the street or within a gated campus.
Interestingly, Rule 20, dealing with the feeding of community animals, reads:
It shall be responsibility of the Resident Welfare Association (RWA) or Apartment-Owner Association (AOA) or Local Body’s representative of that area to make necessary arrangements for feeding of community animals residing in the premises or that area involving the person residing in that area or premises as the case may be, who feeds those animals or intends to feed those animals and provides care to street animals as a compassionate gesture.”
Not a single cat or dog you've grown up watching in your neighbourhood, all your life, is a Stray, by definition
The Rule details the arrangements to be made by the RWA and the precautions to be taken while deciding on feeding spots. They should be far from children’s play areas, entry and exit points, staircases, and spaces frequented by children and senior citizens. Suitable feeding timings should be ‘fixed’ which are ‘known to all,’ and ‘designated’ feeders appointed.
The feeders also have responsibilities: they should ensure that there is no littering at the feeding location or violation of guidelines framed by the RWA. Their assistance with the sterilisation and vaccination programme for the animals is welcomed.

Provision for conflict also laid down in law

And, in case there's any conflict between the Resident Welfare Association or Apartment Owner Association and the animal caregivers or other residents, an Animal Welfare Committee comprising of the following members shall be formed:
(i) Chief Veterinary Officer or his representative;
(ii) Representative of the Jurisdictional Police;
(iii) Representative of the District Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animal or State Board;
(iv) Representative of any Recognised Animal Welfare Organisation conducting Animal Birth Control;
(v) Veterinary Officer deputed by the local authority;
(vi) Complainant;
(vii) Representative of the Resident Welfare Association or Apartment Owner Association or Local Body of that area.
The decision of the Committee constituted under sub-rule (2) of Rule 20 shall be the final decision with regard to the fixing of the feeding point and the Committee may also nominate person from amongst the designated Colony Care Taker by the Board to feed those animals in that area.
In furtherance, any local authority or animal welfare organisation or any feeder, Resident Welfare Association or Apartment Owner Association or Local Body aggrieved by the decision of the Committee framed under sub-rule (2) of Rule 20, the appeal shall be filed to the State Board and the decision of State Board shall be the final decision for feeding of animals in that area.
Housing societies and residential associations, in most of Mumbai, have a sense of misplaced entitlement when it comes to tackling community animals. For starters, they exercise a sense of ownership on public space and make every attempt to deprive those without a voice, whether it's regarding community animals, migrant rural performers or foliage.

No more lip-service, need to act

With the exception of making a demonstration of beautification and social empathy on strategic occasions like the World Environment Day, there is very little affinity for the physically or economically weaker.
While the law, by way of the new Animal Birth Control Rules, now empower the local feeder and dog-lover even place the onus of caregiving on the residents of the zone, it's the lack of awareness among residents that remains the problem.
It is now clear that caring for dogs and cats - community animals - is a duty imposed by law, the onus of which lies on the Residents Welfare Association. Also, feeders must ensure that there is no littering at the feeding location or violation of guidelines framed by the Resident Welfare Association.
And, in case of a conflict, the authority to offer redress is the Animal Welfare Committee; Not any self-styled group of association members, local leaders or a group of ‘concerned’ senior citizens agitating through ‘self-professed association’ platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook or other such fora. The law on ‘community animals’ is clear and not open to personal interpretation.
*Founder editor of The Draft. A version of this article first appeared here



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