Shashi Tharoor Demands Stricter Laws to Help End Animal Cruelty


Recent events surrounding the death of police horse Shaktiman following the merciless thrashing it reportedly received from a BJP MLA during a party rally in Uttarakhand and the ensuing political battle over who deserves blame raises the more important moral battle around our treatment of animals in India. Such incidents have become all too common (just a few days after this tragic incident, a young man was charged with stabbing stray dogs on the streets of Delhi). This pattern of animal abuse across India reveals enduring weaknesses in our country’s laws against cruelty to animals.

It is beyond my comprehension how such incidents occur in a land that has worshipped animals for centuries. The very core values of Hinduism live in consonance with nature, as vividly demonstrated in the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Gods have presented themselves as animals in their various avatars, formed partnerships with them and used them as sacred vehicles (vahanas) and companions – from the little mouse that  Ganesha rides, to Anantha or Sheshanaga, Vishnu’s snake bed and protector, or Hanuman, Rama’s vassal who plays an integral role in helping him defeat the ten-headed King Ravana. Animals have been celebrated in our lives and culture from the very beginning.

Reviewing Laws on Animal Cruelty

Yet, in recent times, India has become synonymous with a lack of regard for and the attendant ill treatment of animals. The penalties for cruelty to animals, as enacted in 1960, range from a scant Rs 10 to a mere Rs 50, and remain unchanged despite the rising criminal acts against animals.

This farce of a penalty under Section 11 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (PCA), broadly encompasses offences such as causing unnecessary pain or suffering to an animal, confining or chaining an animal for unreasonable periods of time, mutilating or killing an animal, and shooting animals for entertainment and sport. (One man even posted on YouTube a video of himself torturing a puppy.)

Despite the increased rate of inflation and other socio-cultural changes, the penalty has not been upwardly reviewed in over five decades, nor has the disturbing number of incidents of maltreatment of animals been, apparently, a good enough reason to revise this figure in the direction of greater stringency.

This absurd punishment amounts to less than a slap on the wrist: a fifty-rupee fine for a crime of severe gravity. The lack of deterrence has earned India an international reputation for failing the cause of animal rights, encouraging foreign companies to conduct tests on animals and to exploit weaknesses and ambiguities in our laws. Many of India’s universities and research centres have also been lax about compliance with existing standards.

A file photo of police horse Shaktiman which died on  April 20 after succumbing to injuries allegedly inflicted by a BJP MLA. (Photo: IANS/ Altered by <b>The Quint</b>)
A file photo of police horse Shaktiman which died on April 20 after succumbing to injuries allegedly inflicted by a BJP MLA. (Photo: IANS/ Altered by The Quint)

Ban on Animal Testing

In 2012, the Ministry of Environment and Forests issued a directive instructing all institutes and establishments associated with the life sciences to introduce alternatives to animal dissection, and yet some universities continue to follow old, inhumane methods. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), has alleged that even India’s premier research facilities have conducted questionable experiments on animals without a thought for international legal and moral standards.

In 2013, in response to troubling tales of vivisections (the dissection of live animals for teaching purposes), I had campaigned to promote the prevention of the use of animals in teaching wherever possible (the guiding principle being that if an animal dissection was reasonably avoidable, it should be avoided). The main targets of my effort were medical schools where the practice of dissection continued as a matter of business as usual. In early 2014, the University Grants Commission (UGC) implemented an official recommendation from two years earlier to stop animal dissection and experimentation in zoology and life sciences courses, while the Medical Council of India (MCI) amended regulations for teaching physiology and pharmacology by adopting non-animal teaching methods.

Use of alternative training methods could save the lives of approximately 19 million animals each year. The continued use of dissection at undergraduate and post-graduate levels is entirely avoidable – and therefore ought to be proactively avoided.

The protection of animal rights, already enshrined in the law of the land, should provide 21st century solutions to 20th century problems. The Ministry of Environment and Forests’ guidelines under the PCA have not been effective even if intentions lie in the right direction. Unlike 1960, today there exists a plethora of technological developments that facilitate humane treatment of animals, as a reflection of our own evolved sense of what it means to be human.

Glimmer of Hope

The onus is only partially on lawmakers – and yes, we have made some progress in the last few years. In 2014, the Ministry for Health and Family Welfare published a draft notification to amend The Drugs and Cosmetics Rules, 1945, to ban the import of cosmetics tested on animals, as I had proposed. Humane Society International estimates that approximately 100,000 to 200,000 mice, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, dogs, and monkeys suffer and die for the sake of cosmetics -- an alarming number, which may be an undercount since many countries do not have reliable statistics or data.

For that reason, I suggested that the wording of the ban be revised to ensure that the import of any final cosmetic product tested on animals should be prohibited, closing a loophole that allowed for the ingredients for such cosmetics to be tested on animals. The ministry agreed, ensuring that the spirit of the law was not circumvented by a technical difference between a “product” and its “ingredients”.  This made India the only nation in Asia to have such a ban, earning a place alongside the European Union, Norway and Israel as a promoter of cruelty-free cosmetics.

More recently, as a further victory to animal rights activists, bans on animal testing have even been extended to include various household products (soaps, detergents, etc.) as well. This will prevent the infliction of painful and lethal poisoning of animals during drug toxicity tests – and will also benefit the pharmaceutical industry by reducing one step in bringing the drug to the market.

Animal Welfare Must be a Priority?

  • Cruelty to animals stems from the fact that strict punishment is not provided in law.
  • Under the Cruelty to Animals Act 1960, minimal punishment is a fine of Rs 10 and maximum penalty is Rs 50.
  • May 3, 2016: Over 24,000 cases of animal cruelty have been reported from 2012-2015, informs the government.
  • May 27, 2016: Environment ministry panel sends a letter to the UGC urging it to reconsider ban on animal dissection.
  • November 18, 2015: Supreme Court affirms culling of stray dogs illegal, emphasises on striking a balance between empathy and safety of humans.
(Photo courtesy: iStock)
(Photo courtesy: iStock)

Underfunded Birth Control Programmes

However, other acts of animal cruelty persist and are often justified in the light of fear and, appallingly, convenience. In 2015, I raised a point in Parliament as I was deeply troubled by the stray dog crisis in Kerala that too often results in dog bites and the spread of disease. Such attacks imperil people, affect tourism, and overwhelmingly harm the impoverished. But a stray dog menace does not justify needless cruelty, and measures in favour of upholding animal rights can be in line with measures to reduce stray dog populations.

For instance, the Animal Birth Control (ABC) Programme developed by the Animal Welfare Board of India establishes mechanisms for monitoring, vaccinating, and sterilising dogs. The ABC Programme offers a more humane, effective, and systematic solution to reduce stray dog populations. But such programmes are underfunded, which motivated me to urge the government to provide financial assistance to Kerala to effectively implement the ABC Programme to sterilise and vaccinate – rather than kill -- all stray dogs.

Respect for Mute Beings

We can no longer afford to stand still while defenceless beings are attacked and hurt in the name of our well-being or, more often than not, for the sake of our convenience. Animal cruelty is not worthy of a country with India’s cultural and historical compassion for all living beings.

We cannot allow ambiguous law, paltry fines, and repeated institutional deficiencies to fail our animals.

We must strive to change our mental makeup to learn to appreciate and respect animal life. It is not enough for one individual or one institution to safeguard animals from abuse—it requires the whole country to come together in the name of humanity. After all it was Mahatma Gandhi who said that ‘the greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated’. And by this yardstick, we have a long way to go before we can call ourselves great.

(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author.)

Also read:

The Silent Agony of Shaktiman: Does She Deserve Dignity in Death?

After New Nirbhaya Law, it’s Time a ‘Shaktiman Act’ is Legislated

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