In two judgments delivered last month, the Bombay High Court has relied on the recently notified Animal Birth Control Rules, 2023 to unequivocally hold 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.
What is the significance of the Animal Birth Control Rules notified last month?
FOR the second time in two decades, the Union government has framed rules to deal with the rising population of stray dogs in the country. The first set of rules was notified in 2001. This time around, the free-roaming dogs we all encounter in our neighbourhoods have been provided with a new status: they will now be known as ‘community dogs’.
The renomination could make all the difference to their treatment and well-being, if given a chance.
Coupled with the guidelines for sterilisation of these community dogs elaborated in these very Rules, it is hoped that both the Union and state governments will now allocate adequate resources to make the animal birth-control programme effective. The onus to ensure the success of the sterilisation and anti-rabies programmes is firmly cast on the country’s local self-governing bodies— the municipalities and the village panchayats.
The significance of the 2023 Rules is to be appreciated in the context of the conflicts that have arisen in some cities between the managements of ‘resident welfare associations’ (RWAs) of building societies, apartment blocks and gated communities, and activist citizens who have taken upon themselves the task of feeding strays.
The RWAs wish to keep their gated areas free from these creatures. They insist that strays must be evicted even if they have been living there for a while, simply because, legally, the area is now the property of the people who have purchased the apartments. The animals are given no choice but to go fend for themselves elsewhere.
On the other hand, some residents of the same building societies feed these animals out of compassion and, of course, their love for animals.
With the single and simple change in terminology (labelling the strays as ‘community animals’), the dogs have been given a sense of belonging.
The conflicts result in harsh measures being meted out by the RWAs, which include attempts to drive the strays away, refusal of permissions for feeding, harassment of dog feeders, and creating a climate of hostility towards animals among the residents.
The 2023 Rules have squarely addressed this problem and given legal protection to these stray animals, hoping thereby to try and change the mindset of the people in the way they perceive these strays. With the single and simple change in terminology (labelling the strays as ‘community animals’), the dogs have been given a sense of belonging.
With the same stroke of the pen, people residing in the areas in which the dogs have come to reside have automatically become their caregivers: they are now responsible for their upkeep and well-being.
Dogs are territorial animals— they live within defined areas they have earmarked for themselves and being so, they become protective of their territory. This is true of both pet dogs as well as those who have no owners. They will bark furiously at other dogs who may enter their territorial areas, whether they are within compound walls or roaming free. Thus, without being appointed as watch dogs by anyone, they guard the areas (and the people in it) they have adopted as their territorial limits.
The 2023 Rules define 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 Wild Life (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.
Rule 20 of the 2023 Rules, 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.”
The Rule goes on to detail the arrangements that are to be made by the RWA and the precautions to be taken while deciding on feeding spots. For example, 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.
How did two recent Bombay High Court judgments refer to these Rules to uphold the rights of community dogs and dog feeders?
The Bombay High Court had occasion to visit these Rules while deciding two public interest litigation (PIL) filed by activist citizens who had been restrained by the managements of their housing societies from feeding stray dogs at the society premises, or were being harassed and threatened by the RWA for doing so.
The onus to ensure the success of the sterilisation and anti-rabies programmes is firmly cast on the country’s local self-governing bodies— the municipalities and the village panchayats.
The first petition— filed by Sharmila Sankar and others against the Seawood Estates Ltd— had a history. The activists had in 2021 approached the high court with a PIL which was disposed of on the assurances of the Seawood management that places would be assigned for feeding stray dogs. However, Seawood instead created some temporary structures for feeding the animals on public land outside the estate. The municipal corporation naturally objected and decided to remove these unauthorised structures, which brought the activists back to the court, armed with a contempt petition against Seawood.
The second petition, filed by one Paromita Purthan, raised a similar issue— that she was prevented from feeding community dogs resident within the society premises, that she was compelled to feed them on the public road, which made the dogs vulnerable to accidents, and that bouncers had been hired by the RWA to harass and intimidate her.
In both judgments, delivered independently of each other in March this year— the first was decided on March 20 by a division Bench comprising Justices Gautam Patel and Dr Neela Gokhale, while the second was decided on March 27 by a division Bench of Justices G.S. Kulkarni and R.N. Laddha— the 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 the first judgment, the court first elaborately discusses whether RWAs, under one excuse or another, can prevent dog feeders from caring for the stray animals residing within a campus. However, relying heavily on some earlier judgments of the Supreme Court as well as the recently notified 2023 Rules , in particular the Rule on feeding and care of community dogs, the Bench reiterated quite firmly its view that compassion for all living creature is a fundamental duty of citizens, enshrined in Article 51A(g) of the Constitution.
As regards the validity of these Rules, the first judgment observes: “Not only do these Rules clearly have the force of law, being framed under Section 38 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, but there is, at least arguably, a constitutional mandate for this… Article 51A(g) makes it a fundamental duty of every citizen to have compassion for living creatures.” The court further added, “There is at least some law in this country that the fundamental constitutional safeguards guaranteed by the Constitution must be held to vest even in non-humans.“
Almost a decade ago, the Supreme Court, in its judgment in Animal Welfare Board of India versus A. Nagaraja & Ors (2014), had declared, “Every species has a right to life and security, subject to the law of the land, which includes depriving its life out of human necessity… So far as animals are concerned, in our view, ‘life’ means something more than mere survival or existence or instrumental value for human beings, but to lead a life with some intrinsic worth, honour and dignity.”
The Bombay High Court’s decisions in these two judgments provide a more inclusive interpretation of the rights of all living creatures on this planet.
The World Organisation for Animal Health, an intergovernmental organisation coordinating, supporting and promoting animal disease control, of which India is a member, has long since emphasised that an animal is in a good state of welfare if it has the five internationally recognised, fundamental freedoms of health and nourishment; comfort; safety; ability to express innate behaviour; and not suffering from pain, fear and distress.
Concluding its judgment in the second aforementioned Bombay High Court judgment, the Bench stated: “We … expect that a sense of belonging and responsibility on such an issue needs to prevail between the members of the society so as to cordially resolve these issues and no confrontation in this regard ought to happen… To hate stray dogs or treat them with cruelty can never be an acceptable approach from persons of civil society… Such actions … would not only be contrary to the provisions of law, but also amount to commission of an offence.”
The high court’s decisions in these two judgments are to be welcomed, as they provide a more inclusive interpretation of the rights of all living creatures on this planet.