Once upon a time, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) used to catch stray, unlicensed dogs, keep them in dog-pounds for a few days and thereafter destroy them if they were not claimed and rescued by anybody.
It was no doubt an extremely cruel way to treat man’s best friend.
But that was soon to change in the late nineties.
Spurred on by animal welfare movements all over the world, and led by vocal activists like Maneka Gandhi in our own country, the BMC decided to opt for the more humane method of sterilising the stray dog population in Mumbai instead of exterminating it.
In 2001 the Union ‘Ministry of Culture’ under Maneka Gandhi, passed the ‘Animal Birth Control (ABC) Rules’ for stray dog population management.
With most government departments having gone to dogs, it was heartening to see the Ministry of Culture framing rules for protecting stray dogs.
An ‘Animal Birth Control’ (ABC) Program was formulated under the aegis of the ‘Animal Welfare Board of India’ (AWBI) and several Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) sprung up rapidly to implement it.
They were to be paid an incentive by the AWBI per dog they sterilised.
This was a different kind of “nasbandi” and there was a decent amount of money on offer.
The idea was that in about 10 years there would be no new dogs born and thus the city would be rid of the stray dog “menace” once the existing stray dog population died a natural death without being euthanized.
But the ‘ABC Program’ soon ran into trouble.
After a few years the BMC claimed that statistics submitted by the NGOs showed that they had already sterilised more dogs than the total dog population as indicated in the dog census commissioned and compiled by the BMC!
There were allegations that several NGOs took credit for sterilising the same dogs..and all of them benefited from the funds on offer by adding those dogs to their tally and claiming credit!
All through this period, stray instances of stray dog bites continued to make news.
Puppies too were being noticed at many street corners prancing around certified “sterilised” dogs.
People began having doubts about the ABC program and started asking questions.
Soon the “anti-dog lobby” started demanding a resumption of the old system of impounding and euthanising stray dogs.
The “pro-dog brigade” immediately rose up in defence of maintaining the status quo as per the ABC Rules.
If the arguments of the attackers appeared to be rabid,those of the defendants were no less ferocious.
The media was a fertile battleground for opinions from both sides.
At such a crucial point in the stray history of Mumbai, one senior milord of the Bombay High Court, who was very scared of dogs, was returning on a weekend from a late night party at a friend’s place to his official residence when he spotted some stray dogs near the entrance to the judges residential complex.
He alighted from his car and started shooing them away.
As he apparently had imbibed a lot of courage at the cocktail party, he was feeling unusually brave.
So he even ventured to pick up a few pebbles and hurled them at the stray dogs to scare them away.
At this, the dogs charged at him and milord was forced to run for his life in the direction of the watchmen’s chowky.
Being unsteady on his feet, milord fell down and some dogs caught hold of his trousers.
They ripped them apart.
The watchmen chased the dogs away and rescued milord but he was shaken to the depths of his underpants.
More than his body, his ego seemed to have been bruised by this involuntary exposure.
He felt his modesty was outraged and his reputation lay in tatters..at least in front of the watchmen.
The next morning, milord dictated a complaint to the Municipal Commissioner and another letter to the Chief Justice narrating his ordeal quite dramatically and faithfully, except for his own inebriation and provocative action.
The Chief, whose grouse had been that the stray dogs blessed the tyres of his car every morning, promptly asked the HC registry to treat the aggrieved milord’s letter as a Public Interest Litigation (PIL).
Thus commenced “the big dog-fight” before the Bombay High Court.
A division bench issued notice to the BMC on the PIL which inter alia sought re-commencement of the impounding and euthanising of stray dogs to counter their “menace”.
For the media, this was an ideal, non-controversial, time-pass story.
Readers and viewers love to expend their energies and take sides in such matters.
On the returnable date, there were a dozen intervention applications filed on behalf of the various NGOs and animal-welfare activists.
On the date after that there were half a dozen interventions supporting the PIL and the molested milord.
Meanwhile, another division bench in another case upheld the legality of the BMC’s ABC Program and opined that it was a good program which must be given a few more years to show good results.
As a result, this letter-PIL was referred by the bench to the CJ for constituting a larger bench as they were of the view that the ABC program was a failure and a total waste of money!
Thereafter, for over a year, the dog-fight cases were heard by a 3-judge bench of the Bombay High Court.
Both sides had engaged senior advocates but the best Parsi lawyers of the Bombay Bar in those days turned up in the court not to represent the humans on either side..but for the stray dogs!
I used to attend the hearings in court and was most amused to notice a similarity between the dogs and their pro-bono counsel.
No, not the long noses..that was just coincidental.
But the fact that while pleading their case these counsel invariably tended to raise one leg and place it on the adjoining chair..it reminded me of their “clients” who habitually raised their legs in a similar manner on lamp posts.
On the big judgment day the senior most judge on the 3-judge BHC bench ruled for continuing the ABC program but the two other judges (which included a lady judge) felt that the BMC was “duty bound” to control the “menace” and perform its obligatory duties towards rate-paying citizens.
That was a long time ago..
So did the culling of stray dogs recommence?
This is the beauty of litigation.
Dogs may come and dogs may go, but the tail of litigation shall now keep wagging forever.
SLPs were filed in the Supreme Court against the 3-judge HC full bench’s split verdict.
Even before the Supreme Court, the Parsi doyen of the Supreme Court Bar appeared pro bono for his “four-legged friends.”
The SLPs were promptly admitted and the status quo restraining reversion to the old system has continued since then.
The AWBI continues.
So does the ABC program.
The dogs, the activists and NGOs supporting them and their counsel are all very happy.
After 25 years, one may say the ABC Program is a partial success.
Strays have not disappeared but their numbers appear to have reduced..at least in Mumbai.
Puppies, if sighted, are quickly being adopted and find good homes instead of wandering on the streets.
If dogs are dying prematurely in this city it may not be due to the dog haters but probably because of too many dog lovers!
When I see open packets of unconsumed Parle-G biscuits lying in front of every fat, bored, sleeping dog at Churchgate Railway Station I realise that it is this diet, coupled with hardly any exercise that is likely condemning these stray dogs to an early exit from Planet Earth.
Some day, no doubt justice will be done.
But as things stand, it doesn’t seem likely in the lifetime of these overfed stray dogs..or their supporters.