Chronicles The Beast in the City

“You can tell the ideals of a nation by its advertisements,” Lee Ouzman remarks, “its state of development by the condition of the toilets at the airport and the advancement of its people by the way they treat their animals.”

The reality of Indian cities is to be found on their streets, in the desperate chaos that plays itself out with an anarchic regularity, where the marginalized are forced to adapt themselves to the inadequate, unclean spaces that are available to them, or the lack even of these, and in the presence of the millions of miserable animals that roam the streets, scavenging and clawing out an existence, their wretchedness the ubiquitous symbol of our current state of civilization.

For decades, our cities have lurched forward to arrive at this. The creators of our great cities were unable to imagine spaces within the urban fabric that would accommodate animals and that would encourage a civic temper which understood their role and how to deal with their presence. Far from crafting an enriched manmade environment which embraced the creatures of the natural world, we have created a society so ugly, revealing our lack of humanity in the way we treat our animals.

The irony is the pride we feel in referring to ourselves as followers of ahimsa; in our religious mythologies that speak with reverence and love for innumerable creatures. We are a nation that worships at the feet of various animals in the guise of religious icons; yet, in the real world we are blind to the suffering to which we have reduced these creatures. It was that great practitioner of ahimsa, Mahatma Gandhi, who confessed, “I hardly think the fate of animals is so sad in any other country in the world as it is in our own India. We cannot make the British responsible for this nor can we excuse ourselves by pleading our poverty. Criminal neglect is the only cause of the deplorable condition of our cattle.”

It is this criminal neglect that pits the human against the animal within the city. Delhi has a population of about 35,000 cows roaming its streets. They owe their presence to almost 2,655 unlicensed dairies and cow sheds. The owners let the animals loose to forage for food at garbage dumps. These animals feed on refuse, consuming plastic bags and other hazardous materials which eventually cause a very slow and painful death. They move from dump to dump, strolling across roads, and end up creating a nightmare for motorists. And it is not just motorists who are at risk.

Early this year a ‘raging bull’ gored two people to death and severely injured another. The agitated crowd, which had been watching the proceedings, eventually forced the reluctant police to shoot it dead. Thus began a campaign, as the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) was ordered to remove all stray cattle from the city. But when the MCD moved in to do its job, its workers were set upon by angry mobs, and pelted with stones in protests against this treatment of the ‘holy animal’. Armed just with sticks and a rope the men had to grapple with bulls and cows causing great pain and frequent injuries to the animal, and putting the MCD men at the risk as well.

WAlarmed at this state of affairs the High Court issued orders that the animals be treated in a ‘humane manner’. Till that point, the MCD did not possess a single tranquilizer gun. Eventually ten were procured from Switzerland, and the MCD set to its task once again. But after the first bull had been shot with a dart, the men waited with their hearts in their mouths as the captured animal refused to regain consciousness, (the result of an overdose from untrained staff). It was only after a long and anxious wait that the animal finally recovered. Last heard, MCD vets were being sent off to Delhi zoo for training in the use of the gun.

In another part of Delhi a similar story was being played out. Following a Court directive, men from a voluntary group were attempting to capture a group of monkeys. Once again, these men were threatened by the locals as the monkey is associated with the Hindu deity, Hanuman. Delhi is home to more than 5,000 ‘stray’ monkeys who, in particular, terrorize the inhabitants of the North and South Blocks, rampaging through offices, tearing up files and ‘harassing women’. After 80 of these monkeys had been captured they were taken to be relocated at the city’s outskirts at the Rajokri monkey shelter. The only hitch, as the shelter’s warden expressed it, was that “we have the capacity for only 200 and the city has about 5,000 of them.”

According to WHO estimates 40,000 to 70,000 people die of rabies each year worldwide and nearly 30,000 of these deaths occur in India. In Delhi alone, 200 people die of rabies each year. In 1990, in order to control the stray dog menace, a random slaughter of dogs was undertaken of almost one-third of the canine population; yet this did not result in any permanent decrease in their number.

The same story is played out in cities across the country. In the early 1970s the number of dogs destroyed by the Madras City Corporation was so high that the Central Leather Research Institute, Madras, reportedly specially designed products such as neckties and wallets from dog skins. The number of dogs being killed continued to rise; so did the number of dogs in the street; and so did the cases of rabies.

What we have here is a story of criminal ignorance coupled with complete indifference and unforgivable callousness. The random deportment of cattle to gaushalas has not made any significant dent in the stray cattle population; attempting to control rabies by the slaughter of canines is senseless as animal populations stabilize at their environment’s ‘carrying capacities’. The only effective solution is a combination of sterilization and vaccination Yet despite the attempts of the Government and the presence of many well-funded NGOs, these have been the only knee-jerk reactions to dealing with these issues.

Perhaps what we have forgotten is the place of the animals in the city; place not just for pets, hidden away in private homes. We need to reincorporate animals into everyday human affairs, to reinvent the idea of the city, to plan out new ways of building; an architecture, an urban landscape that does not simply nod at the all-pervading misery of animals in the streets, and the many other creatures that survive in the habitat that we have taken over. Our cities and their suburbs are witnessing the disappearance of several species of animals and birds, as we increasingly encroach on their terrain, and we can only take our children to zoos and show to them this most cruel manifestation of our idea of a place for animals in the city. Since ancient times, our children have been enriched by the wonderful world of the animal kingdom, a world reflected in the Jataka tales, the Panchtantra and numerous other delightful fables; a world now increasingly remote. As Martin Amis puts it , “How will we teach the children to speak when all the animals are gone? Because animals are what they want to talk about first. Yes, and buses and food and Mama and Dada. But animals are what they break their silence for.”

Chitvan Gill

Published in The Pioneer, July 28, 2005


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