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A snarling problem

Dogs, not human beings, make the news in Kerala these days. It all began with a pack of stray dogs mauling to death an elderly woman in Thiruvananthapuram on August 19. Her son who tried to rescue her was also attacked but he jumped into the sea to save himself. He was mortified to see his mother being devoured by the dogs.

The next day the same dogs are believed to have attacked two children in the area. Since the day the horrendous incident happened, newspapers in Kerala have been documenting every dog attack. A dog pouncing on a baby being breastfed was just one such case.

One of India’s leading lawyers Prashant Bhushan startled people of Kerala when he accused the media of publishing “paid news”, that is news paid for by the tourism industry. The learned lawyer missed the point that more reports of dog bites would scare the tourists as the canines never differentiated between the locals and the tourists.

He took to task Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s announcement that his government would appropriately deal with the situation created by stray dogs. The lawyer saw it as his decision to kill all the stray dogs. He threatened the Vijayan that he would use the contempt of court law to have him punished. He was referring to the Animal Birth Control Rules 2001, popularly known as the ABC Rules.

Under the rules, upheld by the Supreme Court in 2015, stray dogs cannot be killed. They need to be caught, sterilised and vaccinated against rabies before they are released in their old habitat. Faced with the threat of legal action, Vijayan has clarified that his government would abide by the law of the land, though he hinted at enacting a state law to deal with the situation.

Federal minister Maneka Gandhi added fuel to fire when she conjectured that the woman was carrying meat when she was attacked, though she did not have an iota of evidence. She also pointed out the lack of a proper waste disposal system in Kerala where waste is dumped on roadside.

However, there is no city, including the national capital, which has a scientific waste management system and the stray dog menace is not confined to Kerala. In Delhi alone 500 cases of dog bites are reported every day. Gandhi has spread the myth that the Keralites are insensitive to the needs of dogs which also want space to live.

Had she read well-known Malayalam writer Thakazhy’s most famous short story ‘Vellapokkathil’ (In the Flood), which is about a dog that finds shelter on the roof of its master’s house when it gets submerged, she would have realised how much the Kerala society valued “man’s best friend”. The issue is not the love for dogs but how they should be controlled when they become a menace.

The ABC Rules apply only to dogs, not to any other animal or bird. And it is an animal that spreads rabies for which there is no cure once it becomes full-blown. Sterilisation and vaccination do not guarantee that dogs won’t bite. This will also force the victims to go in for the post-bite vaccination which is expensive for poor people. The anti-rabies vaccination is a multi-billion-rupee business.

Whether it is this industry that bankrolls pro-stray dog NGOs or not, there is a strong case for revisiting the ABC Rules which have not succeeded in containing the stray dog problem. It has only benefited some NGOs which charge heavily for vaccination and sterilisation.

Kerala is estimated to have a stray dog population of 275,000. Few countries allow them to wander the cities, posing a threat to pedestrians. Culling of animals like kangaroo is commonly resorted to Australia. In any case, the ABC Rules cannot take precedence over the right to life that the constitution guarantees to every citizen. When the rights of the stray dogs clash with the rights of human beings, it is the latter that should prevail.

The situation would surely have been different had some of the victims of dog bite been people in positions of authority, who do not walk on isolated stretches of streets where stray dogs congregate looking for food.