Of stray dogs, judges & Indian constitution

| Updated: 02 April, 2024 3:40 pm IST
"Life and personal liberty are sacrosanct. They are not mere words. They are the repositories of all our values and liberties,” - Supreme Court of India

On April 30, 1947, a powerful right was given to Indian citizens via unanimous decision. Often referred to as the bedrock of the Constitution is the Fundamental Right to Life and Personal Liberty, enunciated in Article 21 – “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.”

During discussions for the Objectives Resolution that laid out the plan for the path to the Constitutional Republic, Dr BR Ambedkar brought up the crucial point that the entire project of implementing fundamental rights would be an exercise in futility if the Constitution did not unequivocally guarantee due process rights i.e ensure that there was a process to guarantee the state did not make a law that violated the spirit of the constitution – “All of us are aware of the fact that rights are nothing unless remedies are provided whereby people can seek to obtain redress when rights are invaded.”

An advisory Committee chaired by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel eventually decided that due process protection must be conferred on ‘life’ and ‘liberty’ and thus permanently ensure fundamental rights would not be compromised by the law-making power of the State. This means that if a law or policy is anti-constitutional and violates fundamental rights, it can and must be overturned.

1500 years ago, Roman jurist Gaius came up with the phrase ‘hominum causa ominous constitutum: all law was established for man’s sake.’ Gaius’ statement still holds: humans alone possess legal rights, including rights of personal bodily integrity, personal liberty and the right to life. Gaius’ proclamation offers a phrase that encapsulates a key distinction between humans and all other animals, as well as a core inquiry i.e. “to whom does law belong?” This distinction between humans and all other animals profoundly affects the development and characterization of legal rights.

Constitutions around the world, including the Indian Constitution do not extend the same rights or ‘rights’ per se to animals as they do for humans.

In 2023, a five-judge constitution bench of the apex court effectively overturned a 2014 Supreme Court judgment that effectively outlawed Jallikattu or the ancient tradition of ‘bull jumping’ (a judgement that seemed to give animals ‘rights’), stating that the Indian Constitution does not recognise fundamental rights for animals and that Article 21 applies to human beings only.

Thus, butter chicken (and Jallikattu) are legal. As should be safe public and private spaces.

The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act

The treatment of animals in India is governed in great part by the PCA Act, a visionary legislation authored by animal welfarist Rukmini Devi Arundale. It’s inspired by ‘animal welfare’ and not ‘animal rights’ and the PCA Act looks at animal protection laws via the lens of Article 21. The PCA is against “unnecessary suffering” caused to animals and not ‘necessary’ suffering that may be caused in the upholding of human rights or out of human necessity. Thus the act allows for the permanent removal and ‘destruction’ of stray dogs.

Contrary to animal welfare principles, the Indian Constitution and the PCA Act is the ideology of ‘Animal Rights’ that postulates animals should receive ‘equal’ consideration by human society and law i.e. the same consideration applicable to a human being.

Stray dogs and their so-called ‘rights’ in India

In 2001, Maneka Gandhi, a self-described ‘animal rights’ activist, then Union Culture Minister, a ministry which has nothing to do with public health,  stray animals or disease control, notified the Animal Birth Control (ABC) Rules ostensibly to manage stray dog populations. The Rules do not address the issue of stray dog attacks, require pregnant unowned dogs to necessarily have litters on the streets and prohibit the euthanasia of even rabid dogs. Thus, they contradict the parent Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act in every manner possible as the rules prohibit the abandonment of dogs for any reason, call for their sheltering and allow for the ‘destruction’ of all stray dogs given the health and safety risks they pose to citizens as well as the suffering they experience by being homeless.

A case challenging the legality of the ABC rules reached the Supreme Court in 2009 and continues to this day.

In 2023, the Department of Animal Husbandry, responsible only for the breeding of livestock and also having nothing to do with public health or stray animals, notified the amended ABC Rules, labelled stray dogs “community dogs” and called for their maintenance and feeding inside any ‘stray dog territory’ including public areas and private, gated premises, even if they maul or kill citizens.

In the ‘animal rights’ paradigm of the ABC rules, no one is responsible either for the dogs’ suffering due to their homelessness or for human injury or death caused by stray dogs.

Through 2023, packs of well-fed, sterilized and vaccinated dogs attacked millions of citizens and even killed children across the country, including inside gated residential societies. In May 2023, over 25 unidentified stray dogs were released into the Brahma Society of Pune, accompanied by a bus full of policemen, at 2 am. This is after a pack of well-fed, sterilized dogs almost killed a child inside the premises prompting their initial removal. This astounding action was in furtherance of the Bombay High Court orders, that upheld the ABC rules which hold that stray dogs cannot be removed from their so-called ‘territories’ even if the so-called territory is privately owned and even after they attack or kill children in those private premises.

Unbelievably, this release of stray dogs back into Brahma society was upheld by the Supreme Court, which stated that “vaccinated dogs were good for residents” perhaps forgetting that vaccinated dogs can still tear a child apart The Article 21 violations faced by residents due to the stray dogs – unprovoked attacks, pathogenic faeces, ticks, howling, feeders feeding dogs in the playground & front of a school, the ever-present threat of injury or death via attack, none addressed by ‘vaccination’, was completely ignored.

In short, the ABC rules effectively converted what was meant to be a solution to a human health and safety crisis into a policy inspired by the highly discredited ‘animal rights’ movement, i.e giving stray dogs not only the right to injure or kill humans with impunity but greater rights than citizens to both public and private property. The unowned dogs released back into Brahma Suncity have continued to attack residents and currently have full access to private premises, via court order.

Supreme Court Judgments on Article 21 – The Right to Life and Liberty

The Supreme Court has held Article 21 to be the “heart of fundamental rights” and its earlier judgments profoundly expand the scope of Article 21, making it a cornerstone of India’s constitutional framework offering protections against arbitrary governmental action and policy.

The apex court bench prohibited smoking in public places observing that “Article 21 of the Constitution of India provides that no one shall be deprived of his life without due process of law, but a non-smoker is deprived of his life not because of law but because of the reason that he has to come into public places.” In the same judgement, the SC also stated that “Right to a healthy environment is a fundamental right guaranteed under article 21 of the Constitution of India”.

 A citizen “is deprived of his life not because of law but because of the reason that he has to come into public places,” as can be attested by an estimated 17.4 million dog attacks officially estimated (2011), with most attacks coming from stray dogs in public places. Despite this, it is legal under the ABC rules to feed packs of an unowned wolf-descended species that are known to attack millions, be the second greatest cause of traffic accidents in India as per insurance data, spread deadly diseases including rabies, slaughter wildlife and livestock and kill thousands of citizens each year.

In the case of Shark Singh vs the State of Uttar Pradesh, the apex court proclaimed regarding Article 21 that “By the term ‘life’ as here used something more is meant than mere animal existence. The inhibition against its deprivation extends to all these limits and faculties by which life is enjoyed. The provision equally prohibits the mutilation of the body or amputation of an arm or leg or the putting out of an eye or the destruction of any other organ of the body through which the soul communicates with the outer world….”

Like the child in Brahma Suncity, literally millions of citizens, especially children are mutilated, hospitalized and traumatized both physically and mentally by stray dog attacks. In Oct ‘22 a pack of well-fed, sterilized and vaccinated stray dogs mauled to death a 7-month-old infant inside Lotus Boulevard in Noida. The same, ‘sterilized and vaccinated’ dogs continue to be fed inside the premises by a ‘stray dog feeder,’ to this day.

In Chameli Singh v. State of U.P., a Bench of three Judges of the Supreme Court held that the right to shelter is a fundamental right and observed that “Shelter for a human being, therefore, is not mere protection of his life and limb…. Right to shelter, therefore, includes adequate living space, safe and decent structure, clean and decent surroundings, sufficient light, pure air and water, electricity, sanitation and other civic amenities like roads etc. so as to have easy access to his daily avocation.”

According to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, almost 96% of rabies cases in India are caused by stray dog attacks. In residential colonies across the country today, residents are forced to put up with packs of stray dogs within their ‘shelter’ because due to the ABC rules, attacking dogs have to be released in their own “territory” inside residential societies after an “observation” even after they have killed children.

Besides attacks India’s millions of stray dogs defecate about 30,000 tons of highly pathogenic faeces daily, creating an ‘unhealthy environment’. While manual scavenging has been banned by the Apex court, no thought seems to have been given to municipal workers or apartment residents forced to clean up stray dog faeces on a daily basis, as the ABC rules dole out “rights” to only stray dog feeders to carry out their hobby, providing the raw materials for pathogenic faeces that directly pollute human ‘shelters’ and public spaces and spread more than 20 communicable diseases, with zero corresponding duties or penalties.

In the landmark case of Rajesh Yadav v. State of UP, it was held that no person has the right to encroach and erect structures or otherwise on footpaths, pavements or public spaces. While homeless citizens are removed from encroaching on footpaths, stray dog feeders under the ABC rules have taken over public roads and pavements, creating huts, structures and “territories” for stray dogs that are allowed to take over public spaces.

The Supreme Court has held that public roads and footpaths cannot be blocked even for Mahatma Gandhi statues or water kiosks and that obstruction-free public places and pavements are an extension of Article 21. So, while a citizen cannot provide water to other humans without a license, ‘activists’ under the ABC rules can feed stray dogs on the same footpaths, leading to congregations of unowned dogs that block paths, attack citizens, defecate and transmit diseases.

In Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration, the Supreme Court reiterated that the “right to life” included the right to lead a healthy life…… It includes the right to live in peace, to sleep in peace and the right to repose and health.  In countless residential areas, citizens can barely step out of their own homes and into common areas of their societies or sleep with packs of well-fed, sterilized, territorial stray dogs barking all night.

The Supreme Court said in the Olga Tellis Case, “Article 21 of the Constitution which guaranteed the right to life includes the right to livelihood.” Across India stray dogs kill livestock, often the main source of income for farmers. A recent survey conducted by Snow Leopard Conservancy revealed that feral dogs were the number one predator attacking domestic livestock in Ladakh. In societies across India, packs of dogs routinely attack vendors and delivery personnel, injuring thousands, or chase/bite two-wheelers and cause accidents inhibiting their right to conduct livelihoods.

Ironically, in Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, the Supreme Court held regarding article 21 that “The right to live includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it, viz…… freely moving about and mixing and mingling with fellow human beings….”.

Far from freely mingling with others, Mohan, a paraplegic citizen confined to a wheelchair and living in a gated society in Bangalore, is regularly attacked by stray dogs in his car park. The stray dogs continue to be fed by ‘feeders’ as allowed under the ABC rules.

Mohali, Chandigarh has had an average of 42 bites every day by stray dogs, a rabid stray dog ran amok in Chennai, sending 29 people to the hospital with serious injuries, and a college in Kerala had to cancel exams due to the presence and danger caused by packs of stray dogs attacking students inside the campus, a rabid dog bit 14 students inside the IIT Bombay campus, a 2-year-old girl was mauled to death by a pack of well-fed and sterilized stray dogs 5kms from the Supreme Court premises last month… The list goes on and on with tens of thousands of attacks every day.

Safe public spaces and residential societies are fundamental to the exercise of fundamental rights and civil liberties. Many of the fundamental rights – right to liberty, freedom of movement, of assembly, right to a healthy and disease-free environment as well as safe and obstruction-free footpaths and roads – depend on the availability of safe physical public (and private) spaces. The feeding, release, and maintenance of unowned stray dogs in public spaces and the prohibition on removal, sheltering or euthanasia of stray dogs, via the ABC rules, in direct contradiction with its parent PCA Act, profoundly violates Article 21 rights of citizens.

State Municipal Acts mandate the removal of stray animals from the streets and public places and require municipal authorities to prevent the spread of diseases. This is the bedrock of local governance. Under the ABC Rules, local authorities are instead required to release stray dogs in front of people’s homes, inside public parks and even school and hospital premises.

 The Courts and ABC rules

While both the Apex Court and High Courts have been hearing numerous stray dog-related cases, several problematic pronouncements have been made.

In the current case, the Apex court had stated that they “will not pass any interim orders” but go into final hearings. It may be pertinent to ask here, why not?

The Constitution of India guarantees Article 21 to citizens at all times and cannot be relegated to after “final hearings.” While the Apex court has passed several interim orders over the last 14 years for the ‘protection’ and ‘rights’ of stray dogs and their feeders, it inexplicably has not given relief to citizens even once, suspending the Constitutionally guaranteed Article 21.

A bench of the Bombay HC stated that “stray dogs only bite when hungry” a view not in keeping with dog behaviour and proved incorrect repeatedly by the fact that millions of Indian citizens are being bitten and even killed by well-fed, sterilized and vaccinated stray dogs.

A 3-year-old child was attacked and bitten to death by a pack of stray dogs in Hyderabad in 2023. Animal rights activist Maneka Gandhi wrote an article about how the same child had been cruel to the dogs, justifying the attack. The same dogs continue to be maintained and fed under the ABC Rules.

In 2016 the apex Court prohibited a family from feeding pigeons from their private balcony, citing nuisance for others. However, in 2023 a bench of the Bombay HC stated that “residents of a society are obligated to provide food and water to stray animals” perhaps forgetting that scientific study maintains food availability is a significant cause of stray dog population growth and territorial aggression and ‘obligating’ residents to feed stray dogs goes beyond the law and their powers.

The Apex court stated last year that “it is unacceptable to confine dogs,” even though all domestic animals including pet dogs are necessarily confined and are meant to live within the care and ‘confines’ of human ownership. Canis lupus familiarisis, the Latin taxonomic name for domestic dogs means ‘dog of the household’, not of the streets.

Even the ex-CJI Justice Dipak Misra, accompanied on the bench by Justice R. Banumathi (who had banned Jallikattu) while hearing petitions regarding the ABC Rules 2001 and the issue of children being attacked by stray dogs on their way to school, said that stray dogs ‘have a right to live’ but interestingly, did not say the same for the children being attacked.

It may be of note that the chairperson of the NHRC, to which numerous complaints have been made regarding relentless human rights violations by stray dogs, is retired Supreme Court Justice Arun Mishra. In a stray dog attack case, he suspended the implementation of the Uttarakhand High Court order directing the Nainital Municipal Council to pay compensation to the victims of attacks by stray dogs.

After the killing of the 2 year by a pack of stray dogs being fed in a children’s park by a feeder in Feb ‘24, the NHRC took cognizance of the attack but also promoted the ABC Rules directing civic authorities to “take all preventive and curative action to control population of stray dogs, as per provisions of the Animal Birth Control (Dogs) Rules”, the same rules that prohibit the removal or killing of the stray dogs that mauled the child to death and which enabled the same stray dogs to be fed inside a children’s park.

Stray dogs in India are dangerous not because they’re dogs per se but because they’re homeless and exist beyond the control of owners. In what seems to be an attempt to defect public anger at stray dog attacks in election season the Department of Animal Husbandry recently banned 23 ‘dangerous’ dog breeds in the interest of “public safety”. The same department, via the ABC rules (which they notified,) continues to promote the release, maintenance and feeding of millions of unowned dogs in public places, which attack and kill more people than all the so-called ‘banned breeds’ worldwide put together, many times over. Several High Courts have stayed the dog breed ban. The same courts, however, have yet to stay the ABC Rules that keep millions of dogs homeless and dangerous on the streets, prohibiting their removal or euthanasia.

All these judgements and pronouncements seem to indicate interpretations by judges of what the law should be based on their personal and subjective predilections towards ‘animal rights’ rather than an upholding of the Constitution and Article 21. It may be noted that citizens are promised fundamental rights by the Constitution, not by individual judges with subjective views. It has been 14 years and countless people have been left disabled, traumatized or dead in violation of Article 21 via attacks by free-roaming dogs that themselves suffer from being homeless, all due to the ABC rules and the courts that uphold them.

For 14 years the Apex court has not been able to unequivocally uphold Article 21 and strike down a set of ultra vires subordinate rules deeply violative of Article 21, the so-called bedrock of the constitution. As ex-CJI Dipak Misra also said “Individual rights cannot be dented by any kind of majoritarian social philosophy.

Perhaps the Hon’ble Apex court needs reminding that “Life and personal liberty are sacrosanct. They are not mere words. They are the repositories of all our values and liberties.”

Ryan Lobo is a wildlife filmmaker, author, photographer and ecology researcher, based in Bangalore. He tweets at @humanetoanimals 

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