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Lockdown woes of Stray Animals

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By MANEKA  GANDHI 

Here are a few experiences of the millions I have had during the first phase of COVID lockdown.

On 24 March, when the lockdown was announced, I immediately gave my phone number across the country for all animal volunteers to use if they needed help. I thought that perhaps a few organisations would get in touch. Not so. Thousands of calls started coming in from people who needed passes for feeding, people who were being accosted by the street police while feeding and people who were suffering from the viciousness of RWAs. I am delighted by the coming of age of the volunteer animal movement. Now, that we have over one lakh people whom I can identify across India, the next step is to organise them into legal champions and policy makers in their states.

Some people, to my delight, have become leaders during this time: Kaveri Rana of Noida, Chetna Joshi, Gurgaon, Nirali Koradia, Lata Parmar, Mumbai, Shivanand Dambal, Bangalore, Nighat Lone of Kashmir, Rumpy Madaan of Jammu, Tejovanth Anopunjo in Guntur, Ajay Daga of Kolkata, Shakuntala Majumdar of Thane, Norma Alvares of Goa, Gauri Maulekhi and Meenakshee Awasthi, to name a few. Two people who stand out are Ishita Yadav and Kanika Dewan who handled my communications with the country – so that everyone knew the laws of different states immediately.

I spoke to practically all the Chief Ministers and Chief Secretaries. Barring the Jharkhand CM, who, I was told by his household staff, refuses to speak to anyone and does not even carry a phone, and the Telangana CM, who is a law unto himself, all of them immediately understood the need for feeding animals during this time. Naveen Patnaik immediately announced that money for feeding animals would be given to each Nagar Palika and municipality. Each Chief Secretary was mature, open to learning and understood what would happen if the street animals were not fed. All except one, that is. The Chief Secretary of Punjab gave me a long, ill informed and pompous lecture on how I should think of people first and to hell with every other species. But even he pales before the arrogance and bad temper of the Chief Secretary of Telangana who, till today, has banned passes for anyone, and has been the least helpful to any common citizen for anything till now.

In every state practically, all the police seniors, from SHOs and DCPs to the Commissioners of the city and DGPs of the states have been wonderful. They were sensible, flexible and mature in their responses and above all, compassionate. They came on the lines directly and were willing to listen to the smallest problems. Of them the three outstanding heads of police have been the Commissioners of Delhi, Srivastava, Mumbai’s Paramvir Singh and Bangalore’s Bhaskar Rao. They helped feeders, changed timings to suit people instead of being rigid, and intervened to solve problems. The DCPs of Mumbai and Delhi have been equally intelligent and quick in their responses. While the SPs of Punjab were usually helpful, their people on the ground, especially Ludhiana, were a nuisance.

A special mention of Haryana, where the least harassment took place in any district! The Municipal Commissioner of Gurgaon is a good, intelligent man and he found solutions quickly. I would like to thank the CM of Haryana for showing the way with his practical approach.

On the other hand, the street police have been a nuisance. Quick to stop and hit, many were unnecessarily abusive – especially in Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Thane. Jharkhand typically thought of a make-money solution and stood on the road, often in plain clothes, threatening to arrest people who had passes unless they gave money. I spoke to the SP in one case and it, perhaps, stopped. In one case, an SHO in Delhi went prowling every night to find women feeders, and to take them back to his thana where he sat and chatted with them till 12 or so at night. I had to complain three times, as this seemed to be a perversion rather than disciplinary action. He stopped.

The district collectors were equally amazing except for the woman in Mangalore who used her “power” to be mean to the poor. All the others came forward to be as kind as possible. They did not insulate themselves, they solved problems and, for once, showed what bureaucracy, if headed by the gentle, could do. Chandigarh, inspite of having a good DC, had the least sense when it came to giving passes. The person in charge gave passes to each applicant for two hours per day, forcing them to come back daily, go through police pickets, and increase the chances of spreading Corona. The local veterinary hospital, the SPCA, was also closed for no reason. Compare this stupidity to the instant responses of the head of Mohali, Dayalan and the head of Panchkula, who not only involved local NGOs with their own people, but also responded to animal sickness and accident cases with vets who treated them on the spot.

A special mention of Tamil Nadu where I had to intervene the least. Business people, hotels and animal groups like the Blue Cross, joined together to feed and care for animals. Only the IIT-M in Chennai, headed by what the films called a “Shyana” (oversmart) head used his particular form of “scientific knowledge” to be mean to students who had stayed behind specifically to feed campus animals. A very big thank you to the Jindal University students who, en masse, revolted against the administration’s viciousness until they had to cave in. Six hundred students joined the Animal Welfare Club.

Which places stressed me the most: Pune, which has an excellent Collector but over 2000 really cantankerous feeders. Fortunately, Neha Panchamia of ResQ and Puneeta Khanna of PFA took most of my burden after a bit. Bangalore, where most feeders spent a lot of time fighting with each other and Thane’s Mira Road, where people who took their passes misused them.

There are two categories that have made me really sad: the press and society associations which we call RWAs.

The press spread the filthiest and most untrue rumours all the time. One channel would do it. Then I would intervene to ask them to stop which they would, and then another would start. ABP of Kolkata was the worst with a constant tirade against cats. This led to thousands of cats being abused, and to many deaths. When they stopped, News18 and Dainik Bhaskar took it up. They stopped when doctors pitched in to tell the truth, including India’s head of Community Medicine Dr CK Pandav, and the head of AIIMs Dr Guleria and the head of all the Veterinary Universities that have been researching this. As I speak, Aaj Tak has started now with accusing dogs of giving the virus – in spite of the fact that not a single dog or cat has got it till now. But no doubt animal haters will use this. Local channels like the little known Siddharth TV in Bangalore and the Print pick up this kind of news. Why has the press been doing this? With a captive audience and no news except COVID, they look to raise TRPs by creating fear. I am waiting for them to announce that ants and cockroaches give the virus.

The Society Welfare Associations, usually headed by old vicious retirees, behaved so disgracefully across the country that this entire system of RWAs should be abolished. As it is, it has no legal standing. But that did not stop them from attacking people in their communities for feeding animals, making guards hit all animals, stopping people from coming down to let their animals go to the bathroom even if they cleaned the place, ranting viciously on community Facebook pages against residents, entering people’s homes and giving them notices to leave, closing gates at random with their paid security guards to stop people with legal passes from feeding street animals. They got even braver when the feeders or keepers of animals were women-only households or single women. It has been like World War 3 on every community across India. When I intervened, as I do in about 50+ cases a day with the laws, then they backed down but generally I am appalled to see so much hatred generated at a time when we should be the calmest and most generous. We should look closely at who stands for election here, because it impacts much more than an MP or MLA election.

We are now entering Phase 2. The feeders are running out of money. While the demand for passes is more or less over – I now need to ask for less than 20 a day (as compared to 500 a day) – but the RWA cruelties are increasing. And, as people get bored, they look for reasons to be unhappy and fight. Meditate, play cards, read, don’t watch TV, feed birds and animals and above all, be compassionate. The Prime Minister, himself, has asked you to think of the homeless animals at this time. This is not a world they made. So be kind.

(To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)