By Maneka Gandhi
One of the silliest things on the internet is an international site called change.com.
The owners have offices in a number of countries and the mandate seems to be that anyone who had a grievance, and wants it redressed, can list an issue and get signatures on it. These will be sent to a bureaucrat / politician through email.
When change.com reached its peak some years ago, I received hundreds of emails ranging – “India should not be violent on women” to “sanitary towels should be tax free” and, of course, many animal issues – every three days the issues would change and, very often, they were complaints of a generic nature which no one person or even system can deal with. Very often they were sent to the wrong target. When I was new in office, I responded to one of these campaigns and the end result was that the head of change.com got awards for being one of India’s best change makers – even though she had nothing to do with it at all, except stand with me for photo ops.
No research ever went into any issue. Just one line complaints which died out in a few days and were replaced by another. After a while, I started erasing them as soon as they appeared on my email and now I don’t receive any more.
I was the only minister/bureaucrat who ever read a change.com email. The site had no impact on policy change or action.
But it did have a really bad impact on the average computer user: everyone who signed these petitions – and it was often the same people signing every petition on the computer – felt they had done their bit for the world. By merely clicking a link, to send an electronic signature somewhere, tends to give the advocate the feeling of having done something, without actually doing anything at all.
Unfortunately, change.com has become institutionalised in many forms by animal welfare sites. Maneka: sign this to save the dolphins in the Faroe Islands; sign this to save the wild hares in Scotland; sign this to stop monkey export from Mauritius. I must have signed thousands of these. What happened to the issues and where these signatures went – no one knows. The only difference, between me and perhaps others who signed, is that I do many other things on the ground to save animals, and the only reason I sign is because I feel a deep need to keep up the spirits of animal welfare organisations, by making them believe that someone is looking at their sites!
Kerala is perhaps the worst state when it comes to elephant torture and killing. And the forest department is completely indifferent to any complaint. It is the Kerala elephants that attract the most attention from signers. Every time someone highlights an elephant being tortured, hundreds of emails from desk jockeys pour in to me. They probably go to the officials in Kerala but, I believe, that till today no officials read their mails. And, of course, no politician does. It is going to take at least another five years for anyone in government to read, and respond, to anything a citizen has emailed about. There is complete institutional indifference to the general / generic email.
And organisations that host these petitions on their site are simply using this to collect names for fundraising appeals.
So, what can you do to actually save an animal and bring about change? How do you become an actual animal advocate and expose cruelty, corruption, and incompetence? How do you save an animal in your area, or change a policy creatively and seriously?
Find out and keep the phone numbers, and personal emails, of all the local administrators: DMs, SDMs, the head of the police, the local thana, the MP, the MLA, the corporator, the zila panchayat member, the local veterinary officer, the forest office, and the three main press reporters, and use these numbers liberally when you need help. You can follow this up with calls and emails directly to the person.
Make a group. This means finding people in your area who want to help animals. Go to schools, colleges, your neighbourhood, the local lawyers and teachers. Put small handmade flyers up, asking people to contact you. Take this group to see the officials, and the press, regularly. You want an SPCA and animal ambulance in your district? You need to keep hounding everyone in the local administration till you get it. It may take months, but the results will be permanent. You need a temple to stop using elephants? Keep complaining to the temple and the administration – and, of course, the press, with photos and write-ups. Picket it, stand outside the house of your MP and MLA, and don’t let go till they respond. A small determined group can bring about a change.
The police are the worst. They take crime against animals lightly and most policemen don’t even know the laws. This allows criminals, smugglers, pet shops, breeders, animal beaters, to carry on – especially since the police often use the complaint to extort money from them. If the thana does not listen, go to the SP. If he doesn’t go to the local court, get an order. If this doesn’t work, go back to the court and file for contempt. If you can make a noise in just two cases, no matter how much time it costs you, you will automatically be heard in the third. For instance, khokhas (roadside cages), holding chickens for slaughter, are illegal under the Municipal Act. Get them removed in your area. An SPCA and animal hospital/ambulance is mandatory by law. Get it made. All pet shops are now illegal unless they are licensed by the Animal Welfare Board. Get them closed. All bird markets are illegal, no matter which birds they sell. Picket them – as I did the local bird market in Nakhas, Lucknow – and get them closed down. A single girl of ours, Swati Dikshit, has been doing all this in Bhopal and, within two years, the bird markets have reduced substantially and the police are helping her. The birds come in illegally from West Bengal – now the railway authorities are stepping in with her to stop this trade.
Go viral locally. Collect emails of local people all the time. This is your wealth. If a local or national company does something that you know is cruel, get on to your net and Facebook and twitter/instagram, and condemn them to the world. This will get back to them. Use your twitter/facebook/instagram liberally – but not stupidly – so that when you speak people listen. Attack the poultries and slaughterhouses in your area, the state of the government veterinary hospital. Since the government has destroyed the Veterinary Council of India in the last five years, there is no institution of redressal against vets that don’t know their jobs and cheat on medicines, misdiagnose and often kill the animal. (I know one vet who inserted a steel rod inside a pregnant cow’s uterus to get the baby out. Another who gave a dog 11 injections, for a skin problem, and killed it. Both were sacked). Start shaming them on your internet and write to everyone you know in your district. The last thing that companies, institutions, and prominent individuals, who are heavily dependent upon maintaining a positive public image to sell their product, want is bad publicity that often goes viral. Keeping the spotlight on them is an effective approach to reducing animal suffering. But don’t make up stories just because bringing a VIP down makes you feel important.
Donate, donate and donate all the time. The money you get from the Kabari (the person you sell old newspapers to), the money you save from not going to a movie or not eating a snack, a tenth of your income. Give it first to the local people in your area who feed animals. Or, give them food: grains for the birds and rotis for the dogs and cows. They will feel so much better at being supported that they will get more courage to face the wicked people who abuse them daily. Then donate to people who run shelters. We (including People for Animals) are hand to mouth and we worry about money all the time.
Even though you may feel alone, a student living in PG digs in an alien city, you know at least six people and, if you follow these steps, your words can have a ripple effect that bring about change.
Look at how the vegan movement has suddenly spread. In the words of Animals 24-7, “The word ‘vegan’ went within the space of just one generation from being completely unfamiliar to most consumers to becoming one of the most used product descriptions in supermarkets. It was not multi-million-dollar mass media ad campaigns that made plant-based diets fashionable. The food industry, fixated on marketing meat, dairy, and egg products, did not jump on the vegan bandwagon until it was already rolling down the aisles, emptying shelves of vegan food items with nothing more than the momentum of word-of-mouth, friend to friend.”
(To join the animal welfare movement contact email@example.com, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)