It’s like a bad record playing on loop.

Around a year after the previous United Democratic Front government had seemingly sanctioned the culling of dogs in Kerala, media reports on August 23 quoted a Left Democratic Front minister saying that the government has directed the local bodies to kill violent stray dogs. The comment came three days after a 65-year-old woman died after being mauled by stray dogs on a beach in Thiruvananthapuram.

As was the case last year, this was followed by reports about the purported stray dog menace in the state, as well as an outcry by activists over fears that canines would be killed in the name of bringing their population under control.

In a letter to Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan on August 24 said killing of stray dogs will be a violation of previous court orders on the subject. Meanwhile, animal activists moved the apex court alleging that Kerala had decided to cull stray dogs.

The chief minister retorted with an open letter to Bhushan, in which he said that the lawyer had been “carried away by misleading reports” and that his government had, in fact, decided to set up "sterilisation camps for ferocious dogs".

Within the state, this has reignited the debate over the failure of successive governments to keep a check on the stray dogs, which reportedly number 2.5 lakh.

What the rules say

In 2001, the government of India had issued the Animal Birth Control (Dogs) Rules, under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. The rules state that local authorities should work with animal welfare organisations to implement a sterilisation programme, known as the ABC (for Animal Birth Control) Programme. The rules said stray dogs, after being sterilised and vaccinated, should be released back into the area from which they were brought.

Animal activists said that this has not been followed by the state. “We have been trying to get the state government to implement the ABC programme for the past 15 years, but there is a lack of political will and administrative will,” said RM Kharb, chairman of Animal Welfare Board of India, a statutory advisory body set up by the central government for the safeguard and promotion of animal welfare laws.

Kharb said that many politicians, bureaucrats and even the public at large seems to think that killing stray dogs is the only way to tackle such a menace. “They just refuse to accept the feasibility of the programme and believe that killing stray dogs is the only way to tackle the menace,” he said. “We have also tried conducting awareness programmes across Kerala to make people more sensitive about the issue. When it comes to stray dogs, it has been observed that there is general lack of compassion in state and it is on a rise.”

This is not the first time that the stray dog problem in Kerala has come into focus. Earlier this month, a Supreme Court-appointed panel said that more than one lakh people had been attacked by stray dogs in the state in 2015-'16. Despite this, the government is yet to adopt a statewide, systematic and non-violent approach to bringing the canine population under control, animal activists said.

In July last year, Oommen Chandy, who was then the chief minister, said rabid and dangerous dogs would be killed to tackle the growing stray-dog problem in the state. Animal activists decried the move and said that the government should have followed existing legislation in this regard. There was nationwide outrage and online campaigns urging people to “boycott Kerala” over reports of widespread culling of dogs.

Mass culling of stray dogs, in fact, has a long history in India. In 1860, the Madras Corporation (the civic body is now called the Greater Chennai Corporation) adopted a “catch-and-kill” programme for stray dogs, which was later authorised by The Madras City Municipal Corporation Act of 1919, said S Chinny Krishna, vice-chairman of the Animal Welfare Board of India.

In 1964, Blue Cross of India, animal welfare charity that operates out of Chennai, worked out a more humane way to deal with the state’s rising stray dog population – by catching and neutering them and giving them anti-rabies vaccination.

In 1995-'96, the corporation of Madras agreed to try out Blue Cross’ ABC-AR (Animal Birth Control – Anti Rabies) programme. Chennai and later, Jaipur, became the first two cities to adopt the programme, which reportedly brought cases of dog bites and rabies down significantly, Krishna said. The World Health Organisation has also repeatedly advocated humane ways like the Animal Birth Control-Anti Rabies programme to bring the stray dog population under control.

RM Kharb added that in later years, Jodhpur, Chennai, Sikkim, Ooty and Kalimpong, implemented the ABC programme, which proved to be highly effective in bringing down dog bites. Kerala, then, has a lot of examples to learn from.

As easy as ABC?

In 2001, the central government legitimised the programme through the Animal Birth Control (Dogs) Rules, to be implemented by states independently, by joining hands with non-government organisations or taking the help of local bodies.

Under the ABC programme, a dog handler is entrusted with catching canines, chalking out a zone-wise plan and identifying centres where stray dogs will be sterilised, then vaccinated and later releasing to the same location from where they were picked up, said Dawn William, general manager of Blue Cross of India.

Stressing the importance of ensuring dogs are released back to their original territories, he said: “If sterilised and immunised dogs are released at a different spot, new dogs will settle in their earlier territory and be more aggressive to locals, [as they are] unfamiliar with them, in the area. Also, the sterilised dog, if sent elsewhere, will either be killed by other dogs there or it shall become too aggressive out of self-defence.”

For it to be effective, there has to be a coordinated effort to sterilise stray dogs across the city, said Abhinav Srihan, an honorary welfare officer for Animal Welfare Board of India in Delhi who founded an animal welfare NGO called Fauna Police. “The corporations in all zones of the city have to work together and for successful implementation, at least 70% of the dogs in an area should be sterilized and vaccinated,” Srihan said.

William and Srihan emphasised the need for transparency in the process and audit of the funds spent by states on sterilisation initiatives.

“Kerala has very high number of street dogs because of the huge quantity of discarded waste from restaurants, hotels and slaughterhouses, which street dogs feed on,” said Krishna. “So there should be a mechanism to deal with this, as the availability of food is directly proportional to the number of stray dogs in an area.”

Does implementing such a programme require a lot of time and expertise?

“Not much,” said William. “The question is: why had Kerala not developed a mechanism to deal with the issue in these many years? They can still consult experts from other states that have successfully implemented ABC.”