On Monday, while mentioning a case regarding stray dogs in Kerala, an advocate quipped before the Supreme Court the state had become “dogs’ own country” instead of “god’s own country”.

It is not just Kerala. According to official estimates from 2019, there are 1.5 crore stray dogs in India. Some independent studies estimate that the number is as high as 6.2 crores.

To manage the population of strays, the Central government in 2001 passed the Animal Birth Control (Dogs) Rules. It aimed to reduce the population of stray dogs by sterilisation with the support of animal welfare organisations, local authorities and individuals.

However, these proposals were not implemented in full. The lack of coordination between various authorities and budgetary constraints were cited as bottlenecks. Moreover, the rules did not talk about feeding strays – a frequent point of conflict in urban India.

To fill these gaps, on July 31, the Centre released the draft Animal Birth Control Rules, 2022. These rules have detailed guidelines for monitoring these dog welfare programmes at various levels. They also aim to reduce human-animal conflict by specifying how dogs are to be fed and how disputes regarding dog bites must be resolved.

Most experts welcome the new rules, hoping that they would ensure better animal rights as well as reduce the casualties India sees as a result of stray dog attacks.

Indian dog catching squads from the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation try to catch a stray dog in Hyderabad. Credit: Noah Seelam/AFP

The old law

Under the 2001 rules, the Animal Welfare Board of India worked with local authorities (such as municipal corporations or district boards) and animal welfare organisations to carry out animal birth control. This involved neutering dogs, vaccinating them for rabies and, in rare instances, euthanising them.

However, there arose demands for the 2001 rules to be updated to reflect newer conditions. “In 2001, our understanding of animal birth control was based on resources and experience available back then,” said Gauri Maulekhi, trustee of animal welfare organisation People for Animals and a member of animal birth control monitoring committees in several states. “A lot of development in the processes has taken place in the past two decades which needed to reflect in the law.”

The rules were vaguely drafted and did not have any mechanism for monitoring animal control. This was especially important because while the Centre was making the rules, it was the local authorities which acted as the implementation agency.

To fill in the gaps, the Supreme Court had issues guidelines about involving different agencies to implement the rules better. “These directions, along with other suggestions, have been incorporated into the new rules,” she said.

More compliance

One of the biggest changes the new rules bring about are more extensive monitoring and compliance requirements for carrying out animal birth control programmes. Earlier, any organisation that was recognised by the Animal Welfare Board of India could carry out animal birth control, even if they were not trained in doing so.

“Earlier, when Delhi veterinarians retired, they quickly floated an NGO and were awarded a tender to start an ABC [animal birth control] unit by their colleagues still in service,” explained Sonya Ghosh, founder and trustee of Delhi-based organisation Citizens for the Welfare and Protection of Animals. “Following this, they would hire, at a low price, a vet with hardly any operating experience to carry out sterilisations. This became a source of easy income for them.”

But once the new rules come into force, organisations will also require a recognition certificate for each project from the the Animal Welfare Board. Even local authorities need to meet these criteria. To obtain the certification, the organisation must deploy experienced veterinarians as well as have CCTV cameras, incinerators and other infrastructure as specified in the new rules. “Now organisations will be monitored at every step,” Ghosh added.

She also explained that under the new rules, animal birth control will geographically segmented. Under the rules, 70% of dogs in a specified area must be sterilised before a new area is taken up. “This was not happening till now and dogs kept on reproducing,” Ghosh said.

Further, the 2022 rules have detailed instructions on the conditions in which animals are to be kept during sterilisation, such as specifying the size and design of kennels.

New committees

The lack of coordination between the Centre, states, local authorities and other stakeholders was cited as a major hurdle in controlling the dog population. Earlier, there was only a local-level monitoring committee for animal birth control. Now there are also state-level and central-level committees.

A four-member organ inspection team will now monitor organs removed from dogs. “Earlier, there was scope for corrupt practices whereby organs, based on the count of which payments are made, were being recycled,” Maulekhi said. This defeated the project’s purpose. “This was being done by individuals who opted for ABC tenders with a profit motive, rather than charitable organisations.”

But the new rules prescribe that organs should be destroyed after inspection. There would also be requirements for organisations and monitoring committees to maintain detailed records of procedures carried out.

“These rules are much more comprehensive and clear on responsibilities,” said Sirjana Nijjar, senior manager at the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations. “This will make bodies more accountable, which was lacking earlier.”

A stray dog captured by Indian employees of New Delhi Municipal Corporation sits in a cage in a van during a sterilisation and anti-rabies vaccination operation in New Delhi. Credit: Prakash Singh/AFP

While these compliance mechanisms are important, they may prove to be a hassle for smaller organisations and local authorities. “For instance, getting all people together while counting organs might be impractical,” said Abodh Aras, chief executive officer of The Welfare of Stray Dogs. But he believed that these requirements would add to the transparency of the programmes.

Resolving conflicts

A major change introduced by the new rules is that resident welfare associations and apartment owner associations must designate an area and time for feeding stray animals. There will now have designated feeders as well, who can also volunteer to assist with animal birth control programmes. The rules also have a process for resolving conflicts related to animal feeding.

“In many RWAs and AoAs [apartment-owners associations], feeding of dogs is a big issue,” said Anjali Gopalan, board member of the Animal Welfare Board of India and one of the experts consulted while the new rules were being drafted. “Dog feeders are often looked at as part of the problem regarding stray dogs but the rules look at them as part of the solution.”

In July 2021, the Delhi High Court had laid down similar guidelines for feeding dogs. “Using that, we implemented a five-step process through a stray buddy programme, looking at the overall care of dogs as well as residents,” said Sarika Jain, a caregiver and resident welfare association member from New Delhi. “This had a positive impact in our area, leading to more awareness amongst the residents about harmonious coexistence, and also keeping the dogs’ population in check.”

The new rules also focus on resolving animal-human conflicts, such as dog bites and the spread of rabies. This is a major issue in India, with around 17 lakh dog bites a year and 20,000 rabies deaths, the highest in the world. Most of the dead are children.

Now, the new rules say that local authorities may designate a helpline number for dog bites or rabid dogs. Either the organisation responsible for birth control programmes or a veterinary officer deployed by local authorities will be responsible for recording and resolving these complaints. They will have to follow the procedure – of contacting a government hospital, capturing the dog, and so on – as set out in the rules.

Introduction of stray cats

While the old rules only focused on dogs, the 2022 rules also include provisions to sterilise stray cats. “The street dog population is going down,” said Aras. A 2019 Lok Sabha answer noted that the population of dogs declined from 1.7 crores to 1.5 crores in seven years. “Therefore, you have a cat population that is more visible on the streets and there is a need for their sterilisation also”.

While the efficacy of the new rules will be tested after implementation, experts are hopeful that it would result in better animal birth control. “It will be easier to follow up on the implementation of birth control programmes,” said Ghosh. “Right-to-information petitions can throw up material which can then be used to make them [the authorities] act.”