Activist Vikash Chandra was tired of fishing out human bodies and rotting animal carcasses from the Ganga in the eastern Indian state of Bihar. After months of relentless labour, he realised that the problem stemmed from the fact that there was no way to dispose of animal carcasses in the state or the entire country.
“I decided to approach the court to seek a legal solution to the problem,” he said. This is how he began his decade long battle, which included 30 legal proceedings, to remove dead bodies from the Ganga.
Among the various suits he filed were those under the “contempt of court” category, as the government authorities ignored the court’s orders to dispose of dead bodies in an environmentally friendly way. One plea asked for the resumption of three defunct sewage treatment plants that debouched in the Ganga.
The death of vultures
Behind Chandra’s long campaign lay another reality: the sudden death of the vast majority of vultures in South Asia. “We are paying the cost of the near extinction of vultures,” said Asad Rahmani, the former director of Bombay Natural History Society. "For centuries, these raptors scavenged carcasses within a few hours."
The International Union for Conservation of Nature has placed vultures under the critically endangered category, observing that, “The White-Rumped Vulture has suffered a population decline of more than 99.9% in just 15 years. The Indian and Slender-billed vulture populations dropped by 97% in the same duration from 1992 to 2007.”
Vultures played an important role in states like Bihar by consuming carcasses before they raised a stink. But since 1994, when diclofenac was introduced as an anti-inflammatory medicine for animals, the vulture population went into a steep decline.
The deadly diclofenac
“Vultures suffer renal failure after consuming flesh of animals that were administered diclofenac,” Rahmani said. The use of diclofenac nearly wiped out the vulture population in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, and India banned the drug for use in animals. But a number of veterinarians merely found a way around the ban, by diverting the drug supplied for humans to use on animals. While the government has tightened regulations since then, India is still not dicoflenac-free, and thus a danger to vultures.
As vultures declined, other scavengers stepped in. In 2004, a study by environmental economist Anil Markandaya revealed that the decline in the vulture population led to a huge increase in the stray dog population, which went from 18 million in 1987 to 25.5 million in 1997. With this spurt came rabies, particularly in rural areas. A report on rabies shows that 91% of rabies deaths were reported from rural areas, nearly 50% of the victims were children below the age of 15.
Today there is some hope. Breeding centres have been established to save vultures from extinction in Haryana, Assam, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh.
“Vulture breeding is successful but we have not released them in the wild,” Rahmani said. Until the diclofenac content in animal carcasses is completely negative, there is little point in letting the vultures out to die.
The “electric vulture”
This means that the natural solution – vultures – for disposing of carcasses along the Ganga will not be available anytime soon. Chandra and his volunteers carried out a survey and found that around 300 carcasses and corpses are dumped in the Ganga every day in Bihar, and submitted their findings to the court. The answer has been the “electric vulture”, or more prosaically, the establishment of an electric crematorium to dispose of the bodies.
On March 19, the Bihar government inaugurated north India’s first, and the country’s fourth, electric crematorium for animals in state capital Patna. It has been built at the cost of Rs 30.6 million ($460,000), and has the capacity to cremate 18 animals in one go. The court also ordered the government to start mass awareness campaigns and ensure transportation of carcasses to the crematorium. For the first three years, the municipality will provide free transportation for carcasses to the crematorium. After three years, Rs 200-250 ($3.00-3.75) will be charged.
An imperfect solution
It is only a partial success. Arvind Mishra, the Bihar based member of International Union for Conservation of Nature, feels that electric crematoriums for animals can be a good idea for urban centres but are not feasible for poor farmers in states like Bihar, where cattle population is high. “While vultures have a natural instinct to detect a carcass, crematoriums will only add to our carbon footprint. Also, farmers would find it expensive to pay money to transport their dead cattle to a crematorium,” he said.
A further problem is that, as vultures disappeared, local communities have changed their ways of disposing carcasses. Satya Prakash, the state coordinator for Indian Bird Conservation Network in Jharkhand, said that earlier farmers would hand over the dead cattle to skinners. The skinner, after removing the hide would dump the carcass at a designated location. “In states like Bihar, traditionally the carcasses [of animals] are dumped a few metres away from the cremation ground or samsaan ghats [which are used for humans],” he explains.
This has now changed. “Now, carcasses are either buried or thrown at various locations,” Prakash said. He fears that even if diclofenac use stops, vultures would find it difficult to find carcasses. Electric crematoriums would add to a food crisis for the raptors. It seems that the travails of the vulture will not end, even if humans find a way to live without it, with their “electric vultures”.
This article first appeared on The Third Pole.