In India, being cruel to animals is a crime, but not one that the law seems to take too seriously. A person could kick a cat, mutilate stray dogs, whip a horse or even starve their own pet, but if found guilty, they’d get off with paying a fine as little as Rs 10 or as much as Rs 50. These penalties of Rs 10-50 were determined when the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act was formed in 1960, and the figures have not changed in the 56 years since then.

Now, a group of animal welfare organisations and activists are on their way to ensure that the law is amended so that harsher punishments are imposed on those who harm animals.

On May 12, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a public interest litigation by Angel Trust, a non-profit organisation working for animal welfare, that seeks more stringent penalties for crimes against animals. Meanwhile, the India chapter of Humane Society International has also enlisted Member of Parliament Poonam Mahajan to introduce a private member’s bill in the Lok Sabha to suitably amend the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. The bill is scheduled to be proposed in the next parliamentary session.

In the third aspect of this campaign, Humane Society and People for Animals launched an online campaign called #NoMore50 on May 13, urging animal lovers across India to demand penalties harsher than Rs 50 for being cruel to animals.

“We are hoping that a multi-pronged approach that involves the legislature, the judiciary and social media will give momentum to this movement for stricter laws,” said Nuggehalli Jayasimha, the managing director of Humane Society International/India.

Ineffectual penalties

Under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, a person who performs any act of cruelty towards animals, pets or strays, can be fined a minimum of Rs 10 and a maximum of Rs 50 for a first-time offence. For a repeat offence, the penalty is a fine of Rs 25 or Rs 100 and/or imprisonment for a maximum of three months. Based on this, sections 428 and 429 of the Indian Penal Code provide for punishment in the form of jail-time for those who maim, kill or poison animals: for animals “of the value of ten rupees or upwards”, prison term may extend to two years, while for animals “of the value of fifty rupees or upwards” – including horses, cattle, elephants and camels – prison term may extend to five years.

Those working in the field of animal welfare claim that such punishments are completely pointless and ineffectual because prison sentences are rarely meted out and the fines imposed are paltry.

At Mumbai’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for instance, a team of “animal inspectors” regularly attend court hearings dealing with animal cruelty cases, and watch perpetrators walk away with almost no consequences and barely a dent in their wallets.

“In Mumbai we see at least 250-300 cases of animal cruelty in a month, but in my 14 years in this field, I have seen the courts award imprisonment just once,” said SB Kadam, assistant secretary of the SPCA. “It was a case of a man mistreating a bullock, and his prison sentence was for just three days.”

According to Jayasimha, when people accused of committing cruelty to animals are brought to court, they plead guilty 90% of the time. “Then they just pay Rs 50 and leave, because that amount means nothing to them,” he said.

‘People think they can get away with it’

In 2014, in its judgement banning the bull-fighting tradition of jallikattu in Tamil Nadu, the Supreme Court had mentioned that penal provisions for cruelty to animals needed to be increased. In response, the union government’s Animal Welfare Board of India submitted in Parliament a fresh Animal Welfare Bill, intended to replace the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. “[Environment minister] Prakash Javadekar heard us but did not accept the bill we proposed,” said Jayasimha, who is also a member of the Animal Welfare Board of India.

Last month, when the Uttarakhand Police’s horse Shaktiman died of injuries inflicted by BJP legislator Ganesh Joshi, Jayasimha and other animal rights activists decided to push for at least an amendment to the existing Act to ensure that harsher punishments are imposed for cruelty.

“We are merely asking for a correction of the Rs 10-50 fine based on the current value of the Rupee after adjusting for inflation,” said Jayasimha. “We approached Poonam Mahajan to bring in a private member’s bill because she truly cares about animals. And the Angel Trust approached lawyer Prashant Bhushan to file a PIL in the Supreme Court.”

Jayasimha believes the fine for cruelty to animals could be anything from Rs 2,000 to Rs 10,000, but it ought to be something more realistic. In Mumbai, SB Kadam claims a fine between Rs 1,000 and Rs 3,000 might suffice.

Meanwhile, Geeta Seshamani, co-founder of Delhi-based animal welfare organisation Friendicoes, believes that fines should be high enough to hurt – and for those who have the capacity to pay, they could be as high as Rs 30,000.

“The forms of cruelty that we see towards animals are alarming, and reflect the kind of latent violence we harbour in society,” said Seshamani, who has seen numerous cases involving people throwing acid on stray dogs or owners leaving their pets tied up in balconies, without food, for days at a stretch. “People are not afraid to be cruel because they think they can get away with it. This is why we need stronger punishments.”