India’s animal protection community welcomed the recent conviction of Bollywood actor Salman Khan in the 1998 blackbuck killing case, with the high court passing a sentence of five years in prison along with a fine of Rs. 10,000. The verdict sent a clear message, that whether celebrity or commoner, no one was above the law.
It also highlighted an often overlooked fact, that the Wildlife Protection Act is an extremely progressive law. A quick look at the Wildlife Protection Act shines light on the detail and depth with which the law has been written. Even the mere attempt, whether successful or not, to capture, kill or poison a wild animal falls under the offence of hunting. Punishment for offences in the WPA can get you fined for Rs. 25,000 or three years of imprisonment, with the fine going up to six years in cases of repeat offenders.
The strength of the law itself, however, can only get us so far. In reality, cases of conviction under the Wildlife Protection Law are few and far in between, making it similar to most other animal laws that exist in the country.
Take meat shops for example, controlled by over five different laws and advisories: namely, Food Safety and Standards Regulation 2010, Slaughterhouse Rules 2001, Pollution Control norms, Municipal Rules and BIS standards. Yet the meat industry still stands largely unregulated, perpetuating abuses such as child labour, injury and disease among animals and illegal slaughter. Similarly, while many local authorities have banned the setting up of dairies within municipal limits, the growing crowds of cattle lining suburban areas show the callousness and disregard with which these rules are regularly flouted.
Clearly, the law alone is not enough to stop violence against animals. For every progressive piece of legislation that stands to fight for animals in India, there remains a struggle to ensure that violations are reported and perpetrators are brought to task. This mismatch between the existence of good laws and their actual implementation reflects our ability (or lack thereof) to provide effective solutions to the problem of animal rights violations.
As a first step, we must back up existing knowledge with practical know-how to ensure that the law is upheld, not just on paper, but in spirit. This practical ability translates to working collaboratively alongside people, learning to engage with the government and our communities in a healthy way and learning to plan effective local campaigns. It is only through networking, capacity building and grassroots level trainings that we can ensure improved enforcement from the ground up.
Where such an approach has been taken, even such complex problems as those surrounding the meat industry have shown marked improvement. Campaigners in cities like Jaipur and Hyderabad have been quietly campaigning against meat shops by conducting regular inspections and follow-ups, filing complaints, enabling inspections by food safety authorities and municipal corporations, training themselves and recruiting volunteers. This has resulted in many roadside shops being shut down, and many others becoming licensed and regulated.
Achieving such successes requires a shift in the way we campaign. We must move from a reactive, incident-driven way of working to one that ensures persistent, sustainable change in the long run. A practical example of this would be to not only have an effective response protocol in case of a dog bite, but also to enact regular ABC (animal birth control), ARV (anti-rabies vaccination), education and counseling so that the number of such cases falls in the long run.
This means responding to things as they occur, but also creating conditions that will ensure a proactive framework to protect the interests of animals. As advocates for animal rights, passion plays a big role in our fighting for animals. We now need to take all that passion and direct it into organised animal protection work. The animal rights cause still relies too heavily on a small number of passionate but scattered animal lovers, and the need to come together as a united movement has never been stronger. With the growing rate of animal abuse in our country, we simply cannot wait for things to fall into place on their own.
Featured image: blackbucks in Gujarat. Credit Bernard DUPONT, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0