In the UAE, individuals found guilty of abusing animals can be jailed for life and/or fined 1 million dirhams. In India, just Rs 50.
Spend half a day at the offices of any animal protection organisation, and you’ll get an idea of the extent of cruelty that animals in India face by the sheer number of calls for rescue and help that come in. Every day, animals face neglect, violence, confinement, and abandonment — right up to maiming, beating, kicking, running over with vehicles, overloading, torture, bestiality, and killing. A 2020 report by the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations showed that of the 2,400+ cases of cruelty against animals studied, every second case was a brutal act of violence.
You would think that cruelty of such magnitude would invite the harshest punishment. After all, causing grievous harm to or killing a human being is punished by the law with long periods of incarceration. Under Section 320 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, if one were found guilty of causing grievous hurt to another human being, the perpetrator on conviction could face imprisonment up to 10 years. However, for a similar offence against an animal, you get away with a fine of Rs 750. In fact, most perpetrators of cruelty against animals are fined just Rs 50!
The reason for this disparity in how we view violence against humans and that against animals lies in the provisions of the six-decade-old law — the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act, 1960. For years now, animal rights activists have been calling for stricter punishments for acts of cruelty against animals and amending the PCA Act.
Constitution asks to act
To the Narendra Modi government’s credit, there have been widespread consultations love the past year on amendments to the Act. But we seem to have again missed the bus, as the amendments were not introduced in the winter 2021 session of Parliament. So, we continue to rely on the 1960 Act, which replaced the colonial one enacted in 1890 but retained the fines and punishment that are ludicrous in current times.
Why are we so apathetic when it comes to protecting the rights of animals?
Especially so, when the Indian Constitution is remarkably clear on the subject. Throwing light on Article 21 of the Constitution, which protects the Right to Life, the Supreme Court has famously held that it does not pertain only to human life. Rather, said the apex court, it “includes all forms of life, including animal life.”
What’s even more encouraging is that the definition of the Right to Life is expansive — going far beyond mere survival. The apex court noted that it meant the right to “lead a life with some intrinsic worth, honour and dignity.” This vindicates our position that the life of animals holds intrinsic worth and value and should not be seen in terms of their usefulness to human beings.
In this context, there is an urgent need to give the PCA Act more teeth by introducing stricter penalties that act as a deterrent. Cruelty to animals should not be just ‘frowned upon’. We need mandatory prison sentences for serious crimes against animals that will act as a deterrent.
The urgency of the moment
The loopholes in the existing law need to be plugged. For instance, what constitutes an act of “gruesome cruelty” against animals must be defined along the lines of Section 320 of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with ‘grievous hurt.’ If we do not specify the exact nature of the act when we use a term like ‘gruesome cruelty’, then we leave the law open to interpretation. This often results in the improper implementation of the law, and the imposition of paltry fines instead of serious jail time. Several countries have recognised the need to bring stronger laws to protect animals and put an end to violence against them. In the UAE, individuals found guilty of abusing animals, illegal hunting, buying, or selling of animals can be jailed for life and/or fined 1 million dirhams.
Alongside the amendment of the PCA Act, there need to be structural changes to ensure that cases of cruelty against animals are recorded, monitored, and followed upon. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) publishes an annual record of crime across states and districts by collating data on violent crimes assault, theft, sexual abuse of women and children, and murders. What would it take to maintain a similar record of the rising crimes against animals? What structures do we need in place to ensure a coordinated effort to track cases of cruelty, hold perpetrators accountable, and provide justice to animals? Could such a coordinated response come from a convergence of government and civil society efforts?
The urgency to act ought to come from the recognition that animals have the right to life with dignity and free from abuse. But even if the creation of such a compassionate society is a (long-term) work in progress, we cannot ignore the danger that perpetrators of cruelty against animals pose to society at large.
Social media is rife with videos showing the cruelties inflicted on animals, thereby provoking people to indulge in copycat crimes for instant gratification in the form of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’. A report by the Social Media Animal Cruelty Coalition (SMACC) states that exposure to animal cruelty has the effect of normalising cruelty, leading to not just reduced empathy but also greater tolerance to aggression. The Ministry of Justice (UK) figures indicate that hundreds of sex offenders and people convicted of violently attacking others were also found to be guilty of animal abuse.
Will this recognition be the tipping point that leads to stricter penalties? So that each time we let an abuser of animals go unchecked, we leave the door open to more crimes, possibly against humans?
Bharati Ramachandran is the CEO of the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO), India’s apex animal rights body. Views are personal.