Buru, the dog, has been taken away. According to a Facebook post by the Animal Welfare Club of Dhaka University, this gentle creature was a fixture around the tea stalls at TSC in Dhaka University, largely cared for by the students out of their own pockets. But her status as a stray was enough to get her caught and possibly killed by the dog-catchers of Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC), whose official line is that "removing the dogs" will somehow raise the welfare of the residents. In a culture where dogs are ostracised, vilified and misunderstood, I suppose it mattered not that Buru was sterilised and vaccinated; all that mattered was the Mayor's orders were followed to the T.
The topic of educating the masses about dogs is especially poignant now with the beginning of the relocation of 30,000 dogs by DSCC from areas such as Dhanmondi, Nagar Bhaban, etc. to the Matuail landfill. Citing incidents of "large rabies cases" (there were 2,000 rabies-related deaths in 2010, with the numbers falling drastically by 2015), and to "increase the comfort of residents" in the selected areas, DSCC Mayor Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh has already directed the transfer of 15 dogs to Matuail. Before we delve into the absurdity of DSCC's actions, let us review what the law states, what the opinions of the animal welfare organisations are, and how effective the relocation plan can be.
In 2019, Bangladesh parliament passed the Animal Welfare Bill 2019, with significantly stricter penalties for cruelty to animals compared to the previous colonial-era Cruelty to Animals Act, 1920. Section 7 of the Act specifically disallows the killing or removal of stray animals unless they are proven to be causing harm. Despite such an explicit law, why would the Mayor's office show such defiance against the government's policies?
The answer is less interesting than you would think. Turns out, the DSCC was not aware of the entirety of the Animal Welfare Act. When interviewed, SM Shafiqul Islam, a veterinary officer of DSCC, stated that, "I'm only aware that dog culling is not allowed; we are not culling any dogs." It gets even worse. With the dog relocation programme starting afresh on Tuesday, the Mayor's office was contacted for a statement. While the Mayor refused to speak on the matter, his personal secretary said, "The clause of Animal Welfare Act that prohibits relocation of animals applies to persons or organisations, but as per the Local Government Act 2009, city corporations can relocate or even cull them."
The Mayor's little bubble is likely to burst when he finds out that clauses in recent laws (in this case, the Animal Welfare Act of 2019) always override the old laws and that city corporations do not have separate jurisdiction. As such, they cannot just "remove" dogs at will. The DSCC now has a responsibility to come up with some really nifty answers as to their decision to break government laws.
I would suggest a period of intense self-reflection for DSCC, with the hope that they realise that they exist not only to serve the people but also the animals who reside in their neighbourhoods. As such, the responsibility to control the numbers and ensure the welfare of the stray dogs falls squarely on their shoulder. Fortunately, animal welfare organisations such as Care for Paws, Obhoyaronno, Stella, PAW Foundation, We Are Nature, and others have been on the forefront of providing vaccination and sterilisation for dogs. They were also the ones who decided to protest against these unlawful activities.
The protest against DSCC showed a united front amongst the animal welfare organisations who formed a human chain in front of the Nagar Bhaban at DSCC in August, with placards saying: "Eliminate rabies not dogs", "Shame on DSCC" and "Dhaka dogs belong to Dhaka".
Along with placards, these organisations also shelled out hard facts regarding the state of the vaccination and sterilisation programme in Bangladesh. PAW Foundation Chairman, Rakibul Haq Emil, pointed out that the government has a comprehensive vaccination programme in place for dogs which has vaccinated 70 percent of the dogs in Dhaka. The Health and Family Welfare Ministry's Communicable Diseases Control (CDC) department conducted three rounds of the vaccination programme for dogs with the help of Dhaka North and South City Corporations, World Health Organization (WHO), and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Obhoyaronno founder, Rubaiya Ahmad, has consistently spoken about the unlawfulness of the actions taken by DSCC and promoted community-led activities which would eliminate the need for such hard action. The organisation's Facebook page recently shared the activities of the CNVR (Catch-Neuter-Vaccinate-Release) Programme undertaken by Mirpur DOHS Animal Welfare Society, which aims to sterilise 55 dogs in a week and is largely funded by donations.
More importantly, the organisations pointed out the problems that will surely arise when these dogs are moved to another area. Matuail landfill has a local population of poverty-stricken recyclers who spend their lives working at the garbage dumps. Now insert into that mix a population of 30,000 confused and scared stray dogs, crammed into a smaller space and fighting each other over the new territory. Is the Mayor's office suggesting that the "comfort" of deprived residents in this part of the city is not worth considering?
Animal welfare organisations have worked consistently with Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) to harmonise the relationship between stray animals and humans. A record number of 3,500 dogs have been vaccinated and sterilised in DNCC alone, and Mayor Atiqul Islam is a staunch advocate for animal wellbeing. Perhaps, DSCC can take a leaf out of their colleagues' book and rope in the local community and animal organisations to help with the stray population, rather than going against an already established law.
Finally, the DSCC has to stop sticking its head under the sand and just accept what experts have been saying for a long time, that relocation is a temporary, cruel and inefficient solution. Regarding the relocation, the DSCC's SM Shafiqul Islam himself said,"I don't think it will work. Even if dogs are kept away from localities, we suspect they will return in a few days." This statement very aptly captures the ineptness of the DSCC. Even they realise that taking a hard line against street dogs will not pay off for them, so why not adopt more feasible, long-term solutions?
For starters, the DSCC can cooperate with animal welfare organisations and invest in programmes that will reduce the number of street dogs by encouraging the local community to chip in for vaccination and sterilisation efforts. According to Dr Sanya Tahmina, CDC Line Director, the government had already successfully reduced rabies-related deaths by 90 percent in 2015. Imagine what more can be done with the combined efforts of the community and the government.
Across Dhaka, you will find plenty of stories of local communities caring for their dogs, like the DU students who looked after Buru. A huge number of street dogs survive on the kindness of ordinary citizens who feed them scraps from tea stalls and "hotels" on the streets. Even if the Mayor is not an animal lover, plenty of his constituents are, and perhaps he might take a lesson in humanity from them. Dogs are intelligent and loyal creatures for whom Dhaka is as much of a home as it is to us humans. To so callously remove them from their homes does not just reveal the inefficiency of the DSCC and its inability to formulate long-term plans for this city; it is also an act that lacks any shred of empathy and kindness.
Nasirra Ahsan is a private sector development consultant with the World Bank.