It Happens

Fighting for Dogs and Cats

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In a battle between housing associations and pet owners, the Animal Welfare Board of India arms the latter with legalese
As the country embraces community living and residences grow vertically, the right to own a pet is becoming an increasingly contentious issue between resident welfare association members and animal lovers. Whether it is Mumbai, Gurgaon, Lucknow, Hyderabad, Kochi or Bangalore, the story is the same—people plot to get rid of neighbours with pets. “It’s fast turning into an urban nightmare dividing people into two categories: either for or against pets,’’ says Vaishali Mehta, an advertising professional in Bangalore who has had some experience of it.

Mehta bought a pair of cats after she rented a flat in an apartment complex; she soon found all her neighbours turning hostile. “They forced my landlord not to renew my lease. I had to shift to a new apartment three months ago. Here, they are okay with cats, but they have a problem with dogs,” she says.

On 20 February, animal lovers like Mehta found some much needed support from the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI). The government body issued a circular asking resident welfare associations of apartment complexes, housing societies and gated communities not to harass or intimidate pet owners. In the circular, the board chairman, Maj Gen (retd) Dr RM Kharb has asked associations not to impose unreasonable restrictions on pet owners, especially dog lovers, by either banning pets, allowing only smaller breeds, restraining pets from using lifts or imposing fines for littering. He has stressed that all such arbitrary measures are unlawful and against court rulings.

Sudha Narayanan, a trustee with CARE, an animal welfare NGO, says this is the first time that the welfare board has taken a stand on domestic pets. “It’s really a shot in the arm for us NGOs. We keep getting fobbed off by aggressive associations. Now, this circular has given us strength as it is binding on those who try to intimidate pet owners,” she said.

The AWABI is headquartered in Chennai, and functions under the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. Its circular comes in the wake of various courts ruling that keeping pets is a right for all Indians. Kharb says that even if there is consensus and bye-laws are amended, bans on pets cannot be imposed as they are illegal and do not have the sanction of law. ‘In fact, by limiting or banning pets, you are interfering with the fundamental freedom guaranteed to the citizens of India that includes the right to live with or without companion animals,’ the circular notes.

It goes on to say that there are ‘court rulings that pets cannot be disallowed the use of lift nor special charges be imposed for its use. You can request pet owners to put them on leash while walking though common areas but cannot insist on muzzles. The law already provides for penalties on negligent owners, which aggrieved parties can avail of.’

The AWBI has also advised the public at large that they can’t interfere if owners take the pets out of the house into common spaces for their morning constitutional. ‘If the residents are not violating municipal laws, you cannot object... Please remember, you do not have the right to legislate and lay down law for owners or even tenants.’ Such associations cannot even insist that owners clean up after their pets defecate or impose fines on them. They can only request them. ‘Pet owners cannot be intimidated into giving up their pets, such an action is an offence in law,’ ends the circular.

Pet owners who have faced harassment have welcomed the AWBI’s intervention. Like this Bangalore couple who owns a labrador. They say that it is a daily battle for them out there. “Every second day, the neighbours in our complex send the watchman or their maid to our door complaining that our dog had trampled on a garden patch or peed on a washed car. They are pressuring us to leave, though we have informed the residents association about a court ruling in which one lady won a case to keep her dog in an apartment,’’ says the wife. They are hoping that the AWBI circular will put matters to rest in their surly neighbourhood.