In an important move, the ministry of environment and forests recently put an end to the inhuman practice of animal dissection. This will stop the suffering of animals and those who subject animals to this torture. The decision reflects an increasing institutional understanding in addressing the rights of animals.
But wait. Pause to reflect on our everyday practices, and how little space - physical and conceptual - we allow for living creatures other than ourselves in urban India. Think of street dogs. While a few people feed, vaccinate and take care for them, most of us try to banish them altogether. While some complain about their fierceness and propensity to bite, others are more worried about their barking and howling as it disturbs their sleep at night. But the point is how else do dogs live their dogged life? They are instinctively territorial, which makes them good guard dogs, and could be moody, given their harsh lives. Should we not tolerate this as we do with our unsociable family members? And should we not recognise that they offer us protection, company; and happen to be cohabitants of our cities?
If dogs are an easy example, consider trees. Most public work departments still cement the roads and sidewalks right up to the tree trunks. This reduces their lifespan. The civic agencies don't care. But what are we doing as citizens? Hardly anyone goes out to remove this cement or complain against this as a community. But take away a sliver of paved roadway, and outrage explodes.
You could say the same about birds. Urban India scarcely acknowledges our avian cohabitants. Contemporary architecture and landscaping ignore their needs in its design - which is why sparrows no longer find the ledges and niches they need to breed. There are few bird boxes and nests available as compensation, if any.
Despite the active presence of those who care for animals in particular and living creatures in general, for a host of reasons (from modern environmentalism to religion), the gap between how urban India really interacts with other living creatures and the progressive view of the courts is huge. Learning to exist with other living creatures is not that hard. But in cities, living creatures are seen to come in our way, because we live as colonisers. Not only do we acquire land for our own needs, but we also control as much space as possible and stamp out anything that causes us inconvenience.
India is rapidly urbanising. This will reduce the habitat for many smaller creatures and birds. Our urban history shows us that we have destroyed the forest patches where jackals, foxes and hare once lived.
The ministry's decision must run deep into our urban fabric through fundamental shifts in self-perception and activism for communities that are flexible and able to share space with others. Most importantly, the dominant discourse must stop colonising urban spaces and getting rid of indigenous life with such disgust.
(Bharati Chaturvedi is director, Chintan Environment Research and Action Group. The views expressed by the author are personal.)