SRINAGAR, Indian-controlled Kashmir - Months after a 6-year-old child was hospitalized in an attack by stray dogs in a housing complex near Mumbai, more than 80 dogs still roam the community's compound, regularly attacking other residents.
Yet community leaders say they are powerless to deal with the problem because of an animal welfare law, first enacted in 2001 and updated this year, which protects the right of the dogs to roam freely and even requires that they be fed on the streets where they live. It also prohibits euthanization.
'Neither concerned agencies are doing anything, nor can we do anything because of the [Animal Birth Control] policy,' said Nagendra Rampuria, a member of the managing committee at the gated housing society in Pune, 110 kilometers southeast of Mumbai.
'These dog bites are making a mark upon the collective consciousness of India,' he told VOA in an interview.
Similar incidents take place regularly across India, where an average of 5,739 dog bites are reported every day. A group called End Pet Homelessness has calculated that India has more than 60 million stray dogs, with 77% of the population saying they see a stray dog at least once a week.
According to estimates by the World Health Organization, India accounts for 36% of the world's rabies deaths in humans, with 30% to 60% of the cases involving children under 15, who are less able to defend themselves against aggressive dogs.
A medic shows a vial containing a dose of rabies vaccine in Jammu and Kashmir, India. (Wasim Nabi/VOA)
Abdul Hamid Dar, the in-charge medical officer at an anti-rabies clinic in Srinagar, told VOA that his clinic treated 700 cases of animal bites in April and 300 cases the month before.
'Last year, we received around 6,000 cases of animal bites, and before that year, we reported around 5,000 cases. We are witnessing a drastic increase in dog bite cases. Every age group, from children to adults, are victims of dogs because everybody is exposed to them from morning to evening. The reason is, dog and human interaction has increased,' Dar said.
The Animal Birth Control, or ABC policy, was enacted with the best intentions, aimed at ending a practice of mass culling of stray dogs that had prevailed since colonial times, sometimes involving clubbing, poisoning or electrocution, according to animal welfare groups.
The 2001 ABC policy as interpreted by the courts declared that the strays cannot be relocated, must not face cruelty and must be cared for. Under revisions promulgated in April, the strays must be caught, vaccinated, neutered and released back where they were originally captured.
Workers capture stray dogs in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, India. (Wasim Nabi/VOA)
The 2023 rules also 'ask residents' welfare associations to care for stray dogs and feed them away from the children and the elderly, at fixed intervals,' according to The Hindu newspaper.
Meghna Uniyal, director of the Humane Foundation for People and Animals based in Gurgaon, Haryana, challenges the underlying premise of the new legislation, arguing that sterilization increases aggression in male dogs and is only recommended for pets.
She also questions the wisdom of feeding stray dogs on the streets and in public places, blaming the practice for a spurt of fatal attacks on citizens.
'The policy requires packs of stray dogs to be maintained and fed in the same places, even if and where they have killed citizens,' she told VOA. 'The ABC policy prohibits the euthanasia of even rabid dogs.'
Uniyal cited several instances this year of citizens, including children, being fatally mauled by packs of stray dogs that were being maintained and fed in public places. These included a 7-month-old infant inside a residential compound in Noida, a child inside a hospital in Rajasthan, and a doctor inside the campus of Aligarh Muslim University in Aligarh.
Stray dogs roaming at the famous Mughal garden in Jammu and Kashmir, India. (Wasim Nabi/VOA)
She urged a return to federal and state laws dating from the 1960s, similar to those in most developed countries, that require dogs to be kept under human supervision and control; provide for the removal and euthanasia of stray dogs; and follow other World Health Organization guidelines.
'There should be mandatory licensing, registration and vaccination of pets and offering low-cost pet sterilization,' she added.
Despite the frequent dog attacks, some animal welfare organizations continue to defend the new ABC policy, arguing that sterilization of stray dogs can significantly decrease canine attacks.
'Dogs bite when they are taken away from their original place,' animal rights activist Maneka Gandhi said during a media address last week in Srinagar. 'If we stop relocating them from one place to another and use sterilization methods, their population can be contained, and they won't bite.'
But Abi T. Vanak, director of the Centre for Policy Design in Bangalore, argued that the existing policy does not benefit the dogs themselves. The center is part of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment.
'They live miserable lives on the streets where they are subject to cruelty, suffer from diseases and cause accidents,' he told VOA.