Dogs, Mosquitoes and Cities
R Arun Kumar
THE activists attending a workshop on urban issues organised in Visakhapatnam, repeatedly stated that dogs and mosquitoes are a major menace in their city. In fact, some of them stated that this menace is THE problem faced by people residing in their respective localities. More or less at a similar time, the Kerala government had approached the Supreme Court stating that the compensation for dog bite victims, decided by the committee appointed by the Court (which in some cases is as high as Rs 20 lakhs) ‘as extremely high’ and needs to be revisited. What made the Supreme Court appoint a ‘committee to enquire about dog bites’ and why had dogs and mosquitoes become such a huge menace?
According to some estimates, India is home to about 3 crore stray dogs, which amounts to 1 stray dog per 42 people in the country. Some say that there are more stray dogs in India than in any other country. An estimated 20,000 people die each year from rabies infections in India, accounting for 36 per cent of worldwide rabies deaths. No other country has more annual rabies deaths. In Delhi, for every six minutes, one person is bitten by a dog, it seems!
The most important of all the reasons for such a huge number of dogs breeding in Indian cities is open garbage. Stray dogs are scavengers, so they rely on garbage on the street as a source of food. In spite of all the talk of ‘Swachh Bharat’, the government does precious little for eliminating garbage and keeping the cities clean. Second, the government does very little to control the growth of stray dog population, which also contributes to the rapid increase in their numbers. Eliminating of garbage and control of dogs by spaying and neutering them requires lots of resources and man-power, on which the government does not want to invest. As a result, the dog population increases very rapidly, which leads to the human-animal conflict, reflected either in the increasing incidence of dog bites or in reports about the cruelty meted out to dogs in the process of their elimination.
There is a class bias reflected in the dog menace too. In wealthier areas, we have almost no or negligible reporting of dog bites. This is because, it's more difficult for a stray population to survive in the posh localities in the cities, where the elites live. Stray dogs need sources of food and shelter, which are usually from open garbage pits and abandoned vacant spaces like buildings. In wealthier areas, there is less of garbage found, as they are well maintained as even the urban local bodies spend enough money.
For example, as a part of the SMART city project, Visakhapatnam was chosen and was rated third in the implementation of its conditions. Accordingly, a small area in the city where around 70,000 people reside, is chosen for the SMART city project. Here they are going to spend nearly 1500 crores of rupees for the maintenance, upkeep and provision of civic amenities. On the other hand, for all the rest of the city, where nearly 20 lakh people reside, the government is spending a similar amount for its maintenance and for civic amenities. With this sort of a discriminatory resources allocation, benefiting the areas where the elite live, it is no wonder that they will be bereft of any menace of dogs or mosquitoes.
When the complaints of dog menace are made to the local body in Visakhapatnam, it naturally does not react with efficiency, due to its resource and man-power constraints. They do not have the resources to clean garbage, neither do they have money to spay or neuter the dogs. And moreover, according to a Supreme Court verdict given in November 2015, killing of all stray dogs is banned. It had directed that only “irretrievably ill or mortally wounded” stray dogs can be killed in a “humane manner”, which is once again an expensive option. Further the Court had stated that “the local authorities have a sacrosanct duty to provide sufficient number of dog pounds, including animal kennels/shelters, which may be managed by the animal welfare organisations”, where once again the question of resources comes into play. So what the ULB usually does, when there is severe popular pressure is, catch a few dogs and leave them in another locality. Dogs, being extremely territorial conscious, return to their natural habitat within no time and so, the menace continues.
Naturally the Courts do not have power to address all these problems and it is the government which has to address them by increasing the necessary budgetary allocations. According to a research study in the US, where the number of stray dogs is much less than in our country, it needs at least 12 million dollars per city, for a period of three years to eliminate them! Can we think of such allocations?
THE BUZZ OF MOSQUITOES
A recent report categorises mosquito as ‘the global public enemy No.1’. With every passing year, we are hearing new versions of diseases emanating from mosquito bites. From malaria, which we are yet to completely eradicate (which was in fact completely eradicated in our neighbouring country, Sri Lanka), we now have increasing cases of dengue and chikungunya, all caused by mosquitoes. Delhi, Karnataka, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and many more states are reporting increasing cases and also mortality rates. There has been a sharp increase in the number of dengue-related deaths in the past three years. The arrival of monsoons, instead of bringing cheer are ringing in despair, because of these vector-borne diseases they are becoming synonymous with. In spite of all tall claims, India only spends a paltry amount on healthcare, which is the reason why the country is ranked in the bottom quarter of 188 countries.
Mosquitoes, as we all know breed in unclean and unhygienic surroundings. According to a study done on mosquito breeding in our country, lack of adequate housing, water supply, sanitation and solid waste management facilities, as well as knowledge, attitudes and practice (KAP) of the people are the major factors responsible for the proliferation of mosquitoes in the urban environment. Moreover, with rapid industrialisation and change in land use, mosquitoes have adapted to the changing environment. Increase in global temperatures is also contributing to spread of mosquitoes.
Reacting to the mosquito menace, the Madras High Court had commented that mosquito menace is man-made and blamed the authorities who “turn a blind eye to construction of buildings that are in violation of Act and rules, and pave way for encroachments. Lakes, ponds and water channels are being clogged by buildings everywhere, for which the authorities are to be blamed”.
Unfortunately, our country does not have a comprehensive strategy to tackle the mosquito menace. We lack the required number of entomologists, who are required to study the mosquito – its identification, behaviour, habitat, breeding and resting pattern, and biting time, as all of them vary in our vast country, which has many climatic patterns and ecological conditions. Forget about this, we do not even recognise the need to reduce the risk of diseases by reducing their ‘transmission through bites’. This requires a control on breeding of mosquitoes, through constant surveillance and elimination, which in turn necessitate employment of adequate manpower.
In many of our cities and urban agglomerations, sanitation is a big issue. There are open drains in many cities and also cesspools and cesspits. In such a situation, personal protection measures such as using mosquito nets or repellents are not a practical solution, particularly in view of the socio-economic background of the communities and poor sustainability. The only credible approach to eradicate mosquitoes is to make the habitats unsuitable for mosquito breeding, which once again means, to ensure clean neighbourhoods. Another way is to altogether eliminate mosquitoes by genetic engineering, which also involves research and resources.
What we are witnessing today is a crisis in urban sanitation. To tackle this crisis, what is needed is massive infusion of monetary resources and man-power to put these resources to optimal use. But the priorities of our government do not lie here. In spite of all the tall talk, the budget allocated for the National Urban Health Mission was Rs 950 crore in 2016-17. This was reduced to Rs 752 crore in 2017-18. Similarly, there should be an increase in the urban sanitation budget, a component of the Swachh Bharat Mission. Even the budget 2018-19, has only nominal increase, which will not be able to meet the needs of the expanding urban regions or even the existing urban areas. Moreover, if inflation is taken into account, we find a decline in the allocation of main health and sanitation projects for urban areas.
The government should be forced to walk the talk. All its lectures about cleanliness and sanitation, should be matched with the allocation of necessary allocations and also the appointment of personnel to implement them. Unless this is done, the ‘the target to make India free of malaria by 2027’ or other mosquito borne diseases will only be a pipe dream. Unless we sting the government through our collective action, there will be no respite for us from dog and mosquito bites.