In the midst of ungodly incidents of street harassment, countless potholed roads, ridiculous standards of drainage systems, a stunning lack of proper garbage maintenance and hundreds of other issues that Dhaka residents have to deal with every single day, Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) has planned to ameliorate the plight of the city-dwellers by rounding up around 30,000 stray dogs and dumping them in isolated areas outside the capital. An unwarranted decision that is not only inhuman but also expressly violates Section 7 of the Animal Welfare Act 2019—which prohibits killing and removing stray dogs unless proven to be causing harm.
Dogs from residential areas such as Dhanmondi, Nagar Bhaban, etc. are especially being targeted to be taken to Matuail, a landfill with its own ecosystem, habitants and dogs. Needless to say, dogs residing in the capital are regularly fed and taken care of in their localities by both individuals and organisations. Execution of this transfer plan will not only result in territorial fights between the dogs as well as mass starvation, but will also wreak havoc on the poor people of Matuail. Officially, 15 dogs have already been relocated there on a pilot basis. Suffice to say, this again demonstrates that when it comes to ensuring the security and wellbeing of citizens, the lives of the privileged take precedence over those of the impoverished.
It is difficult for animal rights activists and organisations to accept DSCC's decision as it will render years of their work pointless. The government, as part of its vaccination initiative with the help of organisations such as Care for Paws, Obhoyaronno, PAW Foundation, etc., has vaccinated about 70 percent of the dogs in the capital. Why then are the city corporation officials so bent on playing the role of an adversary?
Protests have spread across the capital both in favour of and against the relocation plan, and it seems that an outlandish picture of "people vs dogs" is being painted in a city where both have long coexisted with love and harmony. A certain video of one such protest recently became the subject of criticism. It showed a group of women holding placards with a spine-chilling red general prohibition sign over the illustration of a dog. They ventured out to cancel stray dogs because these animals allegedly prevented their children from playing in the streets. The footage then quickly turned into a black comedy as a stray dog unwittingly walked into their midst, possibly intrigued by the commotion, but was quickly shooed and kicked away by a bystander, while the women cheered the humiliation of the animal. Not only did the video display behaviour that was bereft of any compassion for animals, it also served as a crude reminder of the many municipal dysfunctionalities we slowly learn to adjust with—one of them being the shortage of playgrounds and parks, which is essentially responsible for children to use the streets for playing.
As of now, it seems that we have hit an impasse as officials have apparently temporarily suspended their operation. However, concerns remain as there are reports based on legitimate videos showing dogs are still being removed furtively from various areas by DSCC workers. When confronted, the authorities have denied any involvement, which prompted animal lovers to demand an end to this cat-and-mouse game. Rubaiya Ahmad, founder of Obhoyaronno, and others leading these protests recently sat down with DSCC Mayor Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh who suggested animal lovers to bear the responsibility of thousands of these dogs so that Dhaka can become a "developed", stray-dog-free city. Needless to say, the meeting was inconclusive.
If the authorities of Dhaka South do not want to incorporate the empathy factor into their decision-making process, then they should simply solve this crisis through proven scientific methods. And years of scientific research point towards mass-scale vaccination and sterilisation programmes allowing the dogs to remain in their territories, because otherwise, the gaps created from removing them from a certain area would be filled by other unvaccinated ones, making the relocation operation quite meaningless. There is also the chance that the transferred dogs will eventually come back to their own locality.
The situation gets more puzzling because of the different strategies being pursued by the two city corporations of the same city. On the one hand, Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) has been steadfast in their approach to follow scientific methods, operating on the basis of logic and humanity. On the other hand, DSCC remains impervious to evidence, almost delusional that such a cruel, illegal and unscientific technique will somehow work.
It is the responsibility of municipal authorities to assist organisations working towards creating an all-inclusive society, to run awareness campaigns targeting adoption of stray animals, to build a city that is suitable not just for people but also for all the animals living in it. Let us not forget that the proliferation of stray dogs is largely due to the incompetence of the municipal establishment. DSCC needs to own up to its responsibilities and take a stance similar to the DNCC which is running effective CNVR (Catch-Neuter-Vaccinate-Release) programmes. Mayor Atiqul Islam announced on social media that he has no plans to relocate these dogs and that DNCC will ensure environmental balance and safety of its citizens while respecting animal welfare laws.
A writ petition had also been filed in the High Court by actress Jaya Ahsan and some animal welfare organisations, but it was saddening to see such a simple matter which requires nothing but a bit of compassion and scientific planning being dragged to the court, that we are ready to roll up our sleeves to uproot these innocent, mute animals but not ready to work together to find a sustainable solution.
If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that we should not fiddle with nature's course of action, otherwise people just might end up incurring costs that they will have to pay for with their lives. One such example can be drawn from China's country-wide sparrow elimination campaign of 1958, where millions of sparrows were killed to save crops, but which ultimately resulted in a spike in locust activity causing the Great Chinese Famine that killed around 40 million people. Similarly, stray dogs guard the areas they live in, protect road-side stalls and even people as they walk home at night. They take care of pests and help manage city waste which is very crucial from the health perspective of a society. They take on the role of unpaid city corporation workers as they prevent organic substances from being putrefied and ultimately impede the spread of diseases. Who knows what calamity we will help brew if we do not learn our lessons and stop this cruelty. But for now, as the debate rages on, the dogs remain clueless about the preparations being made to dump them like the very garbage they help take care of.
Two conflicting perspectives regarding this issue may exist, but they also have something fundamental in common. Both sides are concerned about the betterment of the city and its occupants. DSCC should play the pivotal role of working towards just that, based on scientific objectivity and law, without letting politics, cultural and religious bias or personal interests get in the way.
Iqra L Qamari is a contributor to The Daily Star.