Spring 2018

Two dogs from India

Street Dogs in India: Urbanization and Biopolitics in the Anthropocene

by Susan Haris

Photograph Credit: Susan Haris

Abstract. This paper explores the street dog in India, and shows how usual categories of analysis escape this animal because of its distinctive position in the Indian social spaces. Further, the street dog is situated in a discourse of environmentalism and development showing how the biopolitics serves to discipline the animal despite legal provisions that allow it to roam freely. An analysis of the importance of urbanisation shows how third world environmentalism and development should account for other social practices such as urbanisation to understand non-human species.

Keywords: street dog, Agamben, urbanisation, environmentalism, development, anthropocene


When Paul Crutzen popularized the term ‘anthropocene’, he wanted to capture the widespread effect man has had on the planet though he has been part of the planetary history only for a short period. With the advent of industrial revolution and the usage of resources coupled with the rise in population and climate change, man has begun to impact earth in a way much like any other geological factor. Thus the ‘anthropocene’ marks an attempt to capture the effect and potential of man, often devastating, as a geological force acting on the planet. This paper situates the Indian street dog in such a discourse to show how urbanisation, development and climate change contribute to structure their lives in very biopolitical ways.

Heise identifies environmentalism as a ‘mode of thinking’ that views nature as threatened by human intervention because of industrialization and the onset of modernity in the 19th century. An encounter with the environment therefore begets a sense of loss because of these historical factors and this explains why environmentalism is so closely associated with declensionist narratives. Thus in a double movement, narratives about environmentalism are marked by a heightened awareness of environmental beauty but they are also associated with this feeling of catastrophe and destruction (2008). Similarly the Anthropocene registers similar feelings with a sharp focus on human action and goals. Against the ubiquity of such narratives of environmentalism, domestic pets such as dogs offer a different perspective. Cared for by humans, and regulated medically by veterinarian sciences, pets fend for themselves in very human ways. In some sense they can be considered exempt from the multi species vulnerability that the anthropocene brings.

Postcolonial approaches to the environment resist generalizations and underline the tensions between economic development and environmental discourse. Malcolm Sen (2009) highlights the need to focus on specific locations to engage with the post-colonial fallouts of ‘environmental dispossession’. If, as Sen argues, the global environment movement is a kind of green imperialism where the first world dictates priorities and goals, where are animals in the third world to be situated?

In India apart from megafauna for which the Indian government has established programmes such as Project Tiger and Project Elephant, a ‘critical literacy’ that understands the multi species vulnerability of climate change is absent. Though the street dog in India is not endangered or valuable, the paper assumes that the street dog can be taken as a representative of a non-human species which is under stress because of the pressures of climate change and capitalism led development. In situating the street dog thus in the environmental discourse in India, I also argue that the biopolitics of street dog control from a third world perspective is closely connected to the larger environmental discourse. In the process I show how the street dog cannot be placed within conventional animal studies perspectives on pet dogs and free ranging dogs, existing on a plane that shows a confluence of discourses such as development, environmentalism and urbanisation.

Unlike in many other ‘developed’ countries, street dogs are a legally defined category in India. The Animal Birth Control (Dogs) Rules (ABC) (2001) differentiates between street dogs and pet dogs, and while the latter are considered property of the owners like in the UK, the street dog has legal protection (Srinivasan, 2014). Their number has never been definitively estimated, it is estimated to be as large as 59 million.  They are very common in India, and unlike in the UK, street dogs are not the same as abandoned or homeless dogs, therefore they are not taken to animal shelters and then re-homed or euthanized. This implies that street dogs roam freely in India left to their own devices.

They are treated as free-ranging dogs in a literal sense and the Sections 428 and 429 of the Indian Penal Code and the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960 make it illegal to injure or kill a street dog, or any other stray animal. Animal cruelty is an offence under Section 11 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, and Section and 429 of the Indian Penal Code and is punishable with imprisonment and fine. Further, the Rule 6 and Rule 7 of The Animal Birth Control (Dogs) Rules, 2001 state that the municipality cannot kill or dislocate a street dog based on the complaint or preferences of its residents. The only way to control the street dog population is vaccination and sterilization as described in The Animal Birth Control (Dogs) Rules, 2001 enacted under the Indian Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960.

But the unique position that law provides does not mean that stray dogs are thriving or that the Indian pariah dog is treasured for its unique aboriginal lineage. As an animal welfare activist, I was routinely involved in finding homes for street dog puppies. Living in urban environs, street dog mothers had a very stressful time navigating human ideas of propriety and need to provide food and shelter to her children. Often street dog puppies died in road accidents as they got older and more playful. During adoption calls people usually preferred and requested European breeds and specifically asked for breeds such as Labrador or Golden Retriever. This preference for European breeds has been criticised as a colonial legacy along with the desire to possess something of higher status and ‘pedigree’, despite the fact that the Indian pariah dog is a hardy, intelligent dog eminently suited to Indian terrain.

The Indog Project, dedicated to protecting the Indian pariah dog differentiates between the aboriginal landrace and street dogs, calling the latter admixed genetic varieties. They point out that the pariah dogs in rural areas are indigenous and the urban free-ranging dogs show European ancestry and are mixed breeds of different kinds. Such a distinction hints at the problem of classification. The typology of free-ranging dog is applicable in India not only as a condition of the dog, but also as independent, varied modes of existence. Understanding free ranging dogs as dogs that need to be homed or controlled can hurt conservation statuses and need for protection of indigenous breeds such as Kombai, Chippiparai, Mudhol and Rajapalayam as these dogs roam freely in rural areas as well.

The Indian street dog is a mongrel dog and is different from the Indian pariah dog, which is the landrace of the Indian subcontinent, though both may be free-roaming stray dogs. The increasing urbanisation and preference for foreign breeds may collapse the demarcation of these categories altogether but the Indian street dog is usually a mixed breed dog and is considered one of the best examples of the human domestic dog. While never selectively bred, natural selection has predisposed the dog to exist in close proximity with humans practising a commensalism that is increasingly at loggerheads with ideas of development and progress.

In most parts of India, street dogs are part of the ecosystem by feeding on animal carcasses and garbage. The ecological role of dogs cannot be understated as they live in such close proximity with humans. It is in urban areas that most street dogs survive entirely on garbage and the potential to carry germs and diseases need to be studied because of the close proximity in which they live with the people. In rural areas, the tendency of leopards to kill dogs has also been noted (Daniels, 2009). Further, the dog is the commonest carnivore in the world (Gompper, 2013).

A new study which was reported in all major newspapers and magazines argue that street dogs are a threat to 188 species in the red list of endangered species prepared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The paper argues that dogs compete with other species for food leading to stress and lower reproduction and survival rates. It claims that free ranging dogs killed more livestock than any other wild animals. The report states that ‘unlike in developed countries, where strict rules and regulations govern the ownership of dogs, in most of the developing world, there is only a loose sense of ownership, and a large proportion of the dog population is free ranging’ (Home et al, 2017). Another study examined the effects of dogs globally on threatened vertebrates spelling out the impacts- ‘predation, disturbance, disease, competition, and hybridisation.’(Doherty et al, 2017)

Such reports are misleading because they do not differentiate between free ranging dogs which is western terminology and the Indian street dog. The free ranging dog like feral cats are used to denote those dogs that are not pets or in the shelter with an overarching aim to home dogs in shelters or houses whereas such a compulsion is not applicable in India where it is illegal to remove stray dogs from the street. The street dog in India is very different from the free ranging dogs in the west or dingoes in Australia which are protected as native wildlife.

Parameters such as the Dog Development Index (DDI) cannot be applied to the Indian street dog either. According to the DDI, a dog with a high DDI will have clear ownership, high levels of husbandry and selective breeding that increases the dog’s well-being. Thus a dog with a high DDI will have an economic value closer to that of other domestic animals and a higher life expectancy. The Indian street dog subverts this category thoroughly and challenges its androcentric principles and raises the crucial question whether it needs to be removed from its original habitat unto homes or shelters for coexistence and harmony because of their unique independent style of existence.

Philip Howell (2012) charts how there has been a shift to technologies such as leash and voice control from disciplinary technologies such as muzzling and quarantine creating a ‘model of responsibility’ where the onus is on the owner for the conduct and behaviour of their dog, thus allowing the dog to access the public space. Indeed none of this is applicable to the street dog in its vagrant existence in public spaces, and social processes and social forces need to be reassessed to understand the position of the Indian street dog. Some street dogs can be seen wearing collars or even jackets in winter; but since these additions are not institutional interventions it is not a biopolitical technological practice such as fitting GPS collars on wild animals.

The interactions and relationships between dog and man differ between and depending on the social context (Serpell, 1995). Thus commensalism often materializes in the form of closer relationships between street dog and people where they thrive as free roaming street dogs. Typically then they may be given human names, sometimes recognized only by a few people, thereby making them individuals with personality in anthropocentric terms (Haraway, 2003). What is most fascinating about the Indian street dog is its liminal nature.Street dogs are not common in India because all Indians are dog lovers or because of a cultural importance that protects the cow, for example. The street dog traverses the border between pest and pet; cherished by some and spurned by others. Dog friendly neighbourhoods typically feed them left over rotis and leave milk or water in mud bowls. Street dogs rupture the ‘hoary nature-culture dichotomy’ (Russell, 2002). They exist independently, but they are also part of the socio-economic realm by depending on human produce to survive.

But increasingly stray dogs are perceived as an environmental concern as causes of diseases, violent attacks on humans, overpopulation and rabies. Both environmentalism and development are aimed at shared aims of social justice and welfare but the former can be said to be less speciesist because of its broader purview. However as conservation literature shows often studies are focused on ‘charismatic’ and ecologically valuable species such as the snow leopard and aesthetic appreciation and benefits can be very important even in the developing world (de Pinho et al, 2014). In addition, the increased attention to biodiversity automatically makes domestic animals less important which explains why companion species have largely been absent from the talk of climate change and environmental crises. Thus in both cases, street dogs become less worthy of ethical consideration. The biopolitical power of the state thus serves to delegitimize the street dogs from their environment.

Indeed biopower can be described as operating along three primary axes: “first, between differently ‘racialized’ populations of humans; second, between asymmetrically valued populations of humans and nonhumans; and, third, between humans, our vital support systems, and various types of emergent biosecurity threats” (Cavanagh, 2014).

Krithika Srinivasan has argued eloquently on how the Indian government has merged care and harm in a biopolitical act of improvement through its Animal Birth Control [ABC] and the Anti Rabies Vaccines [ARV] programmes. For her biopower has the following characteristics:

  • regulates, works alongside, and in synergy with existing rhythms in the ‘biosocial collectivity’ (Rabinow and Rose, 2006);
    is directed at the fostering of populations or collectives;
  • is characterized by an entanglement of harm and care; and
  • is underpinned by subjectification. (Srinivasan, 2014) (19)

Street dogs are compulsorily neutered and vaccinated in India. Diverse groups such as animal welfare activists, veterinarians, citizens and the state agree that these are the best practices and agree on some objectives on both human and animal well-being: we should not cause unnecessary suffering to street dogs but there must not be too many dogs. But unlike humans, dogs don’t self-govern and the harmful side effects of sterilization are often downplayed.

Moreover, the consensus on controlling population is also driven by aesthetic concerns and dogs are treated as a collective to be controlled signifying exercise of biopower. Attempts to make Delhi a ‘world-class city’ before the Commonwealth Games in 2010 involved precisely such contestations and interventions. The successful bid to host the Games became a rallying point to restructure the city’s landscapes and livelihoods. Thus ecologically sensitive areas in South Delhi were converted to property and beggars were moved to beggars’ homes. And it was decided that street dogs will be kept in animal shelters run by prominent NGOs and released back to their original locations after the Games (Baviskar, 2011). As Baviskar points out, the community that was asserted through this makeover was ‘abstractly national, intensely local and distinctively urban’. Certainly it was not humanly possible for these NGOs to account for all the street dogs in an orderly fashion. While I do not want to anthropomorphize their displacement, a casual traveller will be able to note that central Delhi is teeming with street dogs when compared to their richer counterparts in South Delhi which was targeted for this beautification.

Safeguarding of human interests thus is another articulation of human exceptionalism and shows how reform bolstered by animal welfare and environmentalism can be biopolitical and therefore deserves more thought and analysis (Srinivasan, 2015). It is my contention that bio-power over non-humans may be exacerbated by demands of development, and modern environmentalism needs to take into account such machinations to understand the nexus between the two. In the third world the tension between environmentalism and development can be said to be mediated by urbanisation and the land takeover that ensues. Street dogs in India that share the urban environs then are under a lot of stress because of fractures in the model of cohabitation. India continues to relentlessly urbanize thereby converting more uninhabited spaces into areas suitable for human occupation.

As noted above, conservation is guided by complex goals and motivations and may aid the state in creating a state of exception for some species to protect some others or misread the reasons behind existing situations. For Agamben the state of exception is to exclude the poor in the goal for development – the Indian street dogs can also be thus understood as an exception to the cultural politics and environmentalism though both aim to protect animals.

Agamben (2004) refers to the “anthropological machine” which the human uses to constantly construct the ‘beast’ as an other to define oneself. Agamben refers to how humans were thus animalized and became objects for hygienic interventions, and the preoccupation to deal with the ‘stray dog’ as a carrier of diseases is similar. While the threat of rabies is real, the garbage that sustains these street dogs is never constructively dealt with; instead the municipalities choose to act on the animal bodies for solutions. Thus other species and vulnerable groups may be ‘sacrificed’ for the development of the nation, which may involve removal of species that creates a ‘bacteriological city’ (Gandy 2006).

In the Indian context as we have seen, sovereign law protects street dogs from death. However two incidents – one in Bangalore, and a mass movement in Kerala – which had demanded culling of street dogs and had sought the Supreme Court’s permission to do the same caused much national furore for the violence that marked both events. Dogs were killed before the Court ordered that street dogs could not be killed systematically. Both protests were a result of stray dog attacks on some humans. It is important to note that in such demands the street dog is transformed semantically into a stray dog; as an entity which is invasive, uncontrollable and dirty (Srinivasan, 2014).

The latest proposal from Kerala has been for the creation of ‘stray dog zoos’ where the dogs will be kept in allotted land and off the streets where they have apparently become a ‘dangerous presence’. Such a policy would be a biopolitical intervention in a geo-spatial context, where the street dogs would be displaced from their territories into dog zoos. This is akin to a trend in the west where there is a rise in ‘quasi-exclusionary places’ with designated places for dogs such as dog parks, dog cafes and dog salons (Holmberg 2015). The driving force behind this paucity of land and rise of human-dog conflicts is urbanisation as more people migrate to urban areas or urbanise existing areas, and competition consequently increases for land and other resources. Urbanization is also directly connected to climate change. Environmental hazards and climate-sensitive diseases will affect the urban poor disproportionately and there is a need to improve the resilience of cities. Without improvements in urban infrastructure, the burden of disease due to global climate change may increase (Kovats and Akhtar 2008). In such a scenario human-animal conflicts in urban areas may rise especially considering that street dogs in India sustain themselves primarily through garbage in urban areas.

In studying human-animal conflicts, Holmberg points out how urban animals are targeted because they transgress the cultural and geographical ordering systems of the city instead roaming in uncontrolled ways. Calling this phenomenon ‘humanimal crowding’, Holmberg has argued for a new consideration of multi-species experience and politics of living in urban areas and pointed out the different struggles over access and interpretation to resources such as space. Despite an AWB circular to the contrary, dogs are not allowed inside many parks in Delhi, for instance. While negotiating urban relations and practices, such animals are turned into ‘objects of care, conservation practices, and biopolitical interventions’ (Holmberg, 2015). In India development coincides with the rise of ‘smart cities’ and urban planning. In such an endeavour there is an attempt to limit the number of other species in the city or at least into crafted, planned spaces. Urbanization can therefore be understood as a ‘politics of place’ which includes the historical-cultural struggles to define the hegemonic meaning of a particular place – who has the right to access, who does it belong to, and who should be excluded (Franzen 2002).

In the age of the anthropocene, we need to reconsider our relationship with animals to make sense of the multi species vulnerability that climate change entails. Jennifer Wolch’s concept of zoopolis where diverse species live in the cities is the kind of ethical engagement that may redefine our view of the non-humans and create an ‘animal standpoint’:

The reintegration of people with animals and nature in zoopolis can provide urban dwellers with the local, situated, everyday knowledge of animal life required to grasp animal standpoints or ways of being in the world, to interact with them accordingly in particular contexts, and to motivate political action necessary to protect their autonomy as subjects and their life spaces.
(Wolch 1998: 124)

Street dogs can provide a useful entry point for they already exist and sustain themselves in urban spaces. But the lives of the street dogs show how the pressures of urbanisation, environmental concerns, and development complicate our understanding of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is a shorthand to mark human impact but with respect to the location of street dogs in human spaces, there are entanglements that are not easy to resolve. Unlike environmentalism that responded to local issues, the Anthropocene contextualises crises globally to understand and respond more effectively to anthropogenic change. But several questions arise. How can a country in the pursuit of development accommodate other species? Can such accommodation occur outside of disciplinary methods of control and segregation? In processes that are defined as anthropological such as development and urbanisation, where do we place the non-human?

The Indian street dog, bolstered by legal safeguards enjoys a unique existence in India that escapes and resists biopolitical interventions and disciplinary technologies in several ways. The commensal relationship with the human persists despite increasing stress on land due to environmental change and urbanisation. The Indian street dog subverts several of these divisions but if it can continue to do so under the protection of the state remains to be seen.

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Susan Haris is a Ph.D. candidate in Literature and Philosophy in the Humanities and Social sciences department, IIT Delhi. Her work explores environmental Humanities through a south Asian framework with a special focus on animals.