Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Dogs point the way to Nirvana

The media and the powers that be are all up in arms regarding the recent cases of children being bitten or mauled, in some cases to death, by the stray dogs that roam the streets of Bangalore city. The solution offered and accepted has been to cull, or kill, the stray dogs that populate the city. This way it is reasoned, we would finally rid ourselves of the nuisance that has continued to- pardon the pun- dog our urban environments for some time now. The decision in Bangalore is crucial since the past few years has seen public policy spread like wild fire across the country, based on similar such one-off incidents and knee-jerk responses. The ban on night life past 11 in the evening is a classic example of this case. It is because of these knee jerk responses becoming policy that we need to question whether killing these dogs addresses the issue at the root, or is merely dealing with the symptoms alone. I would like to forward the argument that it is the symptoms we are dealing with, without resolving the root from which these attacks emerge.

One objection to this decision has been to point out that the killing of dogs within the existing metropolis serves no purpose since the places left empty are only filled by the canine populations that are included by the rapidly expanding metropolis. The answer therefore does not lie in the immediate culling of dogs, since such a strategy should eventually require us to cull all dogs from all peri-urban areas as well. This strategy poses not just a logistical challenge, but a definitional one as well. The stray can exist only in the presence of a pet. Rural and peri-urban areas however do not share the distinctly bourgeoise understanding of pet. As such strays, in the sense we understand them do not exist. Dogs in these circumstances are merely domesticated animals that perform valuable functions of companionship, savenging and cleaing and guarding. To extend the distinctly located understanding of pet to these areas would in fact be to kill domesticated animals. That would prove to be a pickle!

But I do not wish to debate this issue around the impacts on animals or their rights. What I wish to draw attention to, is what I perceive to be the real problem, which is not being addressed at all, that of the nature of the urban environment we are creating.

To make flippant use of a popular phrase, ‘it’s a dog eat dog world’ captures exactly what is going on in Bangalore. With some notable exceptions, most of the victims in these cases have been the children of slum dwellers living in low-income (poverty-striken?) areas. The living conditions of these labourers as they build the fantasy worlds that generates Bangalore’s boom time are in fact not much better than the conditions animals live in. For all practical purposes, they are animals. Is it any wonder then that it is their children that are being attacked by dogs? Bangalore’s real estate market is spiralling out of control, even as we fail to provide decent lodgings for the labour force that actually builds and powers the city.

But it is not the law of the jungle in operation in the city. On the contrary, what we have is the generation of viciousness that is the result of the urban environment we have actively created. Even to this day the installation of the mast lights that turn vast areas of the urban night time into day time are heralded as progress. Unfortunately it is to this ‘progress’ that we can pehaps trace the violent behaviour of urban canines. Since the 80’s evidence has been building up of the existence and harmful impacts of a ‘light pollution’. Light pollution refers to the harmful impacts of over-illumination which distrupts natural biological cycles with some chilling side-effects. A range of studies suggest that excess light may induce loss in visual acuity, increased incidence of stress related disorders, the decrease in sexual capacities and greater possibilities of contracting cancers. Sleep deprivation resulting from this over-illumination is another serious impact of light pollution. If these are the impacts from the mere shining of street lights into our homes, imagine its impact on the animals living outside. Animals have often been credited with heralding the onset of natural disasters like earthquakes, even the recent tsunami. It would be wise to read the current viciousness of the dogs in Bangalore as symptoms of stress building up within urban inhabitants. A stress that needs to be addressed urgently.

While there are a number of ways in which one can reduce over-illumination in cities, it does not appear that there will be much movement on this front. Public illumination and the dispelling of natural darkness have unfortunately come to be associated too closely with progress. A progress toward a goal we will never achieve and yet nevertheless serves to beef up our negative national self-impression. But less esoterically, public illumination also provides a very real sense of security. Security from the criminals who lurk in the darkness and can be countered only through these campaigns of public illumination. However once again the question needs to be asked, is not the increase in this fear linked to the perceived increase in crime? Is this crime resultant from the wide gaps in income and expenditure within our society? While some indulge in orgiastic consumption within homes and malls, others starve outside while observing these orgies that democracy promises ought also to be theirs. Crime at one point was very simple, you gave up your goods and you kept your life. Today even that is not assured, as the pettiest of theft is accompanied by unnecessary aggression. Can we link it to the stresses building up within our society, induced by light or by increased deprivation?

Either ways there is something deeply wrong with the urban environment our new found wealth is generating. The ‘vicious’ dogs in Bangalore are only providing a warning we ought to heed. Will we?
(published in the Gomantak Times, 7th March 2007)

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