By Rahul V Kumar*
With the number of stray dog attacks increasing in Kerala, the major debate has been whether or not to eliminate these animals from the street. Animal rights activists vociferously challenge all plans to kill dogs. A humane way is suggested; to sterilize dogs and thereby control the population. There is another group which considers that the government’s lax attitude towards waste disposal has resulted in the menace. They suggest new methods in waste management. A third group considers empowering local area governance structures to deal with the problem. All these are indeed valid points and have been important to analyse the stray dog menace in Kerala. However, the issue of stray dog menace has significant roots in the changes taking place in Kerala’s social and economic features. These changes also indicate significant institutional deficits in accommodating new policies.
The main reason for sudden spurt of stray dogs can indeed be traced back to our inefficient waste management measures. It would be but naive to consider that all waste leads to the rise of the dog population. A better hypothesis is that specific waste particles might be contributing towards this phenomenon. A notable feature in Kerala today is the significant shift in the eating habits of individuals. Consumers prefer more meat and chicken in their diet than other food substitutes. This is also reflected in the rise of a large number of poultry farms and fast food joints serving chicken and meat products. The reason for such a shift in the eating habits could be because chicken and meat products have become cheaper and more affordable in real terms to the population in Kerala. More affordability of cheap food sources has created a demand for these items, and the market has come forward to satiate it. The problem of rising stray dog population could directly be traced to the negative externalities generated by these farms and food joints. Much of these externalities are created due to improper disposal of waste from these enterprises.
What this means and what we should do
What this indicates is that there are rapid changes occurring in the lifestyle and food habits of the population in Kerala. However, there are very few parallel institutional changes in the society that could accommodate the evolving patterns. Rules that develop in the management of such units (as the farms and food outlets) are still in the evolutionary stages as our local and state governments seem to have never anticipated these changes. As can be easily predicted government response to the stray dog menace would be to create new departments and organizations that would thrive on this market requirement. However, that in itself would only worsen the situation than cure it. A learning lesson for the state of Kerala is to look back on why our poultry diet has substituted earlier dietary habits. As we presume this could largely be because of faulty agricultural policies that inflated prices several times during the last few decades making substitutes appear affordable.
So do we blame each other or do we find a solution to the problem? There are no clear solutions at this moment, but there is a cue that we could take from such events to prevent similar catastrophes in future. An indicative trend in such events is poor economic understanding of the society in which we leave. In an era where changes occur at a very fast pace, our governments cannot afford to have an iron hand in policy making. A liberal environment would allow for the creation of new institutions which could accommodate such changes. It is high time that the society is made free to develop such institutions.
*The Author is Research Consultant at Centre for Public Policy Research. Views are personal and does not represent that of CPPR