In Mumbai, when the monsoons arrived with full force, there were frantic adoption appeals from animal lovers and rescuers from across the city. The internet was flooded with adorable pictures of countless puppies and kittens looking for their forever-home, as they had risked survival being left out on the streets in the ruthless rains.
The monsoon was just one recent example. These appeals seem to find their way onto our social media feeds every so often, with forwarded circulars on Whatsapp, too, having gained traction over the last few years. This need to house each and every stray animal is a fairly new phenomenon in Indian cities, and it seems to have come up in response to urban infrastructure and planning, which have made cities extremely unsafe and inhabitable for stray animals.
I grew up in Delhi in a fairly low-rise settlement with labyrinth like streets and closely packed terraces with barsaati. While the streets belonged to neighbourhood dogs, the barsati saw a number of cats who used them to find shelter and sometimes also give birth. These strays belonged to no one in particular but to the entire neighbourhood who collectively, and unselfconsciously, took care of them. Those were the days of porous neighbourhoods without gates and boundary walls. And although humans were divided even then by imaginary lines of caste, class and religion, animals leaped through them effortlessly without rules and regulations of new-age housing societies who could pass resolutions regarding their future on a whim.
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In the last two decades, the nature of urban neighbourhoods has changed, from being porous and low rise to being fiercely gated and high rise. Tall boundary walls, manicured gardens, and multi-level parking facilities are now sought after for neighbourhoods to be considered ‘liveable’. These gated neighbourhoods also take great pride in pushing and othering, not just humans of different economic and social classes, but also animals. Almost no gated neighbourhood now allow stray animals within their property lines. Even old cooperative housing societies which were earlier open, are starting to emulate the governance models of swanky high rises and gated communities, which pride themselves on security systems and regulations to keep the ‘other’ out.
Atika Chouhan, a screenwriter who lives in Mumbai with her two cats experienced hostility at the hands of her residential building owners last year when she tried to care for a stray cat who gave birth to three kittens in her building compound. “I rent a flat in a privately owned building which does not have a housing society. The owners wanted to throw the cats and her new-born kittens out,” she recalls. “They warned me multiple times to stop feeding and caring for them. I found discreet ways to continue caring for them but eventually they found out and threatened me with eviction,” Chouhan adds. She was later able to find homes for all four members of the feline family but her experience reveals a deep crack in the relationship between animals and neighbourhoods of our cities.
Ruchi Varma, founder of HumanQind, a design and architecture non-profit, attributes this change to a spiritual shift in the Indian society brought in by the liberalisation post 1991. “There is a sense of othering which has penetrated into the society. We now exist and function more as individuals and less as communities,” Varma says, adding that “this leads to the notions of exclusivity and having absolute rights over what you call your ‘personal space’.”
She points out to the disappearance of shared or negotiated spaces—commons, as they are called—where a delicate balance existed between our individual views and the need to co-exist with others. Historically in India, commons were central to both cities and villages, which allowed for people to care for the other—be it animals, plants or other human beings—without exercising control and assertion of ownership over them.
For example, dogs weren’t allowed inside most of the houses in the neighbourhood I grew up in but they were allowed to rest under extended porches and were fed by most of the households. Some houses even had open water tanks and feeder bowls built in on their boundary walls for cows and dogs to drink water and eat any leftover food. Similarly, drinking water bowls and grains were kept on terraces for birds and some neighbourhoods had whole chabutras dedicated to birds.
Now, the lack of animal-friendly infrastructure and practices, rising heat waves, combined with car-centric policies have left the strays vulnerable and unsafe. Even in 2019, a report from the veterinary department of Nagpur Municipal Corporation stated that 11,915 stray animals, dogs, cats, cattle and goats were injured between 2011-12 till July that year.
The disappearance of shared negotiated space which exists somewhere between the personal and public has become common to most of our cities. Apart from the philosophical shift in the society that Varma points out, urban planning policies have had a huge impact on the fabric of Indian cities. Modelled, even most loosely on Western cities built on capitalist and neoliberalist principles where everything must be owned, governed or profited from, has meant a hard blow to the idea of the shared space, one commonly negotiated and jointly governed.
Indian cities need to bring back the commons and shared practices of living and co-existing to care for its stray animal population—this is only a small part of the urban fauna that is unable to flourish because of our urban development policies. One way to start would be to acknowledge that animals and birds don’t need always need a “forever home”. They already are home—if we can only embrace the idea that the city is theirs, too.
Bhawna Jaimini is a writer and urban practitioner