Life in the Anthropocene

Recently, there was an announcement over an FM radio channel that the authorities in Ladakh have issued an order to restrict the movement of ‘stray domestic animals’ on the streets of Leh town. The justification is that they pose a threat to the movement of vehicles, especially ones related to tourism. This reminded me of the way India is portrayed in western films, which often include scenes with stray cows wandering the streets. This seems rather clichéd and inaccurate. Though this imagery is exaggerated, it does have a grain of truth. It seems to depict a developing India. Although their intention is to introduce some humour, this image does raise the question on why stray animals are on the streets!

Of late, the streets of Leh too resemble that of the rest of the country. Over the last five years, we are observing many animals, especially donkeys and cows, on the roads of Leh town. This can be for two reasons: Either they don’t have a place to be in or we are intruding into their spaces. For me, the latter seems very likely.

Imagine being an animal in Leh. Say, a cow, donkey or a dog about say five years back. There were dedicated spaces for animals everywhere where they could graze or rest. They were village commons and served as green corridors along Tokpos (streams) and Yuras (water channels). During summers, when the Lorapa system (field guarding system) was active, anyone could graze animals in these spaces as long as they had people herding the livestock. Most of these spaces have vanished over the last five to ten years and transformed into enclosed structures. Similar spaces that were called Charakhas were also village commons and have now been turned into community spaces and halls for social gatherings. We now have a community hall at every corner of Leh town, which may not always be the wisest use of resources. The Chhu-lams have been converted to concrete footpaths, roads for motor vehicles, or tiled surfaces. Water channels have been reinforced with concrete, which does not blend with nature or look appealing. As a result, no vegetation grows there anymore and there is nothing for animals to eat.

Like humans, animals too don’t like being in captivity. My family owned donkeys, cows, dZos until 10 years back. We also had goats and sheep until some 30 years back. Now we only have cows. We lost one cow to a road accident, which we deduced based on its injuries. We lost another one to electrocution in 2023. That is when I discovered that this is a common occurrence during the rainy season. I have heard that Power Distribution Department does provide monetary compensation for lives lost.

Our donkeys would vanish for months and then return home when it was cold outside. At other times, they would return home to give birth and once the foal was able to stand, and barely walk, they would vanish once again. This means these animals not only need food but also require freedom, security and love. Their sense of being is as strong as humans. We have an urban and modern life for now. We are enjoying high-speed 100mbps internet and milking cows by hand at the same time. Many families who own land in Leh still cultivate vegetables using organic methods and their sons and daughters drive their produce in modern cars for sale in Leh market.

Coming back to animals on the streets, we need to remember that animal rights extend beyond the prevention of physical harm. It encompasses the right to live without unnecessary interference in their natural behaviour. It is our duty to protect them, maintain speed limits especially on rural roads and create public awareness on these issues. By acknowledging their rights and adopting steps to minimise negative impacts, we can have a more harmonious coexistence between humans and animals to nurture our shared environment. Many humans are aggressive and hostile towards animals such as dogs based on their perceptions, prejudices, and fear. This in turn, makes the dogs suspicious and hostile towards humans. In this regard, the registration of pets like dogs with the authorities is a good idea to keep a watch on their health and vaccination status. However, charging a fee might discourage some people from keeping pets or registering them.

Animal rearing and farming are inter-related. They play a crucial role in providing food security, promoting a healthy lifestyle, and should be prioritised over building hotels and guesthouses on agricultural land. Agriculture not only nourishes society but also contributes significantly to public health and the prevention of lifestyle diseases. Agriculture is the backbone of food production, providing essential staples like grains, fruits, vegetables, and livestock products. Encouraging farming ensures a steady food supply. Such produce are rich in essential nutrients and promote a balanced diet and prevent malnutrition. A diet centred around locally grown foods contributes to better health. Farm-fresh, unprocessed foods are a cornerstone of preventing lifestyle diseases like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. These conditions are often linked to diets high in processed and fast foods.

Agriculture also generates income and employment opportunities for rural communities, helping reduce poverty and improve the livelihoods of countless individuals. Farming supports diverse ecosystems and provides essential habitats for various species. While tourism and hospitality have a role to play, we must prioritise the long-term well-being of society by encouraging responsible farming and food production. Balancing these needs can promote healthier communities, reduce the burden of lifestyle diseases, and secure the future of our food supply. Farming and animal rearing are sustainable businesses unlike hotel and guesthouses. The adoption of a rule that animals will not be allowed to roam on streets, even if it is justified in the basis of them disturbing traffic or dirtying the streets, is counterproductive. We have to find a way to coexist. Such laws may discourage people from rearing animals or keeping pets in their house, which in turn may undermine agricultural practices in the long-term.

By Dr. Spalchen Gonbo

Dr Spalchen Gonbo is a Paediatrician based in Ladakh

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