Amruta Ubale is the Executive Director of Animal Equality India. She spoke with ACE Managing Editor Melissa Guzikowski on September 11, 2018. This is a summary of their conversation.
To start off, could you give a brief summary of your work at Animal Equality India?
The India chapter of Animal Equality was founded in 2012. Until 2015, I was more or less working alone, with the support of some volunteers. During this time, I focused my efforts on government lobbying, because that is an area where a very small team can have a big effect on major issues across the country. The first issue that we worked on was the death of elephants due to train accidents, which is a problem that I personally had been researching since 2008. I looked into various possible solutions to this issue and came up with a proposal for the use of the same kind of radar sensor technology that the Ministry of Defense was already using at border crossings to check infiltration. I put forth this proposal to the government, suggesting that we adapt existing radar sensor technology into devices that could be put on trains to reduce the number of elephant deaths. The proposal was taken up by the Ministry of Railways, and Environment and the National Institute of Technology (NIT) was given the responsibility to develop the device with a deadline of 2016. The device has now been developed, and NIT is in the process of testing it.
The second project that we took on was the foie gras investigation that was conducted primarily by Animal Equality in Spain and France. Through conversations with Spanish and French Animal Equality representatives, we found that there were some connections to India on that issue. Because India does not produce foie gras, it is imported from countries like France and Spain. We sent another proposal to the government here in India, showing them the findings of the investigation and making the case that since the production of foie gras constitutes a gross violation of Indian animal welfare laws, we should not only ban the production of foie gras in India, but also ban the import of foie gras from other countries. After working with the government on this for about 12–18 months, they introduced a ban on the import of foie gras in 2014.
After that, we collaborated with two individual activists and filed a petition in the Bombay High Court against performances involving cruelty to bulls. Similar to performances that take place in Spain, we have bullock cart races and bull-taming sports. The bull is not killed at the end of these events, but the manner in which the bull is treated during the performances is utterly cruel. We won the case but it was later challenged by the opponent at the Supreme Court in 2012. We presented a very sound argument that the anatomical structure of bulls is not meant for running, which we supported with numerous scientific studies and progressive animal rights laws from countries like the U.K. and Germany. We also presented to the court India’s status as a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Animal Welfare (UDAW). In 2014, we finally received a judgement in our favor which banned every kind of bull performance in the whole country. This judgement is hundreds of pages long and is a kind of holy grail of animal rights. I think this judgement is one of the very few in world history that speak about animals as sentient beings who have dignity. It also references the concept of speciesism and alludes to animal welfare in terms much broader than just the treatment of bulls that it explicitly condemns in this particular case. Unfortunately, there was a lot of political interest and orchestrated protest against our side, since bull performance events assure vote bank. As a result, the case was eventually re-opened and the ban was overturned in most of the country. However, it is still in place in the state of Maharashtra, where our organization is located.
In 2015, we started building our team by taking on two new staff members. We also turned our attention to issues specifically affecting farmed animals. We started conducting nationwide investigations into the process of chicken production. For these investigations, we traveled to states which are especially known for poultry farming. Among the farms that we investigated were a large number of farms that produced eggs, rather than just poultry meat. We also investigated the transport and slaughter of farmed animals of all kinds. According to Indian law, animals must only be slaughtered in licensed animal slaughterhouses. This is blatantly violated, however, when it comes to both chickens and goats. Along with our advocacy for animal rights, we also tried to investigate potential issues in other areas of concern, like environmental harms, food safety, and human rights violations. We knew that animal rights would not resonate as a vital issue for everyone, so we aimed to cover as many angles as we could. By doing so, we made sure we would have as comprehensive a case as possible when we eventually brought our work before either the government or food companies.
After a period of investigation, we did present our case to the government and asked them to introduce poultry welfare laws. There were some other groups working in the same area and lobbying the government alongside us. The task was assigned to the Law Commission of India, which is the government agency that looks into requests of this kind and creates recommendations to the government. We presented our findings to the Law Commission and they included most of our suggestions in their report. At present, these suggestions exist in the form of draft rules. They are not officially introduced, but they have been given to the parliament to undergo a vetting process. We are hoping they will be introduced as law within the next two to three months.
Based on what I’ve read, and some of what you’ve been speaking about so far, it seems that the Indian government does have a lot of rules and regulations to protect animals, but there appear to be issues with regard to enforcement. What is currently being done, and what do you think needs to be done, in order to make sure that rules are enforced?
We do have a very good structure of animal protection rules, acts, and laws. One problem that we face is that the main Animal Welfare Act, called the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, has not been amended or updated since it was first created in 1960. Consequently, the fine for violations is a meager 50 rupees, which is less than $1. In the 2014 Supreme Court judgement banning performances involving cruelty to bulls, the judges actually addressed this problem, suggesting that the parliament should amend the Act and increase fines. There is a huge opportunity to make great progress for animal welfare if we can succeed in increasing fines. So far, however, there has been no concrete action taken to revisit the Act, so this still presents a significant challenge in enforcing animal protection laws.
Other practical obstacles to enforcement are the geographical size of India and low prioritization of animal welfare on the part of the Indian government. Agricultural business is flourishing throughout many different regions all across the country, in hundreds of slaughterhouses. There are so many slaughterhouses in India that I couldn’t even give you the exact number off the top of my head. I do know for certain, though, that the majority of them are illegal. I think this shows that the government doesn’t take illegal animal farming practices very seriously. From our multiple experiences bringing proposals before the government in relation to animal rights violations, we have found that the government does not see animal welfare as a significant priority. This may be because the Indian government deals with so many cases of human rights violations. When considered alongside human rights issues, animal rights issues may appear diminished in terms of importance and urgency. Once human rights issues have been remedied up to a certain level, and once poverty has been reduced to a certain level, it is a lot more feasible to focus on animal rights issues—but this is not the state of affairs in many parts of India. The region where Animal Equality India is based is very developed, almost at par with many Western countries, but many other parts of the nation are still far from that level of development. So another one of our biggest challenges is to change the way the government sees animal rights and show them how animal rights violations are connected to so many other problems, like public health issues and environmental degradation, that relate more obviously to human affairs.
Finally, there is a lack of governmental committees related to animal rights, at the city, district, and national levels. In many of our proposals to the government, we have stressed the need for new committees responsible for monitoring animal protection regulations and implementing animal rights laws. For example, after our dairy investigation, we asked the government to introduce dairy animal welfare regulations. We actually wrote a draft of these hypothetical rules as part of our proposal, and one of the key points in the draft was the establishment of a committee that would be responsible for the implementation of the rules. The government already has animal husbandry departments at local levels, and they also have “honorary animal welfare officers” in various cities across the country. So, the new committees we have been proposing could be composed of some people from the existing animal husbandry committee as well as animal welfare officers. All committee members could receive training sensitization and then they could work to ensure that animal welfare laws are properly implemented.
It has been my understanding that India’s livestock sector relies heavily on small, rural farms for production. Is this the case? If so, how does this impact the enforcement of animal welfare standards?
It’s hard to say for sure that the majority of livestock production actually is taking place in rural areas. In the poultry industry, for example, there has been a lot of industrialization. This means that most of the chicken and eggs in India do come from factory farms. In India, roughly 80%–90% of eggs are produced by commercial, industrialized farms operated by big-brand companies. At Animal Equality India, we are in fact actively involved in cage-free campaigns in order to combat the industrialized farming of chickens. The dairy industry, on the other hand, is in the process of trying to industrialize. Much of their production does occur in cities, but industrialization isn’t happening there in the quite the same way that it is for poultry. There are dairy farms of all sizes, from large, industrial farms in cities to small, independently-run farms with one or two buffaloes or cows in rural areas. So, the degree of industrialization varies across different kinds of livestock farming, and I wouldn’t say that there is necessarily more rural farming than industrial farming on the whole.
Could you speak about how animal advocacy organizations are approaching the fact that some rural families depend on animal agriculture? How are they ensuring that these people are not losing their livelihood?
In India, we have a co-operative model of dairy, whereby big-brand companies collect their milk from a number of smaller, rural farms. Most of our dairy business runs on this co-operative model. In this model, dairy almost always constitutes a supplementary income for the rural farmers. The primary source of income for most of these farmers is vegetable crops. There are some farmers who are completely into dairy production as their primary business, but this is not the norm. And even for this subset of farmers, it would always be possible for them to shift focus and concentrate more on plant-based production. One unexpected example of a plant-based field of agricultural production that has really excelled in the last couple of decades is mushrooms. In my college years, I can remember people encouraging individuals or businesses to produce more and more mushrooms because it was such a thriving area. This encouragement to look into plant-based options was actually part of Animal Equality India’s proposal to the government following our dairy investigation. We suggested that the government give subsidies to companies producing plant-based food. If we can encourage farmers whose current focus is dairy products to look at plant-based milk, for example, then this would be one way of ensuring their continued livelihood even as we advocate for the rights and welfare of farmed animals.
Something relevant to think about on this point is that in India, meat consumption is not at the same level that it is in many Western countries. We do have meat-eaters, of course, and they make up about 30% of the population, but it is not common here to eat meat three times a day. Here, the most hardcore of meat-eaters would not want to eat meat even every day. So, there is simply a lot less demand for meat here than there likely is in most Western countries. A lot of people are already very familiar with the vegetarian diet, and the real push is to make people more familiar with the vegan diet. We have been pushing for that awareness, particularly during our dairy investigation when we actually had one of the best news channels in the country run footage from the investigation and interview government officials for almost a week. The current government publicly speaks about cows as being sacred, but we were able to spread some awareness about how cruelly cows are treated. If we can keep spreading this awareness, hopefully both farmers and the general public will become more invested in plant-based alternatives to dairy products.
What role does religion play in your work, and in animal advocacy in India more generally?
When it comes to animal welfare, religion is a double-edged sword. We can use it to our advantage in certain situations and with certain audiences, but it can work against us in other situations and with other audiences. When we try to persuade both the government and the general public that animal rights is not an alien concept for India, we can refer to not only the Hindu scriptures but nearly every active religion or caste system in the country for evidence. We are a country known for ahimsa, the principle of nonviolence toward all living things.
Are there any other challenges to effective animal advocacy in India that you think are significant?
I think challenges can also be seen as opportunities, depending on how you approach them. There are a few things, though, that I have in mind. First, I think one of the most important things in animal advocacy is to make sure that you have the right people on board, and this is a way in which we are behind in India. As a country, we are known for churning out professionals in areas like engineering and medicine. In this kind of climate, finding people to work in the nonprofit sector is an almost impossible challenge. People tend to view nonprofit work as something that should only be done when one has reached retirement age and finished with one’s “real working life.” There could be a great opportunity here if we could change the general attitude toward the nonprofit sector, since we do have a population of 1.3 billion and our workforce is like a huge, diligent army. For me personally, when I first decided to start working full-time at Animal Equality India, I didn’t have the support of my family or my friends. Now, though, these are the people who are the most supportive. I think this goes to show the importance of changing people’s perception of nonprofit work, and it also shows that it is possible to do so.
Another challenge which we touched on earlier is the geographical size of India. We need to have a stronger presence in different regions across the country. Currently, our network of paid staff and volunteers does not cover the entire nation. I think it would be beneficial if we could start offering post-secondary courses related to animals and animal welfare, to raise awareness for people just starting out in their professional lives. It may also be helpful to be less demanding of new staff and be willing to take whatever help is available in various regions. I have found in my work so far that there is a place for everyone in the movement, and we can be creative in finding spaces for people to contribute, no matter what their background might be.
Another challenge might be trying to take on more animal welfare investigations. I have mentioned some of our own investigations already, but there aren’t a lot of other organizations doing this same kind of work. And yet, the information gathered from investigations forms the backbone of all of our lobbying efforts, proposals, education, and even corporate outreach. Often, I see educational efforts where the videos being shown are from Western animal rights organizations. This creates a barrier between the educators and their audiences because audiences don’t see the immediate connection to India. It is also important to realize that, even though many kinds of cruelty are standard across the farming industry, there are also many other kinds of cruelty that are specific to certain companies or certain regions. If we aren’t conducting investigations in different areas across the country, then we will inevitably miss some of these. So, I think there is a huge opportunity here to increase the number of investigations that we are conducting.
Finally, we just recently started a food policy department, and we have been reaching out for input from different kinds of companies across various sectors. The big challenge with this project is coming up with viable alternatives to meat-based menu items. When we speak with companies about reducing the amount of meat they have on offer, their meat-based items need to be replaced with something. But there are only a few plant-based alternatives to offer right now, and there are currently a lot of issues in terms of logistics and manufacturing. So, even though most companies tend to agree with our advice, there is a big shortage in the supply of the kinds of plant-based products they are now interested in. This is especially the case with regard to vegan milk alternatives, egg replacements, and clean meat. Expanding the development and production of these kinds of products is definitely a big opportunity for progress in India.
Is there anything else that we haven’t yet spoken about that you would like to include before we finish?
It is important to note that India’s international reputation for vegetarianism is unfortunately not entirely accurate anymore. More and more people are actually increasing their intake of meat. I think this has a lot to do with both media and corporate influence from Western countries and the growing amount of disposable income in India, particularly in urban areas. We have many Western fast food chains chains flourishing here now, including big meat-sellers like McDonald’s and KFC. In India, eating animal products is unfortunately synonymous with luxury, so when people do start to have more disposable income, it is likely that their intake of meat and dairy will increase.