The story so far: In April, a 65-year-old woman in Srinagar was attacked by street dogs outside her home. Also sitting in front of her house is a garbage collection point — a mound of food and poultry waste that becomes food for free-roaming dogs in the area, as per reports.
The incident, one among several, spotlighted the link between urban solid waste management and stray dog attacks in Indian cities. Frequent reports of dogs chasing people down the road, attacking and even “mauling” people to death have made the management of stray dogs an administrative and legal issue.
But what also determines how frequently, and where, these attacks happen is how efficiently a city’s sanitation and waste disposal facilities operate, experts say. According to them, unless cities learn to manage solid waste better, rabies vaccines and dog sterilisation will have little effect.
What do dog bites have to do with poor waste management?
The “carrying capacity” — the ability of a city to support a species — is determined by the availability of food and shelter. Free-ranging dogs, in the absence of these facilities, are scavengers that forage around for food, eventually gravitating towards exposed garbage dumping sites. Dogs thus congregate around urban dumps, such as landfills or garbage dumps, due to feeding opportunities.
A population boom in Indian cities has contributed to a staggering rise in solid waste. Indian cities generate more than 1,50,000 metric tonnes of urban solid waste every day. Per a 2021 United Nations Environment Program report, an estimated 931 million tonnes of food available to consumers ended up in households, restaurants, vendors and other food service retailers’ bins in 2019. Indian homes on average also generated 50 kg of food waste per person, the report said.
This food often serves as a source of food for hunger-stricken, free-roaming dogs that move towards densely-populated areas in cities, such as urban slums which are usually located next to garbage dumping sites and landfills. A 2021 Bengaluru-based study found garbage from bakeries, restaurants, and houses was the primary food source for free-roaming dogs. The authors recommended, “steps to reduce the carrying capacity of the environment by regulating feeding around bakeries and improving waste management in public spaces”.
Moreover, streets and roads are stray dogs’ homes. A free-ranging Indian dog is usually a mix-breed of the indigenous Indian native dog (or the South Asian pye-dog), and other pedigree and mixed breeds, who are abandoned pets(owners living in cities may fail to care for animals for various reasons or may tire of the experiment, research shows).Urban dogs are believed to have a distinct set of traits as compared to rural dogs, as they have “learnt to develop survival techniques in fast-paced, often hostile motorised urban environments”, a 2014 study argues. This means they may be submissive in relation to humans, independent, friendly, and alert
The study goes on to add: “...dogs do not usually pose a threat to human well-being, and proper management of refuse [solid waste] and a tolerant, if not friendly attitude towards dogs can ensure their peace co-existence with us.”
At the same time, stray dogs live on public shelters where they also have to fight traffic, and which also become their refuge from heat and cold.“A dog is a loyal animal and thinks ‘this is my house, I’m being fed here.’ Naturally, these large packs of dogs are becoming territorial and aggressive about public spaces where they are fed,” Meghna Uniyal told The Hindu last month.
In February this year, the Bombay High Court also orally observed that if dogs are fed and cared for, they will become less aggressive (the court did not any studies in support of this observation).
In a separate analysis by the Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Kolkata in 2014, the researchers said the findings do “not support the general notion of free-ranging dogs being aggressive, unfriendly animals that are a constant source of nuisance to people on the streets of India.” Similar findings were echoed in another study, which concluded that free-roaming dogs “rarely” initiated action towards humans and reacted only on provocation, and humans played the “predominant role in initiating both positive and negative behaviours towards dogs”.
What role do urbanisation and urban planning play?
Cities have witnessed a sharp increase in the stray dog population, which as per the official 2019 livestock census stood at 1.5 crore. However, independent estimates peg the number to be around 6.2 crore. The number of dog bites has simultaneously doubled between 2012 and 2020 (researchers however note there is a paucity of data on dog bite deaths due to neglect in the management of rabies). India also shoulders the highest rabies burden in the world, accounting for a third of global deaths caused due to the disease.
In 2015, a study conducted in 10 Indian metro cities -- including Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Bengaluru -- found a strong link between human population, the amount of municipal and food waste generated, and the number of stray dogs in the cities. It argued: “In effect, the present mode of urbanisation and paradigm of development innately promotes urban sprawls, slums, disparity... With the development of cities, managing solid waste has become a daunting challenge,” and the “unconfined and unmanaged leftovers” end up aiding the proliferation of stray dogs.
In 2012, Chandigarh’s dog population was estimated to be 17,912, with 6,900 cases of reported dog bites. The city had a human population of more than 1.5 million people around this time, roughly generating more than 360 tonnes of municipal waste. By 2019, the waste increased to 470 tonnes. Around this time the stray dog population had increased to 23,000, with an increase in reported dog bites too.
While there is no evidence to show that the rising population and municipal waste directly led to an increase in dog bites, experts agree there may be a correlation between urbanisation and solid waste production, made visible due to the mismanagement of waste disposal. Tepid animal birth control programmes and insufficient rescue centres, in conjunction with poor waste management, result in a proliferation of street animals in India, research argues.
The existing systems for solid waste collection and disposal are chequered, with poor implementation and underfunding. Most metro cities are littered with garbage bins that are either old, damaged or insufficient in containing solid wastes, a 2020 research paper pointed out. Urban local bodies are struggling to implement and sustain rules under the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016, such as the door-to-door collection of segregated waste, studies show. There are designated waste collection sites under the Rules, but the implementation of rules and awareness remains low.
All the waste collected should be transported to designated landfill sites, but estimates by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change of India show that only 75-80% of the total municipal waste is collected, and only 22-28% of it is processed. The rest is dumped across cities, becoming food for stray dogs or clogging sewerage systems.
Most landfills and dumping sites are also located on the peripheries of cities, next to slums and settlement colonies. In Mumbai, some of the cheapest housing can be found near Deonar, which is on the verge of 256 slums and 13 resettlement colonies.
The disproportionate burden of dog bites may also thus fall on people in urban slums. In 2021, 300 people living in Pune’s Shivneri Nagar slum complained of stray dog bites in the area, as per reports. In 2020, 17 people, including young children, who lived in Ramabai Nagar, a slum spread over an area of 120 acres in Ghatkopar East, were bitten by stray dogs. A study published in 2016 also found that the prevalence of dog bites was higher in urban slums -- usually located in close proximity to dumping sites -- than rural slums.
The proximity of residential areas to dumping sites and the rise in dog attacks speak to “core issues of unplanned and unregulated urban development, the lack of serviced affordable urban housing for all, lack of safe livelihood options and improper solid waste management”, researchers at the World Resource Institute (WRI) wrote in a blog.
How has India managed human dog population so far?
India’s response to the “stray dog menace” has relied upon the Animal Birth Control (ABC) programme, through which municipal bodies trap, sterilise and release dogs to slow down the dog population. The second anchor is rabies control measures, including vaccination drives. But implementation suffers from low awareness around the health implications of dog bites, irregular supply of vaccines, delay in seeking treatments, and a lack of national policy, experts say.
Other informal, albeit popular, measures include mass culling of dogs in States like Kerala or imposing bans on the entry of stray dogs in colonies or feeding them in public. In November 2022, the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court ruled that people interested in feeding strays should first formally adopt them and feed them in their own homes, directing the municipality to impose a fine of ₹200 on anyone found feeding dogs in public places.
But as long as there is solid waste on streets, peaceful co-existence of humans and dogs will be a challenge, experts say.
Preethi Sreevalsan, a founder-member of the People for Animal Welfare Services, told The Hindu in 2015 that taking measures to curb exposed garbage is the first step to addressing stray dog bites. “Responsible waste management is the only solution to this issue,” she said.