In India, where some animals are more equal than others

India is set to become the first country in Asia to act against testing of cosmetics on animals. But that does not make it a country that treats all animals with sympathy

India has a knack of springing surprises. There are not many spheres of life where it is ahead of the world. It lags behind on virtually any dimension you care to take. But in animal rights, it is blazing a trail, set to become the first country in Asia to act against all testing of cosmetics on animals.

The ban, implemented last year, was later extended to cover detergents. Animal rights activists were pleased, but pushed for more. They argued, logically, that the next step was to ban the import of cosmetics that had been tested on animals. The government will soon consider a measure to do precisely that, making India the first cruelty-free cosmetics country in Asia, according to animal rights groups.

The move comes close on the heels of a ruling by the Supreme Court holding that bulls cannot be used in Jallikattu, a hugely popular sport in Tamil Nadu, in which men compete to grapple with a bull’s horns and stay on the beast long enough to win a prize.

After a temporary ban, New Delhi had been planning to restore the sport but the court said that “all living creatures, including animals, have inherent dignity and a right to live peacefully and a right to protect their well-being”.

I know some critics will argue that it is inappropriate for a poor country to be preoccupied with the kind of concerns that only rich countries can afford to worry about because they have already solved the basic needs of their populations and can move on to more esoteric matters such as looking after animals.

I disagree. I don’t think that countries must necessarily move in a linear fashion on rights. Progress on one issue does not always have to move in tandem with progress on another.

India should not wait to protect its animals from cruelty only when it has provided a decent standard of living for its people, just as prestigious monuments are not wasteful and vain symbols. A beautiful building can enhance poor people’s pride and self-respect, even if their living conditions are squalid.

Nonetheless, it is strange that India should move so far ahead on animal rights when it has failed to give millions of Indians homes, sanitation, drinkable water or 24-hour electricity. The “dignity” of which the Supreme Court speaks so eloquently is missing from the lives of hundreds of millions of Indians forced to live like rats in urban hellholes.

When I take the early morning Shatabdi train to visit my elderly father in Punjab every month, I flinch and avert my eyes as I glance through the window at men defecating in public. .

Building toilets for millions takes hard work and commitment. Imposing a ban on imported cosmetics that have been tested on animals is easy – and in India it is invariably the easy option that is seized. People like to pat themselves on the back without making too much of an effort.

The other reason why so many measures have been taken to protect animals is that, in India, the form is as important as the substance. It is enough to have passed a law prohibiting a social evil; it matters not whether it is obeyed.

Road signs abound warning drivers against speeding. Signposts are put up urging people not to spit or litter (but no bin is provided, of course). Laws are passed against the giving of dowries and female foeticide. The fact of having put up the sign and passed a law – in other words an empty shell – is enough.

Likewise with the sacred cow. People profess a sentimental worship of cows, but they don’t feed them. Indian roads are full of bony cows, ambling around unfed, subsisting on roadside scraps and swallowing plastic bags.

Notwithstanding the ban on animal testing on cosmetics, kindness to animals generally is selective. Hungry street dogs will not be fed but aggressive monkeys, who are a real menace in New Delhi, will be, because they are the living representatives of the cherished Hindu god Hanuman. Bullocks in the fields are routinely tortured. Horses used in wedding processions are ill-fed and overworked. Some elephants used in temple ceremonies or for tourist purposes are also mistreated on occasion.

It’s great that Indians are so sensitive to the welfare of animals, as demonstrated by the cosmetics-testing ban. But the true picture is a bit more complicated than that.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist in New Delhi

Published: May 17, 2014 04:00 AM

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