Is your dog equal to you? Chief Justice of India Sharad Arvind Bobde on Wednesday posed this existential question before a petitioner.
Allahabad-based People’s Charioteer Organisation has sought juridical personhood for all members of the animal kingdom.
Its plea cites legal entity status accorded to animals in two recent verdicts rendered by the Punjab and Haryana and Uttarakhand high courts. Besides the Centre and some of its ministries, it has arrayed all states, UTs, the National Crime Records Bureau and the Animal Welfare Board of India as party.
George Orwell famously wrote in Animal Farm “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”. This literally holds true in nature, where might is right for the sustenance of food chains and ecosystems, and in economies to which agriculture, fisheries, food processing, leather and dairy are intrinsic.
The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets) Rules, 2017, notified by the NDA 2.0 government, for instance, became unsustainable in law for this very reason, and the ban on the sale of cattle for slaughter that breached the people’s fundamental right to livelihood was since revoked.
While the Supreme Court considers this prayer of animal righters, if sceptically, as Justice Bobde himself clarified, it is important, therefore, to bear in mind that progressive, and innocuous, though this reform appears, it may end up wasting the judiciary’s time.
For sure there are international precedents — leftist Ecuador was the first to amend its constitution in 2008 to apply this definition to nature, while New Zealand accorded it to the Te Urewara national park in 2014 and the river Whanganui, “ancestor of the Maoris”, in 2017.
But to officially hold animals as not “property” but equals yet have them governed by manmade laws is openly fallacious.
The petition urges all citizens of India be declared persons in loco parentis for animals.
However, treating wildlife as a person requires the establishment of guardians to represent its legal interests. This “doctrine of trust” is already in place; so, perhaps, the rights approach to this case is redundant, after all.