India is home to the world’s largest population of stray dogs, numbering in the tens of millions and responsible for about a third of rabies deaths worldwide. Since 2001, dogs have been protected under Indian law, and over the last fifteen years their population has skyrocketed. Street dogs have become a source of controversy in the city of Mumbai, with fights breaking out between those who attempt to feed them and others who regard them as a dangerous menace. One housing complex threatened to name and shame residents who fed stray dogs.
In August, however, street dogs became controversial for an altogether different reason, as the Hindustan Times reported that residents in Mumbai had observed that strays had found their fur mysteriously dyed blue. It subsequently emerged that the dogs had waded into the Kasadi river in search of food, where their fur had been dyed by untreated industrial waste. A water quality test by the local municipality showed that the water was dangerously polluted. Indeed, animal rights activists noted that other species of animal are likely to have also been affected.
Fortunately for the dogs, the dye was washed off by rain showers, and they do not appear to have been harmed. After a formal complaint from local environmentalists, a representative of the Mumbai Pollution Control Board (MPCB) remarked that “allowing the discharge of dye into any water body is illegal. We will take action against the polluters as they are destroying the environment.” Other activists called for a full-scale inquiry into the issue. Despite calls for the offending plant to be closed down, the local animal rights activist Arati Chauhan said that she did not believe depriving workers of employment was the answer, preferring to hold the existing industries to account.
The Kasadi river has its source 39 kilometres from Mumbai, where its waters are used for agriculture, drinking and washing clothes. But once it reaches the city, its use is exclusively chemical. Factories have been located in this area since the 1960s, and more than three hundred of them make chemicals. Fishermen in the area reported that their fish stocks were being badly depleted by the chemical residue. The plant believed to be responsible for the blue dogs, a paint and plastics factory, had its operations suspended by the MPCB after a public outcry.
This story might have been confined to the local media but for the existence of photos and videos of the dyed dogs, which rapidly went viral and were picked up by media outlets around the world, including the BBC and NPR. Serious media organisations like the Financial Times and the Guardian covered the story in the curious but distant manner that is reserved for disasters in the developing world. It’s terrible, but what can we do? The case of the bright blue dogs was picked up, pored over and set back down in the space of a few days.
But we should consider paying more attention to the environmental plight of Mumbai. The city produces 7,000 metric tonnes of waste a day, none of which is sorted for recycling. One in six people in the city lives in a slum. Nitric oxide and nitrogen oxide levels in the air are three times higher than the safe limit. When the city was beset by monsoon rain in 2005, the rainwater had nowhere to go, and the city was submerged for several days, leading to uproar among the population.
The city has virtually no public transport infrastructure, and efforts to build a metro are not expected to make a substantial difference. In 2014, the number of cars sold in the city went up by fourteen percent in a single year, while a survey in 2017 revealed that for the first time, Mumbai had more vehicles than trees – 3.4 million versus 3.2 million. (There are slightly more than two people for every tree.)
The rest of India is no better when it comes to pollution, and New Delhi is the most polluted major city in the world. A recent study by Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute revealed that if India achieved its own pollution reduction standards the average Indian’s life expectancy would be a year longer. In the capital, life expectancy is six years lower than it would be if pollution levels were lowered to national standards. Over a million people each year die prematurely in India due to air pollution, making it the fifth leading cause of death in the country.
In January 2015, the government of New Delhi sought to reduce pollution by only allowing certain cars to drive on the roads each day: odd-numbered licence plates one day, even-numbered the next. The experiment was seen as only ambiguously successful, because citizens were not properly informed of the rationale, and alternative means of transport were not available.
Michael Brauer, a professor of environment and health relationships at the University of British Columbia remarked that pollution is a perfect storm for India, which faces a combination of rapid industrialisation, population growth and an aging population that is more likely to face health problems as a consequence of air pollution. What India lacks, according to Bhargav Krisha, manager for environmental health at the Public Health Foundation of India, is the idea that the government should lead the way in reducing emissions.
While the plight of Mumbai’s stray dogs deserves attention, pollution in India is a public health emergency on a colossal scale. The world’s second most populated country is also its fifth most polluted, according to the Yale Environmental Performance Index. We cannot afford to see efforts to reduce pollution in cities like Mumbai fail, and we cannot afford to relegate this issue to the small print. It’s time we allowed this dog to have its day.