Most people would think that being a successful, well-respected income tax officer in a state capital is an achievement in itself. But for the rare few that remain, sky’s the limit. One such person is Mrs Reema Singh, the Government officer who has devoted herself with a matchless zeal to the rejected cause of the stray and wounded animals that haunt the streets of the Lucknow in the hope of some compassion, only to have their hopes dashed to pieces repeatedly. Animal Birth Control (ABC) has done much to alleviate the suffering of these animals. Here are excerpts from an interview.
VP: What was the trigger for setting up ABC?
Reema Singh (RS): I had been working for animals for a long time ever since I left college, in Delhi, entirely on a voluntary basis. On coming to Lucknow I tried to engage with a lot of people, especially NGO workers, hoping that they would pitch in and contribute their bit but that did not work out. I approached a lot many NGOs but all such plans lapsed after a point. The problem kept getting worse due to lack of any sort of basic sensitivity towards our cause. I have been in the [government] service for 19 years and I have seen how much apathy there persists. You have to plan. You have to take the first step, no matter how hard it seems. Unexpected hurdles come but what is important is basic vision which one should be able to conceive.
VP: What has been your strategy so far?
RS: We studied the animal welfare models which have been successful in other places. We didn’t reinvent the wheel but attempted benefiting from other people’s experiences. Chennai has by far been the most successful in this regard followed by Jaipur to some extent. Hyderabad, of course is the abode of Blue Cross Society, one of the most successful organizations in this field in India. We realized that a multipronged approach is what has been effective everywhere else. We too cobbled a multipronged approach to suit our needs as part of the basic project conceptualization. The first step is to undertake sterilization, on a large scale, of the existing stray animals. This way future progeny and litter don’t have to be dealt with and the whole race of stray animals dies a natural death. The second step is vaccination against any zoonotic diseases, i.e., diseases which spread from animals. Thirdly, any accident, any exigency, bad fever or acute illness must be dealt with immediately. Fourthly, there must be a move to work towards a shelter which would house animals that have been incapacitated and are too sick to be put back in the streets. Finally, it is of paramount importance to disseminate awareness among the public. They must be informed that they needn’t necessarily be cruel to animals. Everywhere else things had taken off along this model, but Lucknow had been totally neglected in this regard. The toughest step is to change the mindset of the government. It’s not something that can have a fixed remedy but the basic structure stays the same. It might take time but this is the humane and legal way of doing it, as has been envisaged by the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960.
VP: In your opinion, how much headway do you think you have made so far?
RS: It has been less than one year but still some significant work has been done. A full scale intensive sterilisation unit has been set up. Animals have been rehabilitated after being vaccinated, sterilized and de-wormed. So far we have treated and cured more than 250 animals of diseases ranging from cancer, broken limbs, maggoted wounds, painful and itching diseases to fever, stomach infection, cough and just about anything else. Another indicator of our success is the fact that when we started out we would have to rescue a minimum of 20 animals per day. Now the number has come down to about 10 or 12. Since we have already treated so many perhaps there are not so many left. I know it’s an ongoing thing, an animal once cured might obviously fall sick again. But perhaps, we have managed to make a difference somewhere.
VP: How far are you planning to make this a legal fight?
RS: It has to be a multipronged affair, of course. But we’re hoping we’ll be able to get into specialized streams through networking and assign the work to different people. We have written to the police requesting them to spread awareness about the provisions of the law to their officials regarding the crimes under the [Prevention of Cruelty to] Animals Act, and the punishment for the offence. Perhaps once they understand that it is an offence they will be able to register FIRs with more awareness and sensitivity.
VP: How far is vegetarianism part of your fight?
RS: It’s a complete corollary. You can’t fight for street animals on one count and cut up domestic animals and eat them at other times! You have to look at the problem holistically.
VP: But don’t you think religious injunctions mandating non-vegetarianism may be a problem?
RS: Our first aim is to touch those people for whom it is not a religious injunction. For the others, perhaps a deeper study of religious tenets will help. So far they are probably being read very superficially. Not that I’m an expert but I’ve been told that a threadbare reading of any sacred text wouldn’t endorse cruelty. It goes against the grain of any humanism to inflict pain upon another being. It’s oxymoronic and contradictory to pray to God and then kill one of God’s own creatures.
VP: How has the response been so far?
RS: Except for some people, who typically point out that there are so many dead and dying people who are more in need of help than any animal ever could be, 98% of the people I have come across have really been very supportive. They are curious about what we do, desirous of helping and guilty of not having been able to do something so far. They are happy that a composite sort of approach is being mooted. They are glad that a number of questions they had always wanted to ask about the issue are being answered to their satisfaction and that enough thought and research has gone into ABC. For instance for everyone who asks me about why we prioritize animals over human beings when they too need so much help, my standard reply is to ask them why they don’t do something about the cause they believe in. As long as you can think beyond yourself, why can’t you go ahead and work for whatever you believe in? We feel that animals are the worst off in our societies. For an animal it is the voicelessness that drew our compassion. But if they feel compassionate for people why can’t they work for people instead of picking out flaws in whichever section we are trying to help?
VP: How do you manage to juggle two commitments along with your family commitments so effortlessly? Does it entail a lot of sacrifices?
RS: It does take a lot from me. But right now, I have the time, energy and resources to devote myself to it. A few years down the line I might be too old to do anything of this kind. I may be prey to illnesses. I want to do my bit as long as I can! I definitely crave rest and sometimes I grumble about the fact that with every emergency call, I have to rush out. But at the end of the day cosmic governance gives me the energy. Every day passes with support from God.
VP: Do you think the youth has a more important role to play in the dissemination of your cause? Have you embarked upon any specifically youth oriented programmes?
RS: Definitely. In fact, we have written to the Animal Welfare Board of India to write to the school boards and universities to request them to put in ‘animal sensitive stories’ to suit appropriate age levels. For instance the inclusion of very simple stories for young readers might help in teaching the basics of animal protection in sync with the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. We’ve also been pressing for the introduction of the Act in the curriculum of law universities.
Clearly, Reema Singh has shown the world that there can be no excuse for shirking responsibility and working for something you profess to believe in. She has proved to all of us that determination is all it takes to make a difference. All we have to do is try.