The father of modern pathology, Rudolf Virchow, emphasised in 1856 that there are essentially no dividing lines between animal and human medicine. This concept is ever more salient as the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. Discussions that took place around World Veterinary Day, on April 24, 2021, focused on acknowledging the interconnectedness of animals, humans, and the environment, an approach referred to as “One Health”.
Across the species barrier
Studies indicate that more than two-thirds of existing and emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, or can be transferred between animals and humans, and vice versa, when the pathogen in question originates in any life form but circumvents the species barrier. Another category of diseases, “anthropozoonotic” infections, gets transferred from humans to animals. The transboundary impact of viral outbreaks in recent years such as the Nipah virus, Ebola, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Avian Influenza has further reinforced the need for us to consistently document the linkages between the environment, animals, and human health.
India’s framework, plans
India’s ‘One Health’ vision derives its blueprint from the agreement between the tripartite-plus alliance comprising the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) — a global initiative supported by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Bank under the overarching goal of contributing to ‘One World, One Health’.
In keeping with the long-term objectives, India established a National Standing Committee on Zoonoses as far back as the 1980s. And this year, funds were sanctioned for setting up a ‘Centre for One Health’ at Nagpur. Further, the Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying (DAHD) has launched several schemes to mitigate the prevalence of animal diseases since 2015, with a funding pattern along the lines of 60:40 (Centre: State); 90:10 for the Northeastern States, and 100% funding for Union Territories. Hence, under the National Animal Disease Control Programme, ₹13,343 crore have been sanctioned for Foot and Mouth disease and Brucellosis control. In addition, DAHD will soon establish a ‘One Health’ unit within the Ministry.
Additionally, the government is working to revamp programmes that focus on capacity building for veterinarians and upgrading the animal health diagnostic system such as Assistance to States for Control of Animal Diseases (ASCAD). In the revised component of assistance to States/Union Territories, there is increased focus on vaccination against livestock diseases and backyard poultry. To this end, assistance will be extended to State biological production units and disease diagnostic laboratories.
WHO estimates that rabies (also a zoonotic disease) costs the global economy approximately $6 billion annually. Considering that 97% of human rabies cases in India are attributed to dogs, interventions for disease management in dogs are considered crucial. DAHD has partnered with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in the National Action Plan for Eliminating Dog Mediated Rabies. This initiative is geared towards sustained mass dog vaccinations and public education to render the country free of rabies.
Need for coordination
Scientists have observed that there are more than 1.7 million viruses circulating in wildlife, and many of them are likely to be zoonotic, which implies that unless there is timely detection, India risks facing many more pandemics in times to come. To achieve targets under the ‘One Health’ vision, efforts are ongoing to address challenges pertaining to veterinary manpower shortages, the lack of information sharing between human and animal health institutions, and inadequate coordination on food safety at slaughter, distribution, and retail facilities. These issues can be remedied by consolidating existing animal health and disease surveillance systems — e.g., the Information Network for Animal Productivity and Health (https://bit.ly/2SqNHlr), and the National Animal Disease Reporting System (https://bit.ly/3aVTPbq) — developing best-practice guidelines for informal market and slaughterhouse operation (e.g., inspections, disease prevalence assessments), and creating mechanisms to operationalise ‘One Health’ at every stage down to the village level. Now, as we battle yet another wave of a deadly zoonotic disease (COVID-19), awareness generation, and increased investments toward meeting ‘One Health’ targets is the need of the hour.
2. WHY UNDERPRIVILEGED ARE MOST LIKELY TO FALL PREY TO POLICE EXCESSES
Two events put the spotlight on police excesses in two different parts of the world last month. In the US, a former policeman, Derek Chauvin, was convicted for the murder of George Floyd, whose death last year had led to worldwide protests against racism and police excesses in the US.
Closer home, a newspaper investigation found that in an overwhelming majority of habeas corpus petitions challenging preventive detentions under the National Security Act (NSA) in Uttar Pradesh, the Allahabad high court had quashed the detention orders of the district magistrates. In 94 of 120 such cases that came up for review in India’s most populous state between January 2018 and December 2020, the high court ruled that the detentions were unlawful and ordered the release of the victims. Many such cases related to ‘cow slaughter’, where Muslim men had been implicated on flimsy grounds.
Police excesses against Black Americans have ignited protests and debate in the US. But such debate is lacking in India, despite evidence of rampant discrimination against marginalized and underprivileged communities such as Muslims and Dalits. Unsurprisingly, a 2018 nationally representative survey on the state of policing in the country conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and Common Cause found significant mistrust about police investigations. Across states, a significant share of respondents felt that police personnel implicate people on false charges.
MANY PEOPLE feel police personnel often discriminate on the basis of caste and religion, the survey of 15,563 respondents across 22 states showed. Just as the brunt of police atrocities is borne by racial minorities in the West, the brunt of false cases is borne by weaker castes and communities in India as they lack the socio-economic clout to challenge such discrimination. More than a third of respondents in the CSDS-Common Cause survey felt that Dalits were falsely implicated in petty crimes. More than a quarter felt that Adivasis are falsely implicated as Maoists, and Muslims falsely implicated as terrorists.
A significant share of respondents was not sure about police discrimination when asked about these issues, but only a minority were ready to give a clean chit to the police force when it came to such discrimination. The data suggests that a majority of people seem to view the police with either suspicion or outright mistrust.
IT WOULD have been easy to dismiss such data as mere perceptions were it not for the fact that police personnel surveyed themselves shared a dim view of the marginalized communities. The survey asked police personnel about their views on various communities and their responses suggest deep prejudices against underprivileged groups. Nearly half of them agreed in varying degrees with the view that Muslims are naturally prone to committing crime. As much as 35% of police personnel had a similar view of Dalits, while 31% shared a similar view of Adivasis.
Most worryingly, the higher echelons of police forces, who lead and drive police investigations, are most likely to harbour such prejudices, the data show. Across states, the highest ranked officers in districts such as the ASP or the DSP shared the darkest view about Muslims, Dalits, and Adivasis. Those in the ranks of inspectors and sub-inspectors came next, while those in lower ranks expressed relatively lower bias against these communities.
THE BIASES of senior police personnel help explain why so often arrests are made without evidence or on trumped up charges. As there is very little accountability for such actions, there is no significant deterrent, especially when such actions target weaker and voiceless social groups.
The CSDS-Common Cause survey data suggest considerable frustration among ordinary citizens about such immunity. As much as 67% respondents felt that police personnel responsible for false arrests should pay for their crimes once the arrested persons are absolved of all charges by courts.
As the former Mumbai police commissioner, Julio Riberio argued recently, operational independence to police does not imply carte blanche. They need to be held accountable for their sins of omissions and commissions. Without serious reforms in policing, India will get to see many more abuses of police powers in the months and years to come.