Today, India celebrates 69 years of freedom. That single word encapsulates the right as well as the power to think, act and live with dignity. It took years of struggle and sacrifice for the citizens of India to realize this dream. But have these fundamental rights that we human beings cherish and celebrate every year blinded us to the pain and struggle of millions of animals willfully denied their basic freedoms to serve human ends?
Animals in factory farms and laboratories are deprived of the ability to engage in many natural behaviours, and are intensively confined in cages and crates so small they cannot even turn around. The physical barriers that ensure their confinement are in fact reminders of the greed that makes people place profits above the welfare of animals, and doesn't allow them even the most basic freedoms.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in India's thriving poultry industry. According to a report by the Food and Agricultural Organization, India is the third largest egg producer in the world, having transitioned from a backyard business to a fully industrialized system of animal agriculture. Social birds like hens, with distinctive personality traits such as a love for dust-bathing and perching on branches, are treated as no more than insentient, egg-producing machines, and are intensively confined. Large numbers of hens are crammed into wire enclosures called "battery cages", a name owing to their arrangement in rows like batteries. Each cage provides every hen with less space than an iPad so they cannot spread their wings or turn around without touching another bird.
Chickens use their beaks, just like we use our hands, to touch, identify food and for self-defence. However, to reduce stress-induced aggression in these crammed cages, their beaks are often cut off with hot iron blades without the use of anaesthetics. Approximately 220 million hens spend one to two years of their lives in battery cages, lying in their own waste and often next to a dead bird. Once their bodies are too exhausted to keep up with the industry's demands, these "spent" hens are yanked out of their cages and sent for slaughter. This is a far cry from the precept of compassion that our Constitution lays down as a fundamental duty.
Imagine a syringe being forced down your throat and a massive chemical dose pumped into your stomach, or being squeezed into restraints and forced to breathe toxic vapours for hours. From pesticides to pharmaceuticals, chemicals and products of all descriptions are still being tested in massive doses on dogs, monkeys, mice, rabbits and other animals. Consider the oral lethal dose test in which chemicals are force-fed to rats to determine the dosage that will kill 50% of the test population. While there is a validated alternative test using human cells that can reduce the use of animals by as much as 80%, most Indian regulators still mandate this 1920s-era animal test in which animals commonly experience extreme pain and distress, diarrhoea, convulsions and paralysis before death.
In India, the plight of these animals is considered so inconsequential that the government does not even collate statistics regarding their use. The Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision of Experiments on Animals was formed under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, its basic principle to reduce, refine and replace animals in experiments. Yet the CPCSEA has done little to enforce India's legal requirement to use alternatives to animal testing and research where they exist. Likewise, instead of investing in the future of advanced and humane 21st century science, as is being done in America and Europe, Indian research funding bodies continue to pump large sums of money into animal studies and archaic large animal houses.
A sliver of hope
The Indian government, in the first of many required public policy moves, prohibited animal testing for cosmetics, while the Supreme Court recently directed the Centre to take action on the rule recommended by the Animal Welfare Board of India to alleviate suffering of egg-laying hens in battery cages. The law of the land has spoken against the inhumane treatment of animals to serve human needs. Now it is our turn to stand with the animals whose plight we have deliberately ignored, for it is not possible to celebrate freedom, while denying it to those that share this planet with us.