The fallout between the government and the Animal Welfare Board of India over Jallikattu last year led to a revamp of the dissenting body. The government filled it with eight new independent members, seven of whom have worked on cow welfare.
When the NDA government revamped the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), almost all the independent members it picked had one thing in common – their work on cow welfare.
The fallout between the government and the AWBI over Jallikattu last year led the Centre to remove all 22 members of the dissenting board when their three-year tenure ended. For the first time, not one old member was reappointed. Instead, the government appointed an entirely new board.
The AWBI, a statutory body that advises the government on animal welfare, had antagonised the Centre last year when it moved the Supreme Court against the Environment Ministry notification lifting the ban on the bull-taming sport Jallikattu.
Six of the eight new independent members said in separate interviews to ThePrint that they have experience in cow-related initiatives like running cow shelters, researching cow urine and cow dung therapy. The members come from states such as Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Maharashtra and Gujarat.
“They (the government) wanted a pliant Board, so they have got one,” said a senior member of the outgoing board, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
One of the current members, Girish Shah, who is a Managing Trustee with Samast Mahajan, said his NGO provides financial help to gau-shalas (cow shelters) across Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. They have a network of 600 gau-shalas, he said.
Asked to comment on the previous board’s disagreement with the government over the issue of Jallikattu, Shah said that the Board must convince, and not quarrel with the government.
“Also, why fight (with the government) over Jallikattu and not over slaughter and meat export?” he asked.
Another member, Dr. R.S. Chauhan, a professor at the College of Veterinary and Animal Science in Uttarakhand, said some of his most recent work includes papers on the properties of gomutra or cow urine, and how it helps enhance immunity, cure cancer, etc.
Dr. Hitesh Jain, an ayurvedic physician at the Gujarat Ayurved University, said he is an “authority on gau-vigyan (in the country)”. He has also been a member of the RSS, and was the Chairman at the Gau Vigyana Adhyayan Evam Sodha Sansthan.
The other members that ThePrint spoke to include Mohan Singh Ahluwalia, Ajit Kelkar and Dhan Pal Singh – all of whom have similar areas of expertise. Another member, Sunil Mansinghka, works at the Gauvigyan Anusadha Kendra in Maharashtra. Several calls to the eighth member, Ram Krishan Raghuvanshi, went unanswered.
In contrast, the outgoing board was headed by a veterinary doctor and its members included lawyers, animal rights activists, retired police and military officers and medical practitioners.
“We (the previous board) were a bunch of people who are equally invested in the rights of all animals. We don’t have any special love for gau mata,” a former member of the board said.
Former board members point out another anomaly – the current chairperson of AWBI, Sidhanta Das, is an environment ministry official. In its 55-year old history, the Board has always been chaired by persons outside of the government, including veterinarians, animal welfare activists and retired judges. But not any longer. A notification, which was made public earlier this year, said that the board will be chaired by a senior ministry official for its entire term for the next three years.
Following the friction over Jallikattu, “the ministry felt that their own body is going against them”, Anjali Sharma, a lawyer and former Board member, said.
In the aftermath of the confrontation over Jallikattu, the government demanded the resignation of the then chairperson Major General (Rtd.) R.M. Kharb and vice-chairperson Chinny Krishna. The AWBI was also removed as a member of the Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision of Experiments on Animals (CPCSEA), a body responsible for regulating experiments on animals in the country. The CPCSEA was set up in 1991 on the advice of the AWBI.
Earlier this year, Krishna, who was being considered for a Padma award, was dropped from the final list of awardees for going against the government on the issue of Jallikattu, an official from the Home Ministry was reported to have said.
The AWBI is mandated to have 28 members, including the chairperson, vice-chairperson, officials from the government, MPs from Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, and independent members with experience in animal welfare. The positions to be occupied by the MPs usually remain vacant.
But in the new board, the government has left four more seats of independent members vacant for the first time.
At least three former board members call the vacancies an aberration.
“It has never happened in the history of the Board,” said one. Members from welfare organisations bring balance in the discourse, and thus it is curious why the government would leave their membership vacant, he said.
Jayasimha Nuggehalli, a former member of the board, said that the developments in the AWBI should not be seen as isolated.
“There is some amount of suppression of civil society in general”, he said. This is a cause of concern, Nuggehalli said.