By Krishnadas Rajagopal
On April 17, 2015, the apex court would likely decide on a PIL seeking ban on use of elephants in religious functions, processions and other events.
Almost a year ago, 55-year-old Sunder felt the cool grass under his feet for the first time after years of living chained in a dungeon-like enclosure at a temple in Kolhapur district of Maharashtra.
On April 7, 2014, the Bombay High Court finally stepped in to rescue the elephant from captivity.
Sunder is lucky compared to Bijlee and Poornima. Bijlee was 58, when she collapsed and died on the road, en route to a temple festival. Poornima, was in her mid-sixties, when she died of starvation and poor care on March 21, 2014.
But on April 17, 2015, captive elephants across the country will look up to the Supreme Court’s Social Justice Bench for some relief at last.
On that day, the apex court would likely decide on a public interest petition filed by Bangalore-based Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre and other animal welfare organisations to ban the use of elephants in religious functions, processions and other events.
The life stories of these three captive elephants, narrated in the petition, moved Justice Madan B. Lokur, the lead judge on the Bench, to voice significant concern at the way private entities, religious trusts, owners ill-treat the country’s National Heritage animal for profit.
“This is a very important issue. The famous Guruvayoor temple has 90 elephants,” Justice U.U. Lalit observed.
The petition, through advocate Aparna Bhat, said pachyderms are subject to untold cruelty despite laws over half a century old like Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 1960, which makes it an offence to beat, torture, over-load, chaining or tethering with a heavy or short chain.
It said little regard was paid to the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ guidelines of 2008, which bans captive elephants from being made to walk for more than 30 km a day and not more than three hours at a stretch.
The petition pointed out that in States like Tamil Nadu, temple festivals happen in the hottest months of the year and it was common for elephant keepers to make their elephants walk on the hot, tarred city roads during peak summer days. This was in sheer violation of the Tamil Nadu Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) Rules, 2011.
The petition drew the court’s attention to how even ‘treats’ given to temple elephants by devotees add to their misery.
“Food provided by devotees includes fruits, coconut, ghee, rice and other unnatural food such as sweet, biscuits, and chocolates. This leads to obesity, indigestion, and occurrence of colic and e.coli salmonella infections (unwashed hands of devotees could be a major cause) in the elephants,” it said.
Laying emphasis on States like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, where decked-up elephants perceive to add to the grandeur of temple festivals, the petition brought to the court’s attention that 88 persons including 71 mahouts were killed in accidents relating to captive elephants in three years between 2007-10. The same period saw 215 elephants killed as a result of cruel treatment.
The petition, filed a year after the Supreme Court said animals have the constitutional right to life and dignity under Article 21, wants the court to protect captive elephants from cruel treatment, sale and transfer under the guise of gift or donation and use for commercial and religious activities.
It said the last government census of captive elephants was way back in 2000. It showed that over 3,600 were in chains, in the possession of private entities, including religious institutions and trusts.