Indian Scientists Blast Proposal to Improve Animal Welfare

Regulators could ban experiments involving animals, like this white rat, at Indian universities, under a proposed animal welfare law.

Pallava Bagla

Indian scientists are calling for a major rewrite of a proposed animal welfare law that they say could undermine research involving animals. A government draft of the legislation is too vague and carries unreasonably harsh penalties, argued scientists attending a 15 September meeting about the plan at the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) in New Delhi.

The proposed Animal Welfare Act of 2011 aims to strengthen India's overall efforts to prevent animal cruelty and includes provisions covering research. The nation has about 5000 research institutions that carry out animal experiments, according to the Animal Welfare Board of India, a government agency that enforces animal treatment rules. It estimates that just 1700 are properly registered with the government, however, and that just 200 have "adequate" facilities for housing and caring for research animals. "Unregulated experimentation is rampant," says S. Chinny Krishna, a chemical engineer and vice chair of the board. "Animals are misused in India, even though many are revered as Gods."

Many researchers, however, say the draft proposal, which the government could send to Parliament later this year, goes too far. For example, its definition of an "animal" as "any living creature other than human being," is too vague, says INSA President Krishan Lal, a physicist. The definition does not make it clear, for example, whether it applies to microbes or animals not known to feel pain. Another provision says researchers should avoid experiments "on larger animals … when it is possible to achieve the same results by experiments upon smaller animals," without defining what constitutes large or small.

The draft also appears to empower regulators to ban "experiments and dissections" designed to teach students at "undergraduate medical colleges, pharmacy colleges, zoology or other degree and diploma colleges and universities," or train technicians learning "manual skills," INSA notes. And violators could face stiff punishments, including imprisonment of up to 3 years and fines of about $1000.

Those penalties are "draconian and unjustified," says cardiologist K. K. Talwar, president of India's National Academy of Medical Sciences and chair of the Medical Council of India in New Delhi. The proposal "has a clear and implicit agenda of preventing any usage, even legitimate usage of experimental animals," he says.

The government is promising to incorporate some of the scientist's suggestions into a new draft. But Anjani Kumar, an official involved in that process, warned of other potential changes that could raise new objections -- such as increasing penalties to up to 5 years and $250,000 per violation.

That would be an "absurdity," says INSA's Lal. Most Indian scientists do not earn $250,000 over their entire careers, he notes.

His group is planning to write to every Member of Parliament to express concern and recommend changes. "Science and animal welfare can coexist," he says. "The government should not put roadblocks on life science research."