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A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde recentlty slammed the livestock confiscation policies of the government and said: “Section 29 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (PCA), 1960 is very clear. Only a person who is convicted can lose his animals. Either you amend your laws or else we will stay it. We cannot countenance rules which run contrary to the parent act.” The Centre tried to justify the 2017 rules under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act, 1960, and said there was a difference between seizure and confiscation of animals and a plea could be filed in the concerned court seeking release of seized animals. The top court said confiscation of animals could only happen after the conviction of a person under the PCA Act and it could not be done during the pendency of trial. A bench of Chief Justice SA Bobde and Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian said it was talking about the situation where the animals were taken away from the protective custody of the owners even during the proceedings.
“There is a difference between sale and seizure. When sale is there then income is generated. We are only concerned with confiscation of animals from the rightful owner and thus kept locked up and injured,” the bench said. Finding that a rule that empowered the magistrate to confiscate livestock even before a conviction was received under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act (1960) ran contrary to the very law itself, the Supreme Court gave the Centre a week to delete the provision or be prepared for a stay order on the rules. During the hearing, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for Centre said they had filed a detailed reply to the petition and so far as seizure was concerned, a plea could be filed in concerned court for release of seized animals. He said that the petitioner NGO was confused between seizure and confiscation and an animal subjected to cruelty could not be allowed to be maintained by that person. The bench asked Mehta: “What are you going to do about the rules which are in dissonance with the sections of the Act?” The bench, which also comprised Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian said: “People live on the strength of their animals. You cannot confiscate and keep the animals till they (accused) are convicted.”
On January 4, the top court had asked the Centre to either withdraw or amend rules notified in 2017 for confiscating animals of traders and transporters during the pendency of trial in cases under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, saying they are contrary to the law. The Centre in its reply affidavit said that, the petitioner had conflated the meanings of the term seizure and confiscation and added that while seizure was temporary in nature and merely takes possession of property, confiscation amounts to transfer of ownership in the property and was supposed to be carried out only after final adjudication of the rights of the parties in a given case. It was submitted that however, the power of seizure, as clearly provided in the Act, could be exercised in the interim subject to the final decision taken by the statutory machinery. It was submitted that the said power of seizure, pending adjudication expressly provided for under the Act, is not under challenge, the Centre said. The Centre further said that during the pendency of litigation and in pursuance of the provisions provided in section 35 of the Act, for treatment and care of such rescued animals local magistrate by its discretion on interim custody sometimes handover the cattle/animal to some local Pinjrapoles or Gaushala or animal shelter homes, when the accused owners of cattle were not fit to get interim custody of the cattle as per the law.
“It is most respectfully submitted that the arguments raised regarding the right of livelihood of the traders are also not sustainable as there is no fundamental right to a business illegally, as the animal traders are required to their business as per the law of the land and the rules laid down to the said business of carrying animals from one place to another under the Transport of Animal Rules, 1978,” it said.
The Centre introduced two rules in 2017 — the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Care and Maintenance of Case Property Animals) Rules and the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Market) Rules — and notified them in May 2018. Delhi-based Buffalo Traders Welfare Association, which espouses the cause of cattle traders, farmers, butchers, and agriculturists, challenged the former rule in the apex court in May 2019. Both rules were challenged in July 2017 by the All-India Jamiatul Quresh Action Committee. At the time, the Centre informed the top court that the rules would be amended and re-notified. Thus, the petition was disposed of and the Supreme Court directed the Centre to hear the stakeholders before re-notitying the amended rules. However, the new petitioners said they were not aware of any fresh notification. In its petition, the association stated that certain groups, emboldened by the rules, took the law into their hands and looted livestock. The petition filed by advocate Rajnish Kumar Jha stated: “Transporters, cattle traders and farmers are facing threats due to anti-social elements taking law in their own hands. This resulted in looting of the animals… These incidents are acting as triggers for communal polarisation of the society, and if not halted effectively and immediately, will have disastrous consequences on the social fabric of the country.”
There have been a number of attacks on cattle traders by cow protection groups with right wing political affiliations for allegedly transporting livestock for the purposes of slaughter. It is illegal to slaughter cows across the country, and a handful of states have passed laws to protect different types of cattle from slaughter. In May 2017, the Centre imposed a ban on the sale and purchase of cattle for slaughter at animal markets across India under PCA statutes but the Supreme Court suspended the ban shortly after giving relief to beef and leather industries. The Court issued a notice on the petition and sought a response from the Centre in July 2019; in August 2020, it enquired whether the rule in question was notified. On Jan 5, the petition came up for hearing again and Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Jayant Sud appearing for the Centre informed the court that the rules were notified in 2018. The ASG said that he was prepared to share evidence of cruelty that had been meted out to the cattle seized under the rules.
Senior advocate Sanjay Hedge appearing for the petitioner pointed out that the newly notified rule empowered a magistrate to direct the confiscated animal to be housed in an infirmary, animal welfare organisation or gaushala (cow shed) during the pendency of the litigation. This was contrary to Section 29 of the 1960 act, he said. Section 29 states: “If the owner of any animal is found guilty of any offence under this Act. the court upon his conviction thereof, may, if it thinks fit, in addition to any other punishment make an order that the animal with respect to which the offence was committed shall be forfeited to Government…” However, Rule 3 of the 2017 rule in question empowered the Magistrate to direct the animal to be confiscated and housed at an infirmary, Animal Welfare Organization or Gaushala during the pendency of the litigation even before the person got convicted.