As vehicles whiz past E.M. Bypass on the city's eastern fringe towards the airport, a signboard on the left indicates the Kolkata Municipal Corporation's dog pound now run by Maneka Gandhi's People for Animals (PFA).
It is here that the adage every dog has his day comes true. This sprawling pound aims to restore the mental and physical health of stray dogs. And it particularly focuses on anti-rabies vaccination for the canines.
"We are as much working for humans as animals. The welfare of animals and humans is related since our stray dog sterilisation and anti-rabies vaccination programme only helps prevent rabies in humans," Debasis Chakrabarti, managing trustee, PFA Calcutta, told IANS.
"Since it costs only Rs.25 to vaccinate a stray dog against rabies compared to Rs.1,500 for a human, it is more advisable to spend money on vaccinating dogs for the sake of humans."
With an estimated 19,000 people dying from rabies in India every year, the NGO offers a new model to fight rabies and save thousands of poor people who cannot afford the costly post- bite anti-rabies injections. The injection costs around Rs.1,500, which not many can afford.
PFA suggests that the government spend more money on anti-rabies vaccination for dogs so that a dog bite in a locality is not cause for alarm among the victims.
Indian deaths from rabies account for nearly 35 percent of such deaths worldwide, according to data available with WHO. Worldwide nearly 55,000 people succumb to rabies, mostly caused by dog bites. Of this, Asia accounts for 31,000.
Chakrabarti said: "In a letter to Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya we have written that the only way to tackle rabies effectively and economically is to vaccinate the stray dogs. Since the days of killing stray dogs in a cruel and futile exercise are over we can at best sterilise and vaccinate the dogs for our own well-being."
A visit to the otherwise forbidden zone of the PFA-run dog pound off E.M. Bypass offers a pleasant sight. Rows of cages where at least 325 dogs can be accommodated look relatively sanitised and the animals are treated with a lot of care.
PFA's veterinary doctor has conducted over 12,000 surgeries since 2002 as part of its ABC (Animal Birth Control) programme.
The West Bengal figure on rabies deaths is 162 in the year 2005, as provided by state joint secretary of public health S.N. Dutta quoting records of Kolkata's Infectious Diseases (ID) hospital, though he admits that the real figure could be much higher.
Though the West Bengal health department per se is not averse to the idea of vaccinating dogs against rabies, it feels the initiative should be taken by the state veterinary department.
"If the veterinary department wants funds from us we would provide the same. We already fund the vasectomy of stray dogs," Dutta told IANS.
According to Dutta, anti-rabies injections like Rabipol or Rabirix are distributed free among people who are BPL (below the poverty line) but the vaccines are not adequate to meet the demand.
"We offer the injections in two hospitals in Kolkata. But I must admit that the total production of the vaccine is not enough to meet the total number of patients who come to hospitals with dog bites," he said.
Dutta said even if dogs were vaccinated, a victim of bite would not know which dog was vaccinated and which was not.
But Chakrabarti differed.
"We have an extensive programme in every locality. Each dog that we sterilise or vaccinate is ear-clipped. We call it ear-notching so that we can keep track of the vaccination," he stated.
"For so many years we have been working to raise our own funds. PFA Calcutta is a flagship project of PFA nationwide and has set an example in animal management," said Chakrabarti.
He also said: "I have no faith in the state's veterinary department. They have no positive role to play and their contribution to the sterilisation programme is zilch."
With rabies causing a major health hazard in India and the government machinery not equipped to cope with the problem, it remains to be seen if the authorities realise the potential of the non-governmental organisations like PFA which runs Asia's biggest animal hospital ASHARI here besides a huge cat shelter.
Said WHO chief spokesman H.K. Pandey: "Since over 90 percent of the rabies cases are due to dog bite, what India needs to do is to vaccinate dogs. The dog population in India is much higher as compared to any other country and the canines should be sterilised to curb the growth."