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New Delhi: The government has allowed jallikattu, a bull-taming sport, to be held in Tamil Nadu and bullock cart races in other states including Maharashtra, Karnataka, Punjab, Haryana, Kerala and Gujarat in a decision that has already begun to draw flak from animal rights activists.

The environment ministry published a notification on Thursday amending a 11 July 2011 order which specified that animals such as bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers, lions and bulls “shall not be exhibited or trained as performing animals".

“Bulls can continue to be exhibited or trained as performing animals at events such as jallikattu in Tamil Nadu and bullock cart races in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Punjab, Haryana, Kerala and Gujarat in the manner (specified) by the customs of any community or practised traditionally under the customs or as a part of culture, in any part of the country," said the notification.

The notification said the bulls should be tested by animal husbandry authorities and the veterinary department to ensure that they are in good physical condition to participate in such events and performance-enhancement drugs should not be administered to them.

The notification also directed authorities to ensure that the animals are not subjected to any cruelty and that the events are monitored by bodies such as the state animal welfare boards or district authorities.

The Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), a statutory advisory body on animal welfare under the environment ministry, had already warned against the move stating that such a decision would go against the May 2014 Supreme Court order banning jallikattu.

Advocate N.G. Jayasimha, who is an AWBI member, criticized the move calling it a moment of shame.

“It is a shameful move. It’s an absolutely illegal and unconstitutional move. You cannot be overturning a Supreme Court order for political benefits. AWBI was asked by the environment ministry for its opinion and we had categorically said that this would be illegal," Jayasimha said.

Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu are expected to be held in May.

AWBI chairman Major General (retd) R.M. Kharb had, in a letter on 31 December to the Union environment secretary Ashok Lavasa, already warned against allowing jallikattu.

“The Supreme Court has stated in no uncertain terms that before allowing any such event, the opinion of the board will have to be sought. We... continue to strongly oppose conduct of these events and urge you to please reconsider the government’s decision to allow conduct of jallikattu in Tamil Nadu, bullock cart races at Maharashtra / Punjab and other parts of the country, kambala in Karnataka, and other similar events," the letter said.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), a non-governmental organization working for animal rights, said it is going to challenge the order in the Supreme Court.

“We are going to challenge the environment ministry’s order and have already started the process for it," said Nikunj Sharma, Peta’s government affairs liaison officer.

An online campaign to stop jallikattu is already underway.

“The fact that Change.org’s petition has drawn support from several thousand people shows widespread concern about animal cruelty during jallikattu," said Durga Nandini, director of communications of the online platform.

An expert committee, constituted by the ministry to review environment laws and headed by former cabinet secretary T.S.R. Subramanian, recommended allowing cultural practices such as jallikattu in a report in November 2014.

“India has a varied and glorious cultural tradition; while there are many national festivals, there are also localized festivals, which are of great importance in different states. A dispensation in the various schedules should be permitted to take into account such local practices, and reflect them in their approved schedules, through gazette notification," the committee said.

Jallikattu, a centuries-old practice in Tamil Nadu, has been criticized by activists, who say the sport amounts to cruelty to animals.

In May 2014, the Supreme Court banned jallikattu and bullock cart races, saying such events cause unnecessary pain and suffering to animals.

States such as Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra petitioned environment minister Prakash Javadekar to amend the rules to allow these practices.

Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa, who has raised the issue several times in the past year, thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the decision in a letter on Friday.

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