Tehatta (Nadia), West Bengal: Hriday Kumar Haldar is becoming as restless as the 70-odd birds he has collected in wicker baskets. The peasant, who lives in Srirampur village of Tehatta-1 block in Nadia district, has been sitting around for one- and-a-half hours, waiting for a government culling team to arrive.
“They went around with microphones yesterday announcing that we should collect them so that they don’t have to run around after them,” he said. “But I’ve been waiting since morning and still there’s no sign of them.”
Scores of peasants such as Haldar are in the same predicament. Even as they offer up their only means of livelihood for slaughter following a district-wide move to cull birds to prevent the spread of the dreaded bird flu, the help at hand is almost always never at hand.
Price to pay: Officials in Srirampur village of Tehatta-I block in Nandia district, West Bengal, distributing compensation for culled birds. (Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/ Mint)
Villagers in nearby Balarampur and Kanainagar had started losing their birds to a mysterious illness almost a week ago, but even on Tuesday morning, the culling efforts of the Rapid Response Teams, as they have been called by the government, have been anything but rapid. This, despite poultry samples from another block in the district, Haringhata, testing positive for bird flu on Tuesday at the High Security Animal Disease Laboratory in Bhopal.
Hundreds of birds are being sent every week to the laboratory to test for what the World Health Organization (WHO) says is the worst outbreak of bird flu in India.
“It has been decided to build several new laboratories especially in view of the bird flu situation now,” Santanu Kumar Bandyopadhyay, West Bengal’s animal husbandry commissioner, said on Tuesday.
Even as the laboratory clears the backlog, veterinary workers at potentially infected areas wait for the signal to begin culling poultry, often running the risk of the virus spreading.
It now emerges that the culling, where it has already happened, has not been as complete as it should have been.
“Some people in white suits did come yesterday, but left after killing a few as they could not catch the rest,” said Mahboob Ali Mondol of Balarampur village. “Of all the chickens in our village, barely 25% have been killed,” he said. Mondol couldn’t be too far off the mark as in almost all the villages in the block, desi (indigenous) chicken roam around unconcerned.
However, the block development officer of Tehatta-1, when contacted, insisted that culling was on in full swing and the situation was under control.
It is the backyard poultries maintained by small farmers which are said to be the driving force behind the current outbreak of avian influenza in eight districts of Bengal, according to a state animal resources department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“These hens and ducks mix with migratory birds and go swimming in rivers and ponds, thereby helping propagate the virus,” he said.
The epidemic, which started in the two north Bengal districts of Birbhum and South Dinajpur has rapidly advanced, practically unchecked, into southern Bengal.
The district headquarters of Nadia, Krishnanagar, lies barely 100km from Kolkata. Only one district, North 24 Parganas, now lies between Nadia and the state capital.
However, the animal husbandry commissioner claimed on Tuesday that Kolkata and its environs are free from bird flu. This includes the districts of Howrah and Hooghly, and North and South 24 Parganas. However, Hooghly may be on the bird flu map with the first cases of poultry deaths being reported from there on Wednesday.
On the ground, however, a day after the government upped its weekly cull target to 210,000 and said it was rushing in experts from outside, the picture is quite different. “We have no idea why our birds are being killed,” said an agitated Iyaz Ali Mondol of Kanainagar village. “No one has told us what is the disease and how it could affect us,” he said, highlighting the common refrain of the lack of a concerted attempt by the government to raise awareness levels. “I lost a few birds, but that happens every winter and now they want to kill the healthy ones, too,” he added.
There’s also a lot of resentment with the amount of money being handed out as compensation at Rs40 for country chicken and ducks, and Rs30 for broilers. A broiler is a popular breed of chicken reared in poultry farms. They yield more meat than indigenous breeds.
“Why should we hand over a full-grown healthy bird for such a pittance when we would have got at least Rs80 for it,” asked Sadar Ali Halsona, in whose backyard a complete brood is going about, pecking at grain strewn by his wife, oblivious to the fate that awaits them.
“I hid them when they (the culling team) came yesterday as I thought I’d sell them later when the scare subsides,” he said. The 50-year-old father of three is also unhappy that ducks will also be compensated at the same rate. “I’d get three times that amount if I sold them later.”
If the peasants of Tehatta have been hit hard, so have the organized poultry owners in the area. Rupa Poultry Feed Centre, near Tehatta town, sold all 9,500 broilers it had at Rs10 per kg soon after bird flu broke out in the state. “The culling hadn’t started then,” said Sudhir Debnath, the sole caretaker at the deserted poultry farm, whose owner has left for an undisclosed location.
“He has paid us our salaries and asked us to find new jobs,” said Debnath. The farm used to supply chicken to the nearby towns of Karimpur, Krishnanagar, Baharampur, and even Kolkata.
The outbreak of avian flu is the 10th in India since the H5N1 avian influenza virus was first reported to have killed poultry in the country in February 2006. No human cases have been recorded in the country so far.
The government has culled 242,000 chicken since the disease was reported on 15 January in West Bengal, the Union agriculture ministry said. As many as 113,796 chicken died from the virus in eight districts, the ministry said in a statement.
The virus is known to have infected 351 people in 14 countries since late 2003, killing 219 of them, Geneva-based WHO said on its website.
Bloomberg’s Jay Shankar and Reuters contributed to this story.