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‘They have all been killed’ — Bird flu spells tragedy for poultry farmers after Covid hit

Bird flu cases in 9 states & UTs means chicken farmers, who were barely starting to recover from Covid impact, are having to cull large numbers of stock a second time in 12 months.

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Barwala: Sudhir Kumar has spent just two and a half years in the poultry farm business, but it seems to have been a lifetime.

In the year gone by, the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns made an unimaginable dent in his business. Of the 50,000 chickens in his farm, he had to cull half on his own. “We dug up the ground and forcefully buried them. There was nothing else we could do because otherwise they would have starved to death,” Kumar told ThePrint.

As the year changed, quite like everyone else, Kumar hoped for a turnaround. But just as India seemed to begin turning a corner in its Covid-19 fight and a vaccine came in sight, Kumar was hit by yet another curve ball — bird flu.

His was one of the first two farms in Haryana’s Panchkula that tested positive for the virus. “Of the 58,000 poultry I owned in December 2020, 30,000 died of bird flu and the rest have been culled. I have nothing left,” Kumar said. The 42-year-old father of two is the sole earning member in his family.

Confirmed cases of bird flu have now been reported from nine states and Union Territories — Delhi, Maharashtra, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. 

Haryana has reported the highest number of bird deaths — at four lakh in the past two-three weeks — following which the government ordered the culling of 1.5 lakh poultry birds at five farms in the Panchkula district.

Amid this new crisis, the struggle for poultry farmers to revive their business, less than a year after being hit by the pandemic, has increased severely. Apart from losses stemming from culling from birds, they are dealing with the leftover impact of the pandemic as well facing questions over the way ahead to tackle the new virus.

Also read: Bird flu found in migratory birds in Himachal, cases in 4 other states — all you need to know

Losses due to culling amid bird flu

Panchkula’s Barwala belt, where Kumar lives, is the second largest poultry hub in Asia, home to nearly 200 farms. Two of these farms, Kumar’s Siddharth Poultry Farm and R.K. Gupta’s Nature Poultry Farm, have tested positive for bird flu, also known as Avian influenza (H5N8 virus).

Last week, Haryana Animal Husbandry and Dairying Minister J.P. Dalal said, “Workers of affected poultry farms were instructed not to go out of the farms. The farm owners were instructed not to send the eggs, chickens out of the farms. At least a 10-km area in the radius of the epicentre has been cordoned for the next one month.”

Culling in Panchkula began on 9 January. As compensation, the state government announced that it will give the owners Rs 90 for each bird culled. However, the amount offered for culling has irked many poultry farmers.

“Total cost per bird is Rs 300 at the very least, Rs 90 is nothing in comparison to that. How will we ever be able to repay our loans? Haryana’s Poultry Farm Association has written to Haryana’s Animal Husbandry department, Chief Minister Khattar and the Prime Minister about this,” said Rajesh Singhla, a poultry farm owner, who is also handling the media outreach for the association.

Singhla’s farm in Barwala was also sampled for bird flu. However, all two lakh samples tested negative.

When fear about the spread of bird flu had just begun to spread last month, poultry farmers were forced to sell their produce at significantly lower rates. “I usually sell one chicken for Rs 120, but now I was forced to get rid of them at just Rs 30,” Kumar said. Singhla said, “Prices of eggs have also dropped by 30-40 per cent at least.”

This is the second such instance in the span of less than 12 months that poultry farmers were either forced to sell at lower rates or cull their own birds.

Also read: Delhi govt bans sale of processed, packaged chicken brought from outside city

The lockdown impact

A paper published in the US government’s National Centre for Biotechnology Information in September 2020 shed light on the severe impact of the coronavirus induced lockdown on India’s poultry industry, which constitutes 4.5 per cent of India’s agriculture, fishing and forestry GDP. It is the world’s fourth largest producer in terms of volume.

With a “reduction in demand of different commodities, wastage of the produce due to the closure of transport and market chains, distress sale of the produce and labor shortage and revival strategies taken by the government”, the industry was hit sharply.

But according to poultry farm owners, they were actually hit even before the lockdown was first imposed in March 2020.

“Rumours were doing the rounds on WhatsApp that you shouldn’t eat meat because it may infect you with Covid. Rates dropped significantly then owing to reduced demand — the price of eggs was down to Rs 1.50 per piece from Rs 4-5 per piece,” Singhla said.

The lockdown that followed only compounded their problems. Due to strict restrictions on movement, farm owners were unable to get any feed for their poultry and were forced to cull the birds themselves.

“No produce was sold at all during the lockdown time. I only had enough money to feed and save half of my poultry,” Kumar recalled. In early March, Kumar had invested in chicks which he fed and cared for, only to sell them later in the year. “They have all been killed now.”

Besides reduced rates and an absence of food for animals, access and transportation to veterinary clinics became another major issue.

“By July-August, the poultry industry had begun recovering from the economic impact of Covid lockdowns. But by mid-December it all went south again. First we thought birds were dying due to age because they could not be sold on time due to the lockdown, so we didn’t give it much thought. But when migratory birds started dying, we began worrying,” Singhla said.

Also read: Why we eat meat without guilt, but hate seeing animal slaughter

Vaccination versus culling

Owners of some poultry farms situated in the Barwala-Raipur Rani belt have expressed their disagreement with the state government’s decision to cull lakhs of poultry birds. According to them, vaccinating the birds is the solution to this recurring issue that many are vying for.

While a vaccine for bird flu is available, it is currently being stockpiled in case of emergencies. Experts believe this should be made available since it is, according to them, the cheaper option.

“Vaccination is the only solution because migratory birds will come every year and we can’t kill them. We don’t want this crisis to arise every single year given the poultry industry contributes significantly to India’s GDP annually,” Singhla said, echoing this demand.

Many, including Ibne Ali, a livestock and poultry consultant, have alleged that vaccines for bird flu are being illegally smuggled into India.

Speaking to ThePrint, he said, “There are many poultry farm owners who are illegally using the bird flu vaccine to save their poultry. This disease is a recurring concern in India. When instances happen in poultry farms, owners usually don’t go to the government and try saving their birds by vaccinating them. It is only spotted by government bodies once migratory birds start dying.”

Ali also underlined logistical concerns regarding the vaccination of birds such as widespread availability of doses. Moreover, fear over the vaccine is also a possibility.

“I do not agree with random culling of birds. We should work on biosecurity and prevention and of course farmer awareness. In rare cases, candidate vaccines can be recommended,” he added.

The poultry industry, which was reportedly growing at a 10-12 per cent rate in the past three years, has faced one setback after another. After the pandemic hit and now bird flu, Singhla does not seem hopeful.

“I don’t think there is any chance of revival in the near future. Even healthy birds are being culled now, when will they stop? If this goes on, it will be very difficult for us to come back to business. We have families to feed and loans to pay off,” he said.

Also read: A Dutch butcher is winning hearts by making plants taste just like meat


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