Flu Virus Outpaces Culling in West Bengal
BY SUJOY DHAR
When nine out West Bengal state’s 19
districts were declared on Wednesday to be in the grip of a bird flu
outbreak, it belied Chief Minister Buddhadeb Battacharya’s assertions,
earlier in the week, that the spread of the deadly H5N1 virus was well
Seven days after the outbreak was first reported in the Birbhum and South
Dinajpur districts, the virus had spread through half of West Bengal which
has a population of 80 million people. Culling operations were reported to
be sluggish, amidst concerns voiced for the socio-economic impact on
farmers and impoverished villagers who count backyard poultry among their
"There was a delay of nearly a week's time for notices to be sent to
us, but now things have been put on track," union health minister
Anbumani Ramadoss told reporters in New Delhi on Tuesday.
At least 100,000 birds had died of the virus before help was sought from
the centre and from other states to handle culling operations and possible
spread to human beings.
Officials in West Bengal admit that the outbreak could have been handled
better. "We have a total of nine districts in the grip of bird flu.
With northern Cooch Behar and southern Hooghly districts added on
Wednesday, we can say that the virus has wreaked havoc through the length
and breadth of the state," state animal resources development
minister Anisur Rahman said.
West Bengal must cull over 2.1 million birds, mostly backyard poultry, in
the next few days if the virus is to be stopped from spreading beyond the
nine districts that include Murshidabad, Burdwan, Nadia, Malda and Bankura.
But estimates released officially say that only 300,000 birds have been
slaughtered so far. Even that figure is being challenged by journalists
and others who toured the affected districts.
Officials in Malda, about 350 km from Kolkata, confirmed on Wednesday that
culling could not even start in the district because of lack of staff and
infrastructure and the absence of a pre-culling awareness campaign in the
Reports from other districts said the efforts were ham-handed and marred
by various factors in a state where 72 percent of the 80 million people
live in rural areas and raise their poultry as part of the family.
It does not help that West Bengal shares a long and porous border with
Bangladesh where there have been several outbreaks already. Authorities
have now ordered the border sealed with paramilitary troops charged with
ensuring that birds are not smuggled in.
Nepal, which lies to the north of West Bengal, has banned the import of
poultry from India.
While the federal government has openly criticised West Bengal for failing
to act in a timely manner, provincial authorities speak of practical
difficulties. ‘’To convince people to hand over backyard poultry in
the villages is not easy," Rahman said.
In India, an outbreak of bird flu was first reported in the Nandurbar
district of western Maharashtra in 2006. But that outbreak could be dealt
with swiftly and a million birds were slaughtered with no resistance
because it had occurred in a poultry farm. Another outbreak in the
north-eastern state of Manipur last year was also quickly contained.
In West Bengal, when the men in masks and protective gear first reached
the affected areas, they appeared like aliens to villagers who were
unaware of what was happening in their state.
Many were unconvinced of the dangers. "We cooked and ate our chickens
when we heard they would be killed by the government officials anyway. We
have not heard much about the symptoms or the disease," said Lakhu
Sheikh of Tentulia village in Birbhum district.
Tentulia is one of the villages in the worst-hit Birbhum district where
people resisted culling operations. Many even managed to smuggle out their
poultry, health workers said.
However, in many other areas people quietly brought in hens, ducks and
eggs and collected compensation slips.
The outbreak of bird flu has cast an ominous shadow on the state's
socio-economic fabric. Reports said that 28-year-old Ananda Haldar of
Malda district, a poultry dealer, committed suicide on Sunday by jumping
in front of an advancing train.
Ananda had not sold a single bird in the past five days and was depressed,
his elder brother Prabhat said.
According to the West Bengal poultry welfare association president, Sheikh
Nazrul Islam, the industry has suffered losses worth 25 million dollars
over the past week.
"Culling is slow. The police is harassing us by intercepting our
consignments and even demanding bribes on the one hand and on the other
the adverse campaign has seriously affected the business,’’ Islam
"In rural areas the government itself had given one woman member in
each family a brood of ten hens. Now when they are demanding them back for
culling, the families are not forthcoming," Islam said. ‘’The 125
million dollar industry has suffered its worst ever setback.’’
The only good news is that, so far, human beings have been spared. West
Bengal’s health minister Surya Kanta Misra said all five samples taken
from humans, suspected to be infected, have come back from top government
laboratories showing negative for avian influenza. ‘’There is no cause
for panic,’’ he said.