Avian flu mishandled

The spread of avian flu in the Barwala belt of Haryana’s Panchkula district is particularly distressing. For, unlike the other states — Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala — where crows or wild and migratory birds have been infected with the disease, in Haryana, it is the farm-bred poultry birds that have fallen prey to the virus. That the belt is home to hundreds of lakhs of birds in the nearly 150 poultry farms located in the area made it a sitting duck, blowing up the crisis. The highly contagious pathogen soon engulfed the chickens packed in cages. While over 4.50 lakh birds are reported to have died, affected farmers claim that the fatalities are much higher.

This mismatch in the figures is just one of the symptoms of the ailment afflicting the animal husbandry sector. This was brought to the fore as the authorities went about managing the situation. Firstly, the deadly delay caused by the botched-up testing of the initial samples to determine the cause of the birds’ deaths by farm owners and authorities responsible for averting such a disaster. It was a fertile ground for the breeding of rumours around the multi-crore poultry industry. In the absence of a clear message by the animal husbandry and health departments regarding the culling of birds and the safety of consuming chicken and eggs, the industry suffered a crippling blow. The prices nosedived in a season (winter) that is their peak period. Making matters worse, the compensation rates for culling have not been revised for seven years, even as input costs have risen.

The unsavoury developments have also raised the issue of legalising the vaccines for birds. Despite the regularity with which the flu has been striking in the past one-and-a-half decades, a level playing field is missing. The market is flush with smuggled vaccines, but it is the big farmers who allegedly corner the illegal shots. With time being of essence in perishable goods, they make a killing as their birds escape the lens in the initial days of the outbreak that are clouded by confusion.

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