Featured image: Eggs and hatchlings have been destroyed in massive scale across Maharashtra and other parts of India due to coronavirus rumours. Photo: Sukanya Shantha.
Dahanu (Maharashtra): Sometime in the month of January, a video claiming that a “deadly disease”, since called COVID-19, was fast spreading in China surreptitiously slipped into the Indian WhatsApp network. While a part of the video – that the disease was of a serious nature – was true, the other parts harped on a baseless claim that the root of this disease was chicken meat.
This video, as now claimed by the Maharashtra cyber cell, originated at some nondescript village in Midnapore in West Bengal, and slowly entered the social media web across parts of Bihar. And in no time, the video and its innumerable variations were disseminated far and wide.
The video was being believed blindly and the government agencies did nothing to quell the fear. In a matter of just one month, this innocuous-looking fake video had single-handedly destroyed the poultry business in the country. While a complaint has been registered with the Pune cyber cell and the miscreant has been identified, police are yet to initiate any action against the person.
Over 2,000 km away from Midnapore, in Maharashtra’s Dahanu taluka, Dr Suresh Bhatlekar, who owns and manages over 30 poultries and several hatcheries, was one of the first to feel the heat. Bhatlekar, a veterinary doctor, says the signs of impact started showing in the first week of February. “We began to receive queries first and in no time, dealers and vendors had stopped accepting chicken and eggs anymore. It all happened in a matter of a few days,” Bhatlekar says.
The situation worsened and Bhatlekar says he was left with no choice but to contain his loss. After suffering the losses for nearly a month and seeing that the situation was only getting worse, Bhatlekar destroyed over 1.75 lakh hatchlings and another 12 lakh hatchery eggs at his Ganjad farm in Dahanu.
“There is only that much one can do. We have two huge furnaces. Nearly about four to five lakh just-born hatchlings were destroyed in them. Another 12 lakh (hatchery) eggs were buried in the pits around the poultry farm,” he shares, regretfully. His estimated loss has been over Rs 6 crore.
Similar measures were taken by several other poultry owners across the state. “The cost to care for the hatchlings would have only worsened our situation. We have been waiting for the government to intervene but nothing happened. It has been a stressful time for us,” said Imran Hashim, who runs a poultry farm in Palghar.
Union minister of animal husbandry, dairying and fisheries Giriraj Singh has, meanwhile. made a conservative claim of Rs 1,500-2,000 crore as the daily loss to the poultry industry. Dealers and poultry farm owners say the impact on the business in Maharashtra alone would be between Rs 600 and 700 crore per day.
Poultry owners’ associations have been meeting government representatives both at the Centre and the state level and have been seeking immediate intervention. “Our concerns have, however, not moved them yet. Chicken that were being sold for Rs 160/kg only two months ago are being sold for as little as Rs 40 and Rs 50. Our spending is a lot more than the market value,” Dhiraj Khandekar, an owner of a hatchery in Thane district, told The Wire.
With over four decades of experience and a wide, expansive business, Bhatlekar says the sector was never as badly hit. “Not even in mid 2000, when swine flu broke out in the country,” he adds.
While the fear of infection was just as high even then, Bhatlekar says the difference is how rumours are being spread now. “Messages then were mostly spread word of mouth and took a long while before they travelled from one place to another, and by then the state was able to respond and take proper measures. But it is different now. These unverified videos, once disseminated, travel in nanoseconds and are all over social media. A single video is enough to whip up a frenzy,” Bhatlekar says.
The poultry market has crashed across the country, but its impact is seen more evidently in states where consumption has been high. In Kerala, Hyderabad and parts of Karnataka, prices have been slashed to as low as Rs 20-30 per kg, but still there are no takers. This situation is both with the white meat and eggs.
The Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying on March 6 issued a statement addressing the issue. Refuting rumours circulating on social media and other forums, minister Giriraj Singh said there is no risk in eating non-vegetarian food. But those from the sector say it was a month too late.
It is not just the poultry farm owners who have suffered. There is an elaborate ecosystem that supports the business. For fodder, the sector is directly dependent on the farmers growing maize, corn and other food grains. According to the government’s estimate, more than ten crore farmers are directly involved in poultry farming, animal husbandry and fisheries, contributing more than Rs 1.2 lakh crore to the GDP. Besides, there are millions of maize and soya farmers, medicines and vaccine manufacturers who are also involved indirectly with the poultry sector.
Sridhar Jadhav, a farmer from Ahmednagar, told us that he has been waiting for over a month to sell corn that he had grown for these chickens. “These produces are of a certain quality and best suited for the fowls. Buyers have stopped the business and our past payments have also not been made. This uncertainty has made us very anxious,” Jadhav says.
Companies that provide equipment to the poultry industry like feeding systems, water systems, manual feeders, drinker heating systems and ventilators have also been hit. Most of these companies specialise only in poultry work and the drop in sales mean they stay out of work. “Our work is labour intensive and we don’t know how long will this situation last. For now, we are paying our labourers but we will soon have to work out some plans,” says Dheeraj Shrinate of Shirnate Industries, which has been providing equipment to the poultry sector.
But for those connected with other allied jobs like caring for the birds in the hatcheries, and butchering and preserving fowls for later consumption, the virus scare has only increased the burden.
Parvez Khan says he, along with his 20-25 workers, has been culling over 5,000 chickens per day. This is more than double the workload even compared to a month ago.
“Handling dead birds, so much blood and cleaning work has a direct impact on the workers. Your skin begins to discolour and crack, and become more susceptible to infection when you remain in close touch with blood,” Khan says, further adding that since the business is almost over, he and his workers can’t expect extra pay for the intensive work they have been doing over the past month. “We are holding on to our jobs for now. Baaki ka baad mein dekha jayega (The rest can be taken care of later),” he says.
Once culled and processed at the butchers’ shop, the chicken is then stored in sub-zero temperatures. These frozen chickens, if handled well, can be preserved for over seven-eight months. While bigger poultry units, like that of Bhatlekar, are using these services, most mid- and small-size business find this to be an expensive option.
“Since beef trade has been banned, several storage units in the state are ready to offer us space, but it comes at a high price. Many have availed the service since there isn’t any other choice left,” says Bhatlekar, as he prepares to send over two lakh chicken (cut and preserved) to the cold storage.
Former agriculture minister and Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar had, along with the state animal husbandry and dairy development minister Sunil Kedar, recently met a delegate of the Poultry Farmers and Breeders’ Association. He assured the delegate he would raise the issue with finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The meeting with the Central minister is scheduled in the coming week.
“In 2005, when we lost a lot of our birds to swine flu, we were paid Rs 25 per chicken lost. We expect a better relief package this time,” Bhatlekar says. Along with that, the demand is also for a relief and rehabilitation package both for poultry owners and farmers, subsidised rates for fodder and police action against those indulging in rumour mongering.