Culled and cleared

Published : Feb 15, 2008 00:00 IST

The State government is hopeful that the epidemic has been brought under control.

in Bardhaman

A PULL of the neck and then a twist is all that is needed to bring silent death to a hen or a duck. In scientific terms, the birds cervical vertebral column is dislocated manually and then the neural cord is destroyed. Rapid response teams have taken up this task in West Bengal, where the spread of the H5N1 virus through poultry has reached epidemic proportions. Eleven of the 18 districts in the State have been affected in just 11 days since the outbreak of avian influenza was officially confirmed on January 15. The advantage of this method of culling is that it eliminates further risk of contamination as no blood is spilt.

The fact that the virus outbreak took place mainly in backyard poultry complicated an already difficult task for the State government. As of January 25, four municipalities and 39 blocks in 11 districts Birbhum, Murshidabad, South Dinajpur, Bankura, Bardhaman, Nadia, Malda, Hooghly, Coochbehar, Howrah and Purulia were declared affected and the rate of culling was increased pari passu.

Culling operations, involving 49 rapid response teams, began on January 16 in South Dinajpur and Birbhum and gathered momentum quickly as the disease spread to other districts. By January 23, as many as 4.3 lakh birds had been culled, 1.75 lakh of them on January 22 alone; the number of teams had by then risen to 640.

The rate of culling, which on January 23 was pegged at 2.5 lakh birds, was increased to three lakh the next day. By January 25, a total of 934 teams, including teams and veterinary doctors from the Centre and Assam, Orissa and Tamil Nadu were engaged in the operations.

A total of around 10.11 lakh birds were culled from January 16 to 25 even as the target was increased to a little over 21 lakh. Given the way things are as of today, no further cases have been reported, and we should be able to bring the situation under control in another four days, West Bengal Minister for Animal Resources Development Anisur Rahaman told Frontline on January 24.

The worst-affected districts were Murshidabad, Birbhum, Bardhaman and Nadia. The situation, though serious, was not as bad in Hooghly, Bankura, Malda, South Dinajpur and Coochbehar. According to government sources, culling operations were almost complete by January 25 in Bardhaman, Bankura, Coochbehar and Hooghly, but Birbhum and Murshidabad, where 200 and 350 teams respectively had been deployed, continued to remain danger zones.

In Murshidabad district, where Muslim peasants are in the majority, poultry farming is a principal income earner and the outbreak became a scourge. According to State Health Minister Surya Kanta Mishra, in Murshidabad district more than 10 lakh chickens needed to be culled, with Kandi subdivision alone accounting for half the figure (as of January 23). On account of the high density of the poultry population in Murshidabad, the number of affected birds there was much higher than in a similarly affected but much larger district such as Jalgaon in Maharashtra, government sources said.

The State government monitored the progress of the culling operations, with Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee sending senior bureaucrats, including Chief Secretary Amit Kiran Deb and Home Secretary Prasad Ranjan Ray, to the affected regions. Speaking to the media on January 24, Ray echoed Anisur Rahamans words: I have just returned from Murshidabad where more teams have been deployed, and it seems to me that the situation is now under control. I expect the culling operations to be over in another four to five days, he said.

Each culling team had a minimum of five members and a veterinary doctor as supervisor. The number of members depended on the size, population and geographical features of the affected areas. Each member was given a personal protective equipment (PPE) kit, N95 masks and Tamiflu tablets. Volunteers participating in the operations were also given masks, gloves and Tamiflu pills.

The first task of a team was to collect fowls. Culling operations started at different times of the day depending on the nature of the affected villages. For instance, in places where the duck population was comparatively higher, it was more convenient to carry out operations at night when the birds left the waters for the shore. In some areas work started early in the morning and in some others late in the afternoon.

The culled birds are put in a deep pit. The size of the pit, which has to be at least nine feet (three metres) deep, determines the amount of lime and sodium hypochloride (NaHCl{-2}) to be applied. Following this, the carcasses are covered with a one-foot-thick layer of earth. The kits of the team members are then burnt, mainly to prevent children in the neighbourhood from playing with them, and placed on the layer of earth. After the application of more lime and NaHCl{-2}, the pit is covered up and a disinfectant is applied in the area around it. The place is marked by a stick to which a piece of cloth is tied. Houses in the affected village are then sanitised with lime and bleaching powder.

According to Central government rules, all hens and ducks within three kilometres of the affected area have to be culled as a precaution. Seeing the gravity of the situation, the West Bengal government increased this radius to 5 km.

However, there is a problem when it comes to stagnant waterbodies, such as ponds and tanks, that may have been used by affected ducks. Such waterbodies are common in practically all villages in rural Bengal.

When culling began on January 16 in South Dinajpur and Birbhum districts, the teams found it particularly difficult to carry out their work. The local people offered stiff resistance: in many cases the birds were their only source of livelihood. In Magram, one of the first places of the outbreak, the residents, overwhelmingly Muslims, refused to hand over their hens to the authorities just before Muharram. The State machinery had just then begun its awareness campaign after the High Security Animal Disease Laboratory in Bhopal confirmed the disease as avian influenza and not all people were aware of the danger they were in.

Another problem the State government faced was when villagers killed and ate affected poultry rather than have it culled. However, the intensification of the awareness campaign broke the resistance and people soon began cooperating with the officials. Initially, we could convince people in the directly affected places to part with their stock, but it was difficult to get those outside the area but within the 5 km radius to give up their birds. They would rather eat the birds than part with them, a government official said.

In many cases it was the emotional involvement that stood in the way. These poor people love their birds like their own children, Phalguni Mukherjee, president of the Kaichar Gram Panchayat Samity in Mangalkot block in Bardhaman district, told Frontline.

However, government teams found very little opposition to the culling operations in Bardhaman district. Volunteers from the gram unnayan (village development) samities pitched in, and the local people themselves collected their poultry in nets and handed them over to be culled. Santana Hazra, 60, of Kaichar village in the severely affected Mangalkot block, had only two hens, which she handed over without hesitation to the team. It is for our own good, she said as she collected her compensation slip.

Not everyone could be so circumspect. For Jannaki Bibi, a 50-year-old widow, the tiny poultry she maintains is her only source of livelihood. But it is not just about the mere Rs.1,000 a month she earns from it, there is a lot of emotional involvement as well. She told Frontline tearfully: All I have are eight chickens and two ducks. I raised them from when they were tiny, but since the government wants me to give them away to be killed, Ill do that.

For the children, however, men in white bodysuits and face masks were a novelty. The teams found it practically impossible to keep at bay the children trailing them as they went from door to door culling chickens in the villages. When the authorities shooed them away with harsh words and gestures, they would disperse only to converge soon like flies on a carcass.

Alok Banerjee, a veterinary doctor and leader of the operations in Kaichar village, told Frontline: We are tired of telling them not to hang around us; that it can be dangerous. But I suppose it cannot be helped. Of course, we ensure that they do not touch any of the carcasses or play with the feathers.

The only consolation for those losing their birds was the immediate compensation extended to them. When they handed over their poultry stock, they were given compensation slips, which they could encash the same day in camps set up nearby.

As per Government of India norms, for a hen that is kept for producing eggs, the compensation rate is Rs.40, and for chicks it is Rs.10; the same for ducks and ducklings. For broiler chickens, the rate is Rs.30, and for such chicks, Rs.10. Incidentally, most of the affected chickens were not broilers. The rate of compensation for poultry feed that had to be destroyed was Rs.6 a kg.

The State government and the Centre are sharing the cost of compensation equally. Initially, Rs.7 crore was disbursed Rs.3.5 crore each from the Centre and the State. The State government has informed the Centre of a further requirement of Rs.16.5 crore Rs.8.25 crore each from the Centre and the State of which the State government sanctioned Rs.5 crore on January 23.

The Chief Minister is also in talks with the Centre to chalk out a strategy for the economic rehabilitation of those most severely affected.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment