West Bengal’s avian flu

A tale of two outbreaks

Avian flu first hit India in February 2006, when chickens in Maharashtra’s Nandurbar district tested positive for the H5N1 virus. India’s official response was promising: it activated its contingency plan, quarantined the affected districts, improved surveillance and began culling birds (almost 900,000 birds were culled). The outbreak was contained quickly. Poultry farmers were compensated between Rs 40 and Rs 10, depending on the size of the bird.

This week’s outbreak in West Bengal shows just how different Indian states can be. Failure to contain the outbreak quickly enough now threatens wider damage. The state government has been accused of being slow to act, and for not realising ‘gravity of the situation‘. It has neither been able to cordon off the affected districts, not been able to implement culling fast enough. Well-connected cartels have been sneaking dead birds out, and farmers unwilling to allow birds to be culled unless paid in cash upfront. This, despite the compensation being closer to Rs 70 (much more than what was paid in Maharashtra in Feb 2006). Clearly, the villagers don’t trust the government to pay up.

This suggests that immediate cash compensation to affected farmers is the need of the hour even if the cash must make it through the hands of the administrative chain. Sealing off affected areas, and clamping down on ‘smuggling’ is also in order.

Beyond the immediate crisis, the key lessons—so far—from this is that educating poultry farmers must be taken more seriously; and the education initiative must be carried out in a sustained manner. Second, the Indian government’s contingency plan must take into account the problems of paying upfront cash compensation. Finally, sealing off of affected areas may be too serious an issue to be left to the state government alone. A clear escalation process—laying out the conditions for deployment of central paramilitary forces—is necessary.

In the next few days we will know how many humans have been affected by the flu virus. Coping with that will be another challenge for the West Bengal government.

From the archives: Chicken contingency (Feb 2006); a review of India’s state of preparedness (Nov 2005)

Update: Ravik Bhattacharya’s report in the Indian Express on how the state authorities didn’t act in time.

6 thoughts on “West Bengal’s avian flu”

  1. Yes. This is not about education as in literacy, schooling etc. It is about educating them about what avian flu is, why it is dangerous, how it spreads and what should they (and the govt) do in case there is an outbreak.

  2. Is it that different? The reasons you list sound awfully similar to the reasons that governments give for educating kids. The premise is the same- that a public investment now will save multiples later.

  3. Educating farmers on the dangers of bird flu has large externalities: like basic education and public health, there is a role for the state in this.

  4. I believe the major difference between the Bengal and the Maharashtra outbreaks was the size of the farms involved. In Maharashtra, the chickens were in large farms with the chickens concentrated at one place. Here it was easier to impose draconian measures on them and culling was also much faster and easier.

    In Bengal the outbreak is in small and marginal farmers with scattered stocks. There would be huge resistance to the type of crackdown seen in Maharashtra. Also culling would be more difficult and require larger resources to accomplish.

    This is also bourne out in other bird flu outbreaks across the world, where the outbreak is in subsistance farmers, it is much harder to control and eradicate.

  5. Rishi,

    Yes, that is likely to be accurate. The point is that local authorities must be aware of their local context when planning for this.

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