India Intelligence Report

Contingency plans to check Bird Flu


In a belated move, the Government has at last woken up to the reality of bird flu epidemic in India and released a contingency plan with specific timelines for all the states to follow. The plan covers guidelines on hospital facilities, quarantine procedures, coordination process between district administrators (collectors, deputy commissioners, and, district magistrates) and individuals or organizations who can identify symptoms among poultry and humans, and creation of stocks of medicines and personal protective equipment, and dissemination of information to villagers on bird flu and its harmful effects.

While Maharashtra and Gujarat had been given a week to implement these guidelines, other states have been given 20 days. Maharashtra and Gujarat have been asked to implement this plan on a priority basis within a 200-kilometer radius range of Navapur and Jalgaon. 


Backyard poultry infestation is harder to find as it remains unregulated and there is no monitoring mechanism for these birds. Typically, backyard poultry is grown for household consumption and local market selling. Typically, backward states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are rife with backyard poultry. With the Government finally waking up to the reality that it cannot “contain” the epidemic, especially since it does not know the causes and the nature, it is getting really worried about the spread. 

The country as a whole has been vastly under-prepared to deal with such a epidemic because of the position taken by the Food and Agricultural Minister and his staff that this is not a serious issue for India. In fact, only a few days ago, Minister Sharad Pawar had convinced Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the epidemic has been “contained” to Navapur and claimed victory. Even now Pawar’s Secretary P.M.A. Hakeem says “compared to the scale of poultry in the entire country, the incidence is localized.”

Authorities insist that there are no known cases of human infestations and decline to provide a timeline for its H5N1 expert team to determine the root cause for the epidemic. They claim that several affected countries are still groping for answers but carefully skirt nations that have made a determined bid to find out reasons. Germany has conclusively proved that wild swans brought the disease to its population. 

The other disquieting thing is the Government’s cavalier attitude in dealing with the epidemic. Photos released by the Government and published in several papers show health teams, wearing protective clothing, culling thousands of birds with a huge population (including children) watching over the process unprotected and uneducated about the harmful effects of the disease. While Hakeem claims that enough stocks of Tamiflu in Public Health Centers (PHC) around the nation, he does not talk about how his Ministry is managing the epidemic—reporting mechanism, investigation facilities, data aggregating processes, education mechanisms, and finally public awareness and reporting formats. So far, every effort has been made to trivialize the epidemic and hide data.

The Non-Government Organization Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) has been the only agency monitoring the epidemic. Nothing is known on their sampling process and monitoring mechanism. In fact, it is feared that lack of detailed information on water bodies may have misled the BNHS to ignore Navapur.

Thanks to lack of awareness and the impression given by the Government, the outlook is laid-back. Neighboring state Andhra Pradesh (AP) is reporting an increase in sales of broiler chickens and eggs that plummeted in February. The value of poultry in AP is USD 606 million with sales of 20 million broilers and 40 million eggs every month. With prices of chicken crashing on lack of demand, encouraged by the Government and its public relations mechanism, the poor are buying chicken as the price is within their reach. 

Ministry of Food and Agriculture’s claim to have sealed Navapur district also got a huge dent when authorities were shocked to find chickens from infected areas being illegally shifted to other districts in the state so they will not be culled. Alarmingly, one official said that the infested areas were supposed to have 900,000 birds but officials could only account for 290,000 birds; it is assumed that poultry owners have quietly moved 600,00 birds out of area. Political interference and police collusion is being blamed for such transfers spreading infestations to other areas.

With vast populations sensitized to the non-serious nature of the issue, health officials are increasingly finding it difficult to persuade villagers to give up their backyard chicken, which are now indoor or hidden.

Meanwhile, 390 poultry died near Pune authorities have asked poultry owners not to transfer the birds out of the area. In Karnataka, two truckloads of dead chicken were dumped in a tank. Samples of the dead birds in both incidents have been sent to labs in Bhopal.

In another case, a trader was transporting 30,000 birds from Mumbai to Maval for sale during the Holi festival of which 130 birds died. Seeking to downplay the incident, Animal Husbandry Commissioner Vijay Kumar says that the deaths were due to “shocks attained during the traveling.” While poultry are transported in inhuman conditions in India, it is shocking that there is no effort being made to determine if any of them are infected.