Despite being located within two flyways, India stands out like an island on the map of avian influenza (ai) outbreaks. "Not a single case of high pathogenic ai has been reported,' says S K Bandyopadhyay, commissioner, department of animal husbandry and dairying (dahd).
An estimated 5-20 million migratory birds visit Indian wetlands between October and March each year. This October, several wild birds that flew to Kulik sanctuary in West Bengal, died. While the official toll was 40, unofficial reports pegged it at 1,000. But Bandyopadhyay claimed the samples of dead birds sent to the High Security Animal Disease Laboratory in Bhopal were found free of h5n1 ai virus.
Since 2003, h5n1 has been found in only 11 migratory species, such as the bar-headed geese and red-footed falcons, all of which visit India. Many of these birds also visit China's Qinghai Lake, where an h5n1 outbreak occurred in May, 2005.
Taking advantage of the fact that this virus is predominant right now only in Asia, the us Poultry and Egg Export Council recently called for a complete shutdown of Asia's backyard poultry. But this sector provides livelihood to the poorest sections of the continent.
In India, the unorganised backyard poultry sector accounts for a significant 30 per cent of the production, according to the 2003-2004 dahd annual report. An estimated 3 million people make a living from poultry.
However, it is the factious organised poultry industry that influences policy. The sector is highly polarised and policy shift often favours one or the other camp, sources say. After the avian flu outbreak in 2003, the government imposed a blanket ban on imports of seed materials and vaccines. Many saw the ban, lifted six months later, as helping one powerful lobby in the industry against another (see box: Layered industry).
Another problem is the secrecy that plagues management of poultry diseases. An example is the low-pathogenic avian influenza, fatal only to birds, that afflicted several farms recently. While scientists and senior officials in dahd confirmed the presence of the virus, the industry vehemently denied its existence. "There is no low or high pathogenic strain of avian flu in India,' asserts Anuradha Desai, chairperson of the Pune-based Venkateshwara Hatcheries, the country's biggest poultry firm.
A common practice in Indian poultry is for farm owners to make autogenic vaccines (produced crudely by purifying blood from infected birds) and sell them to small farmers. "Such vaccines are dangerous because they involve the risk of spread of other diseases from one farm to another. Moreover, the sector is utterly unregulated,' says Shabbir Ahmad Khan, vice president, Poultry Federation of India.
A case in point is the export of vaccines against Ranikhet disease to Bangladesh. In February this year, a copy of a lab report secured by Down to Earth showed the vaccine, from a Gujarat-based firm, also contained killed strains of the low-pathogenic ai virus. This prompted Bangladesh to ban import of all Indian poultry products, says A T Venugopal, former director of the Poultry Diseases Research Centre of the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University. The case also revealed the presence of low-pathogenic ai virus in India.
The need for India to be vigilant becomes imperative in view of its Rs 32,000 crore poultry industry, ranked fifth in the world.
The ai threat prompted the Union ministries of agriculture, environment and forest (moef), and health to draft an action plan in August, 2005.
The plan focuses on close monitoring of migratory birds flocking to protected wetlands and poultry. For this, moef is working with the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun and non-governmental organisations (ngos) such as the Bombay Natural History Society. ngos have identified 173 sites where migratory birds gather. Expert groups will be formed to collect samples. The birds will also be monitored through ringing, colour marking and satellite tracking.
"Every month, we now collect about 100 blood samples from waterfowl,' says Subrata Biswas, secretary, department of animal husbandry, Kerala. But he also reveals that the results of random samples take an interminable 15-21 days to reach the department. Such a delay defeats the whole purpose of random sampling. In comparison, "the Australian government takes just four hours to report the results,' says Venugopal.
In states where backyard poultry is popular, such as West Bengal and Kerala (80 per cent of their poultry is unorganised), villages usually border wetlands. In such a scenario, it is crucial to ensure poultry and migratory birds don't interact, says Sundar. "According to our draft action plan, we will be monitoring bird population and surrounding poultry mainly in wetlands declared as protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972,' says P M A Hakeem, secretary, dahd. However, Sundar argues that these large protected wetlands are relatively free of domestic poultry