Counting chickens

Published: Friday 15 February 2008

the official response to the avian flu outbreak in West Bengal, now threatening to assume epidemic proportions, is a story of hubris underlined by pathetic bungling on the ground. Not long ago--in December last year, to be exact--New Delhi unveiled its plans for containing pandemics at an international conference. Amid much self-congratulation, the health minister declared on the basis of what had been achieved by then that India had actually surpassed global standards. Given the predilection for smugness so ingrained in our political establishment, the shambolic efforts to contain the spread of the disease barely a month later would have come as little surprise to the more perspicacious citizen. The mutual pointing of fingers indulged in by the state government and the centre is, of course, very much par for the course.

Between the two establishments, they got almost everything wrong--apportioning of blame, in context, would be as invidious as it would be pointless. To begin at the beginning, it has been known for a while now that Bangladesh, a probable source of the h5n1 virus in this case, has been struggling to contain avian flu. It cannot have escaped official attention, moreover, that the borders between West Bengal and Bangladesh are notoriously porous. Yet no attempt was made to seal the borders, at least as far as the movement of poultry was concerned. If that was too big an ask, it is surely not unreasonable to enquire into the reasons behind the failure to have an action plan in hand and rapid-response teams in readiness. The same line of questioning would apply to the botched attempts, or lack of them, at imposing quarantine measures. Surely, the argument that this outbreak involved free-range poultry that was more difficult to control pointed towards the need for greater stringency rather than post-facto exercises in justifying failure to act.

Much has been made of the fact that owners refused to hand over their poultry to the government's culling teams, preferring, instead, to try their level best to smuggle them out and sell them before the government laid its hands on them. But no extended reflection is needed to recognize that this was a rational response on the part of poor farmers for whom poultry farming is the only means of livelihood and who had abundant reasons to fear that they would at best get only a fraction of the measly compensation announced by the government. Murgichor --chicken thief--is an old and frequently used epithet in Bengali. While we do not know much about its origin, the current contretemps must surely give it a whole new meaning.

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