For Runa Rafique, who made it to the limelight for being the first woman Muslim piggery entrepreneur in the state, the advent of a mystery illness (suspected to be African Swine Fever), is threatening to throw her enterprise into disarray. That, and the national lockdown to curb the COVID-19 outbreak that has snapped the supply chain.
Rafique, who was nearing a breakeven point in her business, laments that the backs of the farmers in this sector have been bent by the double whammy of the lockdown and Classical Swine Fever (CSF) outbreak. Now, a suspected outbreak of the African Swine Fever has raised further concerns in the sector.
“I left my job 2 years back on 5th January, 2018, to start a livestock enterprise because I believe in Agriculture and Livestock. Exactly one year later, on 6 January 2019, I took a leap of faith and began my farm. Till date, I have spent around Rs 25 lakh. I poured in my own savings and my brother also pitched in, and last year, I had to take a loan.”
However, for Rafique, misfortune came knocking on March 24, 2020.
“I was gaining confidence in my work and was planning to scale-up within the next 6 months when the lockdown was clamped. However, I was well prepared to face the challenges of the lockdown. I had stocked up on feed, as feed is the single biggest expenditure of a lockdown. It was tough, but it was okay. I was still trying to manage the farm as best as possible, and was looking forward to a time after the lockdown. Gradually, news started pouring in of CSF in many districts and that ended whatever business was still going on”, Rafique says.
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Rafique says that was when pigs started dying by the thousands, raising murmurs of ‘African Swine Fever’ outbreak, a new disease in the country, Rafique and farmers like her came under a lot of pressure.
She says that a lack of clarity in Government orders has further complicated the situation. “On April 25th last, there was an order that said that pig feed was banned, which later on turned out to be typing error. This caused the piggery farmers a lot of anguish and anxiety.”
“Another time, there were reports in the media that pork has been banned across the state whereas, it was later clarified that the meat had only been banned in six districts”, Rafique added, referring to another mix-up.
What it Means for the Piggery Farmers:
Across the state, thousands of piggery farmers in Assam stare at an uncertain future. Many of the farmers — some of whom took loans — could have anticipated this catastrophe.
“We have never seen deaths of pigs in this scale ever in my life. I have contacted many of my friends in districts across Assam, and they all report the same thing. I am a Mishing man, and we rear pigs as a tradition. In my area, I surmise at least 3,000 pigs could potentially have died due to this mysterious disease”, says Prafulla Pegu, a piggery farmer from Jorhat district of Assam.
Pegu further informs that in his 15 years of pig rearing, the Government has never given any compensations to the farmers. “If the Government provides something, well and good. Already the people’s backs are bent due to the baggage of the lockdown, and now this. It is demoralizing for us.”
Assam’s Minister for Agriculture, Veterinary and Animal Husbandry, Atul Bora recently told the media that since many youths have been encouraged to take up the farming of pigs as a vocation, the number of those engaged in this sector has doubled in the last one year. Now, they could number at least 40,000, mused Bora.
Now, African Swine Fever that has caused havoc in the Chinese piggery sector in 2019, reportedly decimating almost 50% of China’s pig population, has supposedly entered Assam via the Arunachal Pradesh route, said Bora.
In the Upper Assam districts of Dhemaji, Dibrugarh, Lakhimpur, Jorhat, Sivasagar, and Biswanath, the impact of this disease has been felt the hardest. In all these districts, the buying and selling of pork meat has been banned indefinitely.
According to foa.org over 5 million (50 lakh) pigs have died across the world due to the African Swine Fever, which was first reported in 1907 in African nation Kenya. The virus first landed on Asian shores in 2018, where it continues to wreak havoc. Symptoms of the disease include fever, diarrhea, vomit, etc, and pigs die within 10 days. Worryingly, there is no vaccine for this disease as of this moment.
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What the Experts Say:
The Government of Assam reports claim that at least 2,000 (only?) pigs have succumbed to the disease. Meanwhile, corpses of dead pigs are floating down the Dihing river, which currently abounds with the stench of rotting pig flesh.
In Assam, the result of tests that are currently being conducted in a specialist lab in Bhopal are awaited. Minister Atul Bora has said that the result will arrive soon, and the pig “farmers” are anxiously waiting for the result that could either make or break their futures, as it could lead to culling in accordance with international norms.
What it means for Assam:
In Assam, piggery is a major business with a huge turnover each year. Northeast India, which is the biggest consumer of pork, 38.42% of the pigs are reared. Assam alone accounts for 15.89% of the pork production in the country. Moreover, a Government census says that Assam has recorded the highest number of pigs: 21 lakh.
According to official reports, 18,730 tonne of the animal’s meat is produced in the state every single year. Every year, the Government spends Rs 40 cr from its coffers for rearing of the animal in the state and Rs 15 lakh is set aside every year for vaccination and medicines for the industry.
However, locals in Sivasagar, have ironically claimed that the necessary vaccines are not available. Additionally, locals have alleged that many pigs are dying due to a “lack of treatment”.
Runa Rafique, weighing in on the lack of vaccines in the State, says that although Assam has a sophisticated lab, there is no will to produce vaccines. “Although the Government is promoting the piggery business, there seems to be no initiative on their part. They are now injecting the pigs with Korean vaccines and I have reason to believe that some of the farmers are not happy with it.”
Rafique further opines that the Government now has to help the piggery owners in the state. “If I get discouraged and break down, others will also stop believing in agriculture and farming”, she adds.
What the Future Holds:
There is reason to believe that mass culling of pigs could be initiated by the Government if the cause of death of pigs is indeed ascertained as African Swine Fever.
“I won’t be able to run it (the piggery business) like this; maybe I will have to drown the pigs in the river. I came into this profession by choice. However, if we get discouraged, this will be disappointing for the entire sector. The Government should not only look at the backyard pig farmers, but also at pig farming entrepreneurs”, Rafique adds with a sigh.
For the 42,000 or so piggery farmers in Assam, the recent outbreak has come like a double whammy amid the nationwide lockdown and the death of hundreds of pigs across the state from “unnatural” reasons has sent the farmers as well as the administration into a tizzy. The future of this one-thriving business now hangs firmly in the balance.
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