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A new virus causing African Swine Fever spells doom for Assam pig farmers

Young entrepreneurs, who had left cushy jobs in metros to take up pig farming back home in Assam, are now facing a threat to their livelihood due to a new virus that has reached the north-east from China

African Swine Fever is threatening the livelihoods of farmers across Assam. (Photo by Sebastien St-Jean / AFP)
African Swine Fever is threatening the livelihoods of farmers across Assam. (Photo by Sebastien St-Jean / AFP) (AFP)

These days, Runa Rafique, a pig breeder in Guwahati, is fielding a barrage of calls from other pig farmers from Dhemaji, Namrup, Tezpur, and more. “They call up and ask, ‘Baidew, what do we do?’," shares Rafique. She has no answers for them. “I feel equally helpless."

The reason? African Swine Fever, or ASF, which is killing pigs and threatening the livelihood of the state's growing commercial pig farming industry.

Cases have been reported earlier from Africa, the Caribbean and South America. But this is a first for India. P.N. Konwar from the Assam Livestock and Poultry Corporation, who is overseeing state measures to contain the virus, says it was reported in China and Tibet in late 2019 and reached Arunachal Pradesh in December-January. It surfaced in Assam in April.

The 20th Livestock Census, 2019, by the Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying, and Ministry of Fisheries, estimates the pig population in Assam at 2.1 million. “Out of these, around 16,000-17,000 have died already. These are just the official figures. But the unofficial estimate is likely to be much higher as a lot of backyard farmers don’t inform of the deaths," says Anjan Nag, a Dibrugarh-based photographer who started a pig farm in his ancestral village, Borbari, in Upper Assam last year.

The ASF comes at a time when the country is battling on many fronts–from the covid-19 pandemic to locust infestation and the aftermath of cyclone Amphan. In Assam, the rising Brahmaputra waters have flooded 11 districts.

According to the World Organisation for Animal Health, or OIE, the ASF is a severe viral disease that affects wild and domestic pigs. This extremely contagious disease can be spread by blood, tissue and saliva of infected pigs. Transmission can also occur via contaminated feed and fomites such as shoes, clothes, vehicles, knives and equipment. It does not spread to humans.

“There is no vaccine or medicine to combat the disease. And the mortality rate is 100 percent," says Nag. As of now, seven epicenters have been identified in Assam, such as Dhemaji, north Lakhimpur, Dibrugarh, Sibsagar, Kamrup and Biswanath. Interdistrict transportation of live pigs is prohibited across the state, and livestock is dying. The North East Progressive Pig Farmers’ Association—which has 500 members from the region, 90% of them from Assam—has been demanding financial aid for farmers.

Assam is one of the biggest consumers of pork in the country. Manoj Kumar Basumatary, founder of Symbiotic Foods Pvt. Ltd, one of the state's leading pig farms, in Ghoramari, says pork production in the country is estimated at around 4.60 lakh (460,000) metric tonnes. But the North-East alone consumes around 3 lakh (300,000) metric tonnes. “Our own production is estimated to be around 1.30 lakh (130,000) metric tonnes," he says.

The growing demand has led to a rise in the number of organized pig farms over just the past three years. These range from small- to large-scale commercial farms, with scientific breeding techniques and corporate-style management, run by people with MBAs, development professionals and advocates in the 30-50 age group. "We have been inspired by the likes of Manojda, who left his lucrative job in the State Bank of India, Delhi, to come back to Assam and start a pig farm," says Nag. Rafique too quit a senior post at the not-for-profit Operation Smile. Today, she runs two farms under the name Saraighat—a breeding farm at Changsari and a breeding-fattening one at Mirza, near the Guwahati airport.

Instead of depending on Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab, these enterprising farmers, who have raised exotic breeds, dream of making Assam self-sufficient in the breeding of pigs and production of meat. “We have all seen what happened with the broiler industry. Initially, it was run by local farmers but big companies moved in once they saw big money in it. The locals were moved to the shadows," says Basumatary. In 2018, they set up the North East Progressive Pig Farmers’ Association to try and prevent this. Its slogan: “The Pink Revolution starts here."

One reason why pig farming has seen a boom in the state is the ease of managing a pig farm. It offers a better return on investment than, say, dairy farming. “The pig is a prolific animal, producing at least two litters—with 12-15 piglets each—in a year," says Basumatary. It grows well, reaching up to 100kg in weight in six months. “With rains and floods always around, there is only so much you can do in Assam. In such a scenario, pig farming holds a lot of promise for economic development," says Rafique.

In the past few years, farmers have worked with exotic breeds such as the Yorkshire, the Hampshire and the Duroc from Nepal—these are not widely available, though they are in demand. The local breeds, which don’t yield as much meat, tend to be relegated to backyard farms. Most commercial farms today have 50-200 big breeding animals and hundreds to thousands of piglets, thereby also offering a livelihood to villagers living nearby.

Will the ASF throttle this sector's rise? Certainly, the losses are piling up. Take the example of Pranab Jyoti Phukan, from Dhemaji, who started Jyoti Farms—an integrated livestock farm with fisheries, duck farming, poultry and piggery—last year, after working in the corporate sector for 12 years. He put in his life's savings and took out a loan from the bank. As of now, he has 57 breeding animals and 200 piglets. “For up to 15 kg of weight, a piglet will yield a minimum of 5000. After that, the price per kg of weight is 300. A piglet born in January might weigh 30 kg by May and yield a return of 12,000-15,000. For boars and sows as well the price per kg weight is 300 as they are all exotic breeds. So, you can only imagine my loss," says Phukan.

Bidarba Rajkhowa, who has one of the oldest commercial pig farms in the state, tells a similar story. He started the farm in Lakhimpur in 2009, investing the free time he would get from his practice as an advocate. “The African Swine Fever has doubled our troubles. The covid-19 lockdown had hampered transportation of livestock. People who had placed orders for piglets with me couldn’t pick them up. But we knew that someday the lockdown would open and things would become better. But thanks to the ASF, our livestock is dying," he says. Even though Rajkhowa maintains strict biosecurity in his farm, he is surprised as to how the virus managed to breach those measures. Today, almost all of his livestock has been destroyed by the disease.

The liabilities are piling up, there are salaries to be paid—but revenue is nil. Basumatary closed at a revenue of more than a crore in the last financial year. Every month, his farm would witness sales of 15-18 lakhs. The lockdown saw sales dipping and in April, he reported sales of 6 lakh. “In May, our revenue was only 2 lakhs. But our monthly expenses are 10-12 lakhs. 70 percent of cost in any good commercial farm is related to feed. It’s become a really tight situation for us," he says.

Explaining how the disease reached Assam, Konwar says: “So, many carcasses were thrown into the river, which came to Assam in April-May through the Brahmaputra. Some carcasses were taken away by dogs and thus the backyard farms started being infected. Fomites reached commercial farms as well," he says.

The disease was confirmed by the National Institute of High Security Animal Diseases, Bhopal, the only lab in the country equipped to test samples. “Infected and surveillance zones have been identified for the seven declared epicentres and containment procedures have begun, as per the guidelines and contingency plans on the ASF by the government of India," says Konwar.

Meanwhile, pig farmers like Phukan and Rafique are unsure of the way ahead. “The lockdowns, one for covid-19 and the other for ASF, have hit us all," says Rafique. Many farms have incurred losses and others have closed down for good. Though the market for pork has opened now, it will take time for business to return to normal. “Maybe ASF has become endemic to the region now. In that scenario, the only security of the farmer lies in the culling and compensation package of the government, which has already been passed. We hope that it is implemented now in letter and spirit. Otherwise, pig farmers are on a very slippery terrain," she adds.

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