The presence of avian flu (H5N8) virus has been confirmed in ducks at five places in Kuttanad by the National Institute of High Security Animal Diseases (NIHSAD). This is the second time Kuttanad is bearing the brunt of bird flu after the first outbreak in 2014.
Around 22 kilometres from Alappuzha town lies Kuttanad -the rice bowl of Kerala- which is now in the news for a severe outbreak of avian flu in several duck rearing camps located in the paddy fields of Thakazhi, Neelamperoor, Pandi, Ramankari and Kainadi.
The flu-outbreak has severely affected large-scale farmers who lease out their paddy fields to duck farmers, as these are situated in remote interiors and lie water-logged, once the harvest season is over.
Seasonal duck farming takes place twice a year here, ahead of the Christmas and Easter festivities. The first season begins in September and ends in December, while the next season is from mid-January to the end of April. Ducks are reared and sold in the local markets as well as in Tamil Nadu too.
There are farmers who pursue duck farming all through the year too.
Farmers burn the carcasses of ducks
In 2014, it was the seasonal farmers who were the worst hit by bird flu, following which around 2 lakh ducks and some 50,000 chickens had to be culled, as the flu virus then identified was H5N1, one that affected humans too.
This time too, seasonal farmers are paying a heavy price, as more than 3000 ducks have died, and 400 culled in Thakazhi alone since Thrusday. Unconfirmed reports say that more than 1000 ducks have been culled in the other affected spots.
Though health officials have confirmed that the H5N8 virus is not automatically transferred to humans, the department is not leaving anything to chance.
â€śThough direct transfer does not normally happen, there is a chance of mutation in this type of virus. That is why we prefer to burn the carcasses of both the culled and dead birds,â€ť says Dr Mary Kunju, -veterinary officer of Thakazhi Panchayat- while speaking to The News Minute.
The state health and veterinary departments as well as the panchayat officials have -since Thursday- been diligently ensuring that the flu-affected ducks that die naturally or are culled, are burnt properly using firewood, so as to make sure that no strain of the virus remains in the area.
Kuttappayi (58) who owns a duck farm in Kunnumma of Thakazhi was the first one to approach the Animal Husbandry Department at Thiruvalla, saying his ducks were affected by the virus. The samples obtained from his livestock were sent to Bhopal, where the said flu was confirmed.
A two-feet wide road running for six kilometres is the only access to Kuttappayiâ€™s farm in Kunnumma.
Though the government does offer monetary compensation in lieu of the dead and culled ducks, Kuttappayi is yet to get over the shock. â€śI spent almost Rs 13 lakhs in rearing these ducks. I will now have to spend several months going in and out of government offices to claim the compensation. I had met the same fate back in 2014 too,â€ť cries Kuttappayi, his eyes welling up with tears.
He is also deeply worried that the neighbourhood would hold him responsible.
â€śThough officials say humans wonâ€™t be affected, people are a worried lot. They blame me for farming here. Other small-scale farmers fear that their birds too could be affected,â€ť he shares.
Out of the 13,000 ducks in his farm, Kuttappayi could lose almost 10,000 to the raging bird flu.
Ramachandran -a farmer in Edathua- recalls that he lost nearly 8000 ducks in 2014, while only 2000 survived.
â€śThis time, almost 200 died. But I am not eligible for any compensation, as I am not a full-time farmer,â€ť the 49-year-old sighs.
It takes around Rs 12 lakhs to rear 10,000 ducks for four months, including the land-rent. If the farmers are able to sell the entire lot, they would reap around Rs 8 lakhs in profit. Unfortunately, compensation by the government takes a long time.
â€śSince the news about the flu has spread everywhere, none will be willing to buy from us. Compensation by the government is the only thing we will get,â€ť chips in Joshy of Muttara.
Most of the small-scale farmers were reluctant to speak to the media as they were scared that if their faces were shown along with avian flu reports, it would further worsen the market.
Dr Mary Kunju
Dr Mary Kunju and Animal Husbandry officer Dr Mathew K opine that the farmers should opt for a seasonal shift in duck farming.
â€śThis strain of flu is caught from migratory birds. So since this is the migratory season, farmers should consider shifting the time of farming ducks. Otherwise, this could recur in the coming years too,â€ť feels Dr Mathew.
Mary Kunju adds that farmers should take up duck-farming only on a small-scale basis during this season.
Migratory birds are very much present in paddy fields after harvest. That is why large-scale duck farms are the worst affected,â€ť she believes.
Since duck-farming is one of the major sources of income for these Kuttanadan farmers, they will now have no choice but to either cut down large-scale operations, or opt for a change in farming season.