When the African Swine Fever (ASF) hit India in early this year in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, the initial response from the authorities were lukewarm.

The concerned state veterinary department mistook it to be the common Classical Swine Fever that has histories of outbreaks in the region at regular intervals.

Vaccination drives were undertaken mostly in Assam to tackle that presumed outbreak. The start of the nationwide lockdown from March 24 due to the spread of COVID-19 further restricted the care and attention to the swine epidemic.

But when pig carcasses appeared floating in the rivers that came through the hills of the neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh in large numbers in the districts of Dhemaji and Lakhimpur in northeastern Assam it rang the alarm bells.

Baffled pig farmers and veterinary experts, observing the hitherto unseen symptoms of dying animals came to know it to be ASF know as late as on May 1.

As thousands of pigs were dying in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, there was an urgency to tackle the epidemic with measures like culling.

But the state government showed reluctance to do so despite receiving instructions from the Government of India to cull the animals to prevent the spread of the virus which has no vaccine.

The financial aspect concerning compensation to the pig farmers deterred the state to cull. Consequently, more than a hundred thousand pigs died in ASF amidst COVID-19 lockdown.

Now the union government has announced the supply of pigs to the northeastern states of India from Punjab and Haryana to meet their pork demands.

A clueless state veterinary department

 Bidarva Rajkhowa, a pig farmer in Assam’s Lakhimpur district became alert when he first came to know about ASF confirmation in the state.

He at once started providing bio-security in his large breeding farm with exotic species like Yorkshire, Hampshire and the Nepalese Duroc by separating the animals symptomatic of the disease.

But as the lockdown was already in effect for the COVID-19 pandemic, Rajkhowa found it extremely difficult to keep his breed alive and well with no sales.

Soon ASF infected the pigs in his farms forced him to burry in pits dug in his agriculture filed nearby in large numbers.

The worst part, as experienced by Rajkhowa was the indifference and apathy showed by the concerned state department in addressing the problems of pig farmers like him across the state.

No state veterinary department experts visited his farm nor there was any assistance concerning compensation.

The state government’s poor response in tackling the ASF epidemic in Assam is not new. The Joint Commissioner (LH), Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, Department of Animal Husbandry & Dairying, Government of India, vide letter K-11053/62/2018-LH, Dated 10 June 2019 informed all the state governments and union territories on outbreaks of African Swine Fever (ASF) in several South-East Asian countries.

It stated that “India has long borders with China, Myanmar and Nepal, therefore, the border Indian states need to remain alert on the movement of live pigs and pork products in to their territory. In this regard, the people in the border areas, especially in the North-east, require to be adequately sensitized”.

The ministry also instructed to “Enhance awareness among all pig farmers and other stakeholders (e.g., anyone involved in the pig sector, traders, distributors, hunters, butchers etc.) and private veterinarians of the impact of ASF. Also, enhance on-farm biosecurity and understand the clinical presentation of the disease.

But the state veterinary and animal husbandry department in Assam ignored this advisory from the Indian Government and did not act on even the easiest way—holding awareness programmes and prevent practices like swill feeding.

Swill feeding, both from the domestic kitchens and from restaurants, as stated in the 2019 DAHD, MoAFW advisory, is considered to be one of the major risks for the introduction and spread of the virus.

Thus, when first cases of pigs dying in large number were reported from  Peepalguri village in Jonai sub-division of Dhemaji district in April this year, the state veterinary department was clueless.

No culling, no compensation

When ASF was confirmed in Dhemaji and Lakhimpur districts of Assam and Papum Pare and East Siang districts in the neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh following the reports from National Institute of High-Security Animal Diseases (NISHAD)-Bhopal on May 1, the first intervention by the state was to go for culling.

Culling is a standard international practice to get rid of the ASF virus. The DAHD, MoAFW immediately sent advisories to the state governments of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh to cull the pigs in a bid to stop the spread of the ASF epidemic.

But on May 10, the state Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Department, Assam went against culling pigs.

The reason for going against culling was attributed to financial aspect involved in it in which they had to pay huge amounts to farmers and firm owners with 2 million pigs, as compensation.

The amount for compensation in case of culling of pigs for ASF was calculated by the governments of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

On May 14 Assam Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Minister Atul Bora said that the government had demanded ?144 crores from the Centre for the culling of pigs and compensation in Assam.

Three days later on May 17, the Arunachal Pradesh Animal Husbandry and Dairy Development Minister Tage Taki made similar demands asking the Centre for a financial package of Rs 1.6 crore in the first phase to cull 4,500 pigs infected with ASF.

In Assam the government will provide Rs 2,200 for a piglet weighing up to 15 kilograms, Rs 5,800 for a pig weighing 15-40 kg, Rs 8,400 for one weighing 40-70 kg, Rs 12,000 for a pig of 70-100-kg weight and Rs 15,000 for a pig weighing more than 100 kilograms for culling.

Traditional pig rearing in Dhemaji district. Image: Northeast Now

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.

Officially out of these, around 16,000-17,000 have died already in ASF.

Though the Assam state government has calculated amounts for compensation and announced culling of pigs after August, 15, the farmers who have already lost thousands of their animals in ASF due to the mismanagement of the epidemic, the future seems to be bleak.

“I’m not sure that whether I’ll get a penny for the death of my pigs in ASF”, moans Jugal Pegu, a farmer in Dhemaji district.

Import of pigs from outside the region

The northeast region alone is the home for 38.42% of the total pig population of India. Assam possesses highest 1.63 million (15.89%) of the total population of India (10.29 million).

In northeast India, pork is one of the most common and popular meats consumed. The annual pork business in the region is worth around Rs 8,000-10,000 crore, with Assam being the largest supplier. Assam and the northeast consume 75 per cent of the four lakh tonnes of pork produced in India.

Officially in Assam, 7 lakh farmers rear 21 lakh pigs that are supplied to markets beyond the state for business worth a few thousand crores annually.

Though Assam has recently become self-sufficient in pork production, the other northeastern states still depend on imports from the rest of the country. At least 60% of the Rs 8,400-crore annual pork demand of this region is met by imports from other states like Bihar, UP, Rajasthan, and Punjab.

This thriving and sustainable industry in Assam suffered a huge loss due to the outbreak of ASF along with the imposition of nationwide lockdown for COVID-19 pandemic.

When the state government in Assam imposed restrictions on the movements of pigs in the state following ASF and banned the sale of pork, many pig farmers alleged that live pigs imported from Punjab and Haryana were allowed to transit through Assam en-route to Nagaland and other states during the lockdown.

On July 22 a notification by Ministries of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry, Govt. of India allowed “the movement of pigs from the state of Haryana and Punjab to Northeast”.

It is a twin blow to the pig farming in Assam and the northeastern region already crippled by ASF and COVID-19 lockdown.

Though the Assam state government has expressed its opposition to this move by the Centre, many pig farmers across the state are now taking ASF as being a conspiracy theory to destroy the local industry for the benefit of powerful pork lobby in New Delhi.

The state’s failure to prevent the loss of the industry as thousands of pig died, the opposition to culling and uncertainties about getting any compensation has made many farmers in Assam to think ASF in that way.

A pig under a Chang Ghar (Raised House) of the traditional rearer in Lakhimpur. Image: Northeast Now

Farhana Ahmed

Farhana Ahmed is Northeast Now Correspondent in North Lakhimpur. She can be reached at: farhana.ahmed777@gmail.com