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No bird.... in hand

Poultry farmers in Margram, Bengal’s Ground Zero for bird flu, are angry, they lost their source of livelihood and are yet to be compensated. And politicians are finding it tough to get them to vote. Surojit Ghosh Hazra reports.

india Updated: Apr 07, 2009 23:10 IST
Surojit Ghosh Hazra

A flashy motorbike zips across a dusty track cutting through Tentulia village — part of Birbhum district, 350 km from Kolkata — kicking up a cloud of red laterite soil. Fajar Ali, 80, glances at the speeding two-wheeler and turns his face away. “

Ghare nai nun, chhele amar Mithun

(there is no salt in the house but this one acts like a filmstar). Our only source of income dried up last year. We are struggling everyday to stand on our feet again,” he rues.

Ali is just one of the many villagers who have been through the nightmare called avian influenza or bird flu. The disease not only killed poultry in thousands but also crippled the support system of as many villagers. Today, with elections round the corner, leaders are finding it hard to get these villagers to vote for them.

A year ago Tentulia, and several neighbouring villages, hit the headlines across the country. The villages are part of Margram I and II panchayat areas that became Ground Zero of the deadly virus — H5N1.

Politics over identification of affected poultry owners and distribution of compensation followed culling. The problem probably compounded because poultry farming in rural Bengal is largely unorganised and, in many cases, unregistered.

Campaigners are trying to get the best out of the situation but the uneasiness is evident. Graffiti of the CPI(M) and Trinamool can be seen on every mud wall. Everybody is seeking votes but unlike in other areas there is no mention of any local issue.

“In bird flu-affected areas, we will list our achievements and assistance offered to poultry owners. We have already been able to convince villagers that bird flu is caused by viral infection and is not manmade,” said Abdul Ajim, local CPI(M) leader.

To the poor and mostly illiterate villagers, death of backyard poultry birds was not uncommon in winter. But when the culling teams knocked on their doors one morning, they had no idea what was coming.

“These government people came to us and said they were going to kill our birds and for that we would be paid,” said Bhoju Sheikh of Tentulia.

“I had 40 hens and they all died in three days. I went to the culling teams with the dead birds but they asked me to bury them since they had not killed the birds. They also did not give me the slip against which I could claim compensation. Around panchayat elections, I received Rs 500 that worked out to be Rs 12.50 per bird. Do you call that compensation?” said Anima Bauri of Bosoya, 3km from Ground Zero.

Her sister-in-law Sundari Bauri was equally unfortunate. “I had 15 ducks and 20 chickens. I also received Rs 500 as compensation,” she alleged.

Villagers in Bamdebpur, Bosoya, Bishnupur, Budhigram, Dunigram and Dakhalbati have not received a single penny for their birds that got culled.

“There are some technical problems,” said Ajim. “In some report slips submitted by culling teams, the number of culled birds appear absurd. We are investigating the matter. Funds have already reached. But elections have been declared and we will not be able to hand over the money.”