The communist government of West Bengal has asked thousands of its cadres to help veterinary staff cull birds to contain an outbreak of bird flu in poultry that officials fear could spiral out of control.
Bird flu has spread to nine of West Bengal's 19 districts, according to Farm Minister Sharad Pawar, who blamed the spread on a slow response from the communist state government.
Villagers unwilling to part with their poultry and a shortage of staff have slowed the culling of more than 2 million birds in the state, which is ruled by the world's longest-serving democratically elected communist government.
"Our workers have been asked to fight the menace, shoulder to shoulder with health workers," said Biman Bose, a senior communist party official.
India's government says laboratory tests have confirmed the H5N1 flu virus strain in at least two of West Bengal's 19 districts. Experts fear the strain could mutate into a form easily transmitted from person to person, leading to a pandemic.
Some form of bird flu has been found in another seven districts and more tests were being conducted to determine the exact strain infecting poultry.
Santanu Bandyopadhyay, India's animal husbandry commissioner, said he would be "surprised" if final laboratory tests showed anything other than H5N1.
There have been no human infections reported in India since the virus was first detected in the country in 2006.
The H5N1 strain has killed more than 200 people globally since it re-emerged in Asia in 2003 and has since spread across much of Asia, the Middle East, parts of Europe and Africa.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said the spread of the disease in eastern India was making it harder to control and increased the risk of human infection. More than 30 million people live in the nine affected districts. "However, such spread is not insurmountable," Dr S.J. Habayeb, the WHO's India representative, said in an e-mail to Reuters on Wednesday.
The WHO has called this India's most serious outbreak.
Central health agencies have also given West Bengal a new target of slaughtering 300,000 birds a day and doubling the rapid-response team of veterinarians to 600 in the state.
Authorities in West Bengal are paying farmers up to 40 rupees compensation for each bird culled.
Authorities in neighbouring Bihar said they will begin culling birds in dozens of villages close to the border with West Bengal as a precaution.
"We are very terrified after reports of avian flu in the area," said Pran Mohan Thakur, an official in Bihar's Katihar district. He said no suspicious bird deaths had been reported in the state so far and that farmers would be compensated for culled poultry.
Party workers catch chickens
"The spread of disease would have been contained had the state government informed the Government of India earlier," said Pawar.
"Bird flu has reached India from Bangladesh and we had asked the West Bengal government to be careful ... We also came to know that late compensation by the government to poultry owners is also delaying culling operations."
In Bangladesh, the virus has spread to 26 of its 64 districts. The country has struggled to contain the H5N1 outbreak since March.
Hundreds of party workers in West Bengal tried to convince villagers on Wednesday to hand over poultry for culling in remote areas.
Several cadres wrapped plastic packets around their arms and helped catch chickens from backyards and stopped villagers from dumping dead birds in ponds. "Help from all quarters is welcome at this stage," said Peeyush Pandey, a senior police official.
Authorities are now testing dead bird samples from areas near Kolkata.
Chicken sales dropped drastically in Kolkata and people were taking chicken off marriage ceremony menus. "Everyone wants chickens out from marriage menus and we have changed it several times and replaced chicken with lamb and vegetables," said Rana Chatterjee of Bhoj, popular Kolkata caterers.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New Delhi)