COVID-19 pandemic and the onset of African swine fever have severely dampened the spirits of the pig industry in Assam & other Northeastern states of India
Assam has an affinity towards pork. The state is one of the largest patrons of pork consumption in India. This has made pig breeding very lucrative here, giving birth to many entrepreneurs in this Northeastern state of India.
Therefore, the state is now the pioneers of pig and pork production making it the largest pork yielding state, not just in the Northeast, but also in India.
Manoj Basumatary, owner of Symbiotic Foods Pvt Ltd and a former State Bank of India (SBI) employee, is one of the many success stories in Assam. He experimented with different ventures before finally settling into pig farming. He says, “The Northeastern region itself consumes about 70 per cent of India’s pork yield.”
Basumatary’s vision is to have a ‘Symbiotic’ relationship with its stakeholders consisting of customers, staff, investors and local pig breeders for a win-win situation for all. He spent seven years in the backward integration and now he is entering into an unknown territory of forward integration. His company has expanded its operations in retail, feed, training, consultancy, and vet services. He is incorporating the best modern techniques from abroad and then implementing it in Assam successfully by catering to the custom needs of the local population. Basumatary is a role model and a pioneer in Assam’s pig industry.
The future potential of the pig industry is tremendous. It cannot be underestimated, not just in terms of a profitable business, but also as a means of permanent employment for lakhs of villagers in this region. The birth of many “solopreneurs” or small- scale businesses run by a single entity, especially in the case of women living in remote villages of Assam elucidates this fact.
It is quite heartening to see the women belonging to different tribes taking up this profession as a sustainable source of income. Many are the sole breadwinners of their families. They have sold their pigs to meet their bare essentials like kids’ education, medical emergencies, and also as a form of insurance against any contingencies.
The pig industry has emancipated many women and the rural folk to become self-reliant, thanks to the pig industry, unlike crop farming, as the recurring deluge caused by incessant rains in Assam during the monsoon season rules out this profession.
“My wife is a pig breeder and has been in this business for the past five years. A pig is highly productive with good feed; generally, pigs grow to a maximum size of 100 kg within 6 months,” says Haren Patowary, a Dibrugarh-based socio entrepreneur.
Everything looked promising; unfortunately, the tide has turned for the worse. The pandemic COVID-19, of late, has severely dampened the spirits of the pig industry in Assam and the other Northeastern states in India, but that is only skimming the surface of a very serious problem. The sudden onset of the deadly and highly contagious African Swine Fever (ASF) poses a serious threat to not only the pig industry in the Northeastern states but the entire economy of this region as pig breeding is the principal source of income for a majority of the rural inhabitants in Assam and other states of Northeast India region.
Runa Rafique, owner of two farms named Saraighat -- a procreating farm at Changsari -- and a fat-rearing farm in Mirza, near Guwahati airport, said, “I quit my job with ‘Operation Smile’ of Assam government, as Senior Manager, to venture into this business. Everything was fine until the COVID-19 outbreak. And now ASF adds to the misery. I am worried about carrying on like this.”
The once-proud owner of two farms used to provide healthy and nutritious feed – which is quite costly – but the lockdown imposed due to the twin outbreaks has rendered her helpless in providing a healthy diet to her livestock. Sadly, she has to give in to the current situation, thereby, making her despondent which is a sorry state of affairs as her efforts have amounted to nothing.
The ASF is said to have originated in Tibet; the virus reached India primarily via Arunachal Pradesh and Assam -- wreaking havoc on the pig industry. It spreads due to close contact with infected pigs, food waste, garbage, and biological carriers like ticks. Thankfully, the disease doesn’t pose any threat to humans but it is highly fatal and contagious for pigs (alive or dead). Usually, the animals’ symptoms are nausea, diarrhea, hemorrhaging of the skin, poor appetite and many others.
The major problem at hand for the Assam state government of late is the ire it faces from the local pig farmers. The reason being the government banning the transportation, buying and selling of livestock for farming, pork and other meats to prevent the transmission of the fatal virus (ASF) to stop the contagion to other Northeastern states.
The pig farmers are in dire straits (including the COVID-19 lockdown) by following the government regulations to curtail the contagion. Alas, this is only the tip of the iceberg as the main cause of fury is that the Central government sees no harm in allowing the imports of pigs from Punjab and Haryana as a quick fix to meet the demand of pork enthusiasts.
Basumatary says, “The past four months have been really tough. There were so many challenges right from supply of feeds to medicines to feed supplements and other inputs. Sales have dropped; from a monthly revenue of Rs 15-20 lakh to nil. We have almost exhausted all the working capital kept for operational purpose. Many states including Haryana and Punjab rear pigs to sell in Northeastern States. However, with occurrence of ASF, and when pig movement has been banned in majority of the states in Northeast, I feel it will be unfair to allow farmers from Haryana and Punjab to send their pigs at present situation.”
“This will hamper the efforts being made by the farmers and different agencies in NER states to contain and eradicate the disease. There is also fear of disease being carried back to different parts of the country by the vehicles carrying those pigs to NER states. Contrary to them sending UK-bred pigs, few hundred genetically improved pigs which were imported for Mizoram and some other states in NER have been now diverted to Punjab, because of occurrence of ASF in Assam and Arunachal. This order allowing Pigs to come from Haryana and Punjab is a very contradictory by the Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying, New Delhi,” he said.
To prevent the disease from spreading, Basumatary has completely banned visitors. Regular sanitisation has been done with disinfectants like viroxide, bleaching, potassium permanganate.
The North East Progressive Pig Farmers’ Association (NEPPFA) was founded to protect the local pig farmers against the influence of the big corporations.
The combined pig population of Punjab and Haryana is over 1.5 lakh. Assam’s pig production is the highest in India which is over 21 lakh. The total pig production of the Northeast (excluding Sikkim) is over 42 lakh which is almost 50 per cent of India’s entire pig population. And the entire pig population of the rest of India (excluding Punjab and Haryana) is more than 89 lakh, according to The 20th Livestock Census of India, 2019.
One can infer that the nation’s entire pig population is at risk due to fulfilling the interests of a few farmers of Punjab and Haryana. So the feeling of being ignored by the Central government gives us an insight into the heart-wrenching scenario of the helpless pig breeders in the Northeast.
Neighbouring state Arunachal Pradesh is also in a lockdown like Assam due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Heavy rainfall and floods have exacerbated the situation by limiting the activity of the veterinary personnel.
Tage Taki, minister of agriculture, horticulture, AHV & DD fishery, Arunachal Pradesh, says, “The state is suffering due to the ASF outbreak with four confirmed epicentres, but the pigs are still being permitted from Punjab and Haryana. The health department is committed to control and contain the menace of ASF which is a tough ask in terms of manpower and machine. Different containment and surveillance zones are being set up to restrict ASF. We have intimated the centre to stop the imports of pigs from other states.”
Arunachal Pradesh, like Assam, has stopped the operations of pigs and pork from April 2020, as per the resolution of the state cabinet, hence, affecting the pig farmers in this state. Unfortunately, the pigs allowed from other states can jeopardise the state economy and the pig industry which has led to an outcry to ban the movement and import of pigs from other states to safeguard the local pig farmers.
Dr K Bichhua, minister of state, social welfare, AH & veterinary, excise & narcotics, sericulture, Mizoram, says,” The current outbreak of ASF is scary. Massive awareness and sanitisation are mandatory. I truly commend the efforts of NEPFFA, and I’m hopeful we will find a solution by working as a cohesive unit.”
The Mizoram government with effect from July 2020 has also protested by appealing against the free movement of pigs from Punjab and Haryana to stem the virus outbreak to save Mizoram’s pig industry and its farmers.
Similarly, Atul Bora, minister for agriculture, horticulture & food processing, animal husbandry & veterinary, govt of Assam, too, had issued a letter to the Centre on July 23, citing the problems.
It’s a grave injustice to support the profit-margins of a few pig farmers from Punjab and Haryana to endanger the pig industry and the economy in the Northeastern region of India.
The floods in Assam have undone all the good work to curtail the outbreak of ASF as incessant rains have made it very tough to completely discard the contaminated corpses of the livestock.
Going by the statements by the experts in the industry, it won’t be wrong to say that a complete ban is essential on the movement of pigs to the Northeast with immediate effect to prevent it from further escalating into a national crisis along with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Where do the farmers go from here now? Is there a silver lining?
According to Arindam Hazarika, founder of Arohan Foods, a DPIIT-recognised start-up working with pig value chain, meat processing, branding and distribution of meat products, says, “The developed world has also struggled to control ASF. Biosecurity and culling is the most common method. The right infrastructure is needed to carry out culling efficiently as expenses are involved and many farms are in remote areas; so they don’t have access to medical care. There is a plan in place with the right technical expertise to monitor the culling process.”
Discussing the way forward, Hazarika added, “Controlling is of paramount importance now. North East India has the highest retail meat cost in India (in fact in most of Asia). Our farmers do not make money due to high cost of production, not because of lack of markets. Traditionally the shortage was produced by states like Punjab, Haryana and UP. Farmers in those states have free capacity and low cost feed sources.”
“Flooding the market with pigs from all India when local producers are not allowed to slaughter and sell will create oversupply and reduce costs, wiping local producers. Our goal should always be to reduce cost of production and make our farmers self sufficient, not make our markets and farmers dependant on Western imports. We work closely with organisations like ICAR NRC on Pig, AAU, CTCRI, GADVASU and IIE. Currently our primary focus is on reducing feed and housing costs for livestock, creating traceability and monitoring platforms,” Hazarika added.
Dr Dhireswar Kalita, principal scientist, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), Assam Agricultural University (AAU), is lending a helping hand to rescue the farmers against COVID-19 and now ASF through his pocket; but this is only a drop in the ocean as government intervention is paramount.
Runa Rafique, vice-president, NEPPFA, on July 27, 2020, wrote to the Central government to completely stop the movement of pigs from Punjab and Haryana and also to provide aid to the pig farmers of North East and pan India to overcome the ongoing ASF crisis with suitable compensations.
Cynics rule out compensatory packages as a remedy without any reliable resources to accurately quantify the losses suffered by the pig farmers. Restricting movement in bazaars, mandis, and limited interaction with individuals of the pig and feed industry seems to be pragmatic and the best way forward.
Assam and the other Northeastern states have been facing unemployment since time immemorial. Their only hope is the flourishing pig industry but the news of pigs being brought from other states is earth-shattering, to say the least, which can lead to large-scale unemployment and eventually starvation.
A proactive approach is needed to be one step ahead of the government to overcome ASF and COVID-19. The silver lining seems so near but yet so far for the pig farmers.