The 'other' pandemic: How swine fever ravaged Mizoram's pork industry

For 34-year-old Zorinpuia, a pig farm was the hope of a new beginning. After much struggle, he completed his MSc in Medical Biochemistry from the Kasturba Medical College, Manipal, but couldn’t find a job in the state government. And when he applied for posts in other states, he was rejected, as they preferred ‘locals’.

So, he decided to start a pig farm, a well-established farm where the livestock would get the best quality care with fresh water and fodder. He purchased a plot of land in Lengte and started his farm in 2019 with 20 pigs. He believed that if he put in hard work and effort, he would start seeing the results within four years. 

Two months after ASF was first detected in Lungsen, it struck the village of Lengte, where Zorina had his farm. 

And after much care and toil, the farm was finally growing. But just when he started contemplating the idea of expansion in 2021, African Swine Fever or ASF hit Mizoram. 

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Hiring people to dig graves

Over the next few months, almost 33,417 pigs were killed or culled due to the ASF, resulting in losses of around Rs 60.82 crore. It first struck the village of Lungsen on March 21, 2021, and was believed to be caused by pigs imported from Bangladesh. In April, the National Institute of High-Security Animal Diseases in Bhopal confirmed that the pig deaths were due to ASF. 

Just two months after ASF was first detected in Lungsen, it struck the village of Lengte, where Zorina had his farm. 

Zorina had taken a loan to start the farm. In 2021, he had 108 pigs, and he had taken an additional loan to increase the farm size to hold around 70 more pigs. Around March, just before ASF hit, he had also purchased a 1000-kg mixer, aq 24 horsepower grinder, and 65 kW generator so they could prepare the fodder with the expectation that there would be a large number to feed by the end of 2021. The machines he brought could churn out one kilogram of food for a total rate of around Rs 17, 18 while if they purchased the same from Godrej, it could come to about Rs 33.6 per kg. So, he believed it would be a good investment. Those machines remained unused for months. 

There will be no compensation for pigs not culled by the veterinary department, meaning those which died of sickness or were killed by the owners do not ‘count’.  

He lost all 108 pigs and suffered losses of around Rs 35 lakh. Around 33 of his sows were pregnant and on the verge of giving birth. The pig farmers received a moratorium for two years, but even then, their losses were insurmountable.

“For one pig to grow to its full size, they consume about 500 kg of fodder, and for all the pigs we feed and care for, there is not a single rupee of cashback. There were zero profits. Now, my farm has started functioning again, but it feels like I am starting from 2019 all over again,” he told EastMojo

He still remembers the day he first came to know that one of his pigs had been struck with ASF on a hot summer day on June 24.

“When I first came to know that one of the pigs on my farm was sick, I was shocked. I didn’t know what to do. I used to be on the farm five days a week, and if any sow was delivering a baby, I would spend the night on the farm. Apart from the bitter disappointment that we felt, we also had to keep digging graves for the pigs. I would call friends or sometimes hire people to help me, because every day, there were more of them to bury.” 

The government assured compensation to the farmers and approached the Central Government, who released Rs 5.84 crore in March 2022 with the condition that the state must meet its matching share. More than a month has passed, but the government has remained quiet. 

Zorina is the secretary of the Mizoram Pig Farmers Association. The association has 148 members. They have met Veterinary Minister Dr K Beichhua and are trying to set an appointment with the Chief Minister to inquire about the compensation.  

Zorina lost all 108 pigs and suffered losses of around Rs 35 lakh

“Since the Central government has done its part, we strongly believe that the state will also do its part,” he said. 

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No compensation for pigs not culled

However, there is a catch. There will be no compensation for pigs not culled by the veterinary department, meaning those which died of sickness or were killed by the owners do not ‘count’.  

“Over 30,000 pigs died, of which around 10,000 were culled. The veterinary department was short of staff, and many people were not aware that the government must cull the pigs. Our pigs were culled, yet we are fighting for compensation, so there seems little hope for owners whose pigs were not culled,” he said. 

Out of 108 pigs owned by Zorina, 69 were culled by the veterinary department. If the state government can meet its matching share, he will be compensated for the 69 pigs but will have to bear the loss of the remaining 39 pigs. He opened his farm again with 10 pigs in October 2021 and currently has 43 pigs. He now takes much caution in biosecurity and takes strict measures on entry of people on the farm out of fear that ASF would reach them again.  

When the association approached the government concerning compensation for pigs that were not culled, the officials responded to them by saying they would proclaim the ASF epidemic a disaster and acquire funds from the Disaster Management department. However, they were later informed that the Disaster Management was unable to proceed with the plan due to a lack of funds and that it would be taken over by the Planning department. Some members have raised doubts as to whether the government is just stalling the process.

The compensation assured by the government is Rs 15,000 for pigs that are 100 kg and above, Rs 12,000 for pigs of 70 to 100 kg, Rs 10,000 for pigs of 40 to 70 kg, Rs 8,500 for pigs weighing 15 to 40 kg and Rs 2,500 for 15kg and below. 

While farmers like Zorinpuia have suffered heavy losses and will only receive compensation partly as per current guidelines, there are farmers such as 30-year-old Lalrinchhana who lost all 70 pigs on his farm, with not one of them culled by the veterinary department.  

“My pigs started dying in April last year, and within 15-16 days, they were all dead. Till now, I don’t even want to calculate my losses because it hurts to think about it. I would keep track of the losses we suffered when my pigs first started dying, but after some time, I didn’t want to do it anymore,” he said.  

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Lalrinchhana did not want to give up at first. He even tried to separate the ASF affected pigs from the pigs who seemed healthy and could eat. He built a different enclosure for the pigs that seemed healthy so they could be safe but found that it was to no avail. 

“I was very sad. My brother came and stayed with me at the farm. We gave them so much care, yet, in just a matter of days, we dug their graves. As it was difficult to dig the graves for all the pigs, the community would come and help us.” 

Out of 108 pigs owned by Zorina, 69 were culled by the veterinary department

“Compensation is really difficult because culling was started after a team was formed by the veterinary department. And only those pigs that were culled are being counted in the reports and the official documents. When our pigs were dying, even when I sent the report to the veterinary department, no one informed us that there was a need for culling or that there was a team that culls the pigs,” he told EastMojo.  

Of all the pig farmers who were hit by ASF in Mizoram, Lalduhawma lost the most livestock. The 41-year-old is the Chairman of the Mizoram Pig Farmers Association. He started his farm in 2017 with around 50 pigs. He purchased a 2.5-hectare plot of land in 2015 for the farm. Being a businessman, he believed a pig farm would be a sustainable means of income after calculating the expenses and profits. And as per his calculations, by 2022, he should not have had to worry about expenses as much anymore. 

But his whole world changed in 2021. His 50-pig farm had grown to a farm with 1,032 pigs, and all died due to ASF. His losses amounted to over Rs 3 crore. 

41-year-old Lalduhawma, the worst-hit pig farmer in Mizoram, lost 1,032 pigs to ASF

At that time, the pigs in a neighbouring farm had been struck with ASF and this had started to worry Lalduhawma. He took caution on those entering the farm and used disinfectants as much as possible. But on June 16, 2021, one of his pigs started vomiting. “I was well aware of the symptoms, and I knew it was ASF. My body started shivering. I had been told that if one pig is infected then all the pigs on the farm are equally dangerous and must be culled. I had never imagined that I would ever face a situation like this.”

“I wanted to give up on the farm, but around September last year, we were informed that with careful use of disinfectants, the enclosures could be used again. So, I tried my luck with ten piglets when I saw that they were in good health. I brought around 65 more pigs and piglets, and we are looking after them now.”

Of the 1032 pigs, 600 were culled by the veterinary department. Even after compensation, he would have to bear the loss of 432 pigs. There were not enough bullets to kill the pigs, so the caretakers of the Lalduhawma’s farm had to kill the baby pigs with hammers. 

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Aware of manpower shortage in veterinary industry

Not only are imports the main source of the spread of ASF, but the importers also sell their livestock at a much lower rate, sending all the hard work of the state’s pig farmers to waste.

Dr Lalhmingthanga, Additional Director, Veterinary Service & Public Health commented on the compensation guidelines, stating, “There is no compensation for deaths due to ASF but only for the ASF infected pigs that were culled.”

He said they will hopefully be able to distribute the compensation amount in the next month or so and that the amount will be credited directly to the farmers.

Lalhmingthanga mentioned control and containment measures the government has taken such as movement restriction, increasing awareness of the need for behaviour change among farmers and following a strict protocol for the management of affected pigs. 

Regarding the high number of ASF cases in Mizoram, he said other states may have underreported the deaths. He also mentioned that the number of ASF infected pigs is high in Mizoram because it is an important economic activity in the state with almost every household owning pigs as their livestock, especially in villages. 

He did not comment on the farmers’ allegations saying they were not aware that culling was necessary. He however responded to the comments on the insufficiency of staff in the veterinary department saying this is a possible issue.

The compensation assured by the government is Rs 15,000 for pigs that are 100 kg and above, Rs 12,000 for pigs of 70 to 100 kg, Rs 10,000 for pigs of 40 to 70 kg, Rs 8,500 for pigs weighing 15 to 40 kg and Rs 2,500 for 15kg and below. 

Over 30,000 pigs died in Mizoram, of which around 10,000 were culled. The veterinary department was short of staff, and many people were not aware that the government must cull the pigs

Amidst the struggles and losses faced due to ASF, another challenge the pig farmers face is the import of pigs. Not only are imports the main source of the spread of ASF, the importers also sell their livestock at a much lower rate, sending all the hard work of the state’s pig farmers to waste. According to sources, despite the government banning imports, they couldn’t guard the borders to carry forward a strict imposition of such rules. This was due to a shortage of staff and the alleged bribery cases. A source told EastMojo that the businessmen bribed the guards posted at the border. 

“What we need most now is for the government to subsidise the rate of pig fodder,” said Lalduhawma. “If the government can subsidise the rate of pig fodder by 50%, it will lead to a drop in the rate of piglets and pork meat. This will also decrease the rate of illegal imports because it would make no sense for them to import when high-quality pork is available within Mizoram at a low and consistent rate.”

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