is a world of complex interdependence among nations. Joseph Nye and Robert Keohane
said that much earlier. But with bird flu raging in our neighbourhood, we are
busy basking in our 9 per cent plus economic growth rate. But it did not take
long for the deadly H5N1 virus to travel from South East Asia and Bangladesh
to our shores. What appeared stray and sporadic incidents with bird flu reports
coming in from Maharashtra and Manipur in February 2006 and July 2007 has now
become a grim reality with West Bengal fighting a bird flu crisis. The dreaded
pestilence has affected isolated pockets scattered over the fourteen districts
of West Bengal. And, now it seems to have spread its tentacles to other countries
of South Asia. Confirmed cases of bird flu have been reported from Pakistan,
apart from Bangladesh where the disease has been present for the past one year.
All this has been giving sleepless nights to the governments in these countries
as it began to spin out of control, this one disease may take the shine out
of a rising Asia and have a debilitating effect on the regional economy. It
can also deprive millions of people in India and the sub-continent of their
livelihood. Even though bird flu of epidemic proportions was first reported
from the South-East Asian countries, we remained oblivious to this threat in
the fond belief that our poultry breeding standards were much higher. But one
should realise that these viruses are air-borne and do not recognise geographical
barriers. Now the state of West Bengal is reeling under a bird flu pandemic,
and the usual suspects are the infected migratory birds from South East Asian
countries and Bangladesh.
The bird flu outbreak in West Bengal has more to do with an unfamiliarity with
the disease, including lack of prior training, resistance from the local people
whose birds are to be culled, inclement weather conditions, and the failure
to effectively seal the international borders with Bangladesh which has more
to do with the difficult terrain and geography than any administrative failure.
A bird flu pandemic has serious implications for the economy as it sends out
negative signals to the outside world about the poor hygiene and sanitation
standards obtaining here, with negative implications for our food processing
industry. This will not only affect the livelihood of millions of people in
our country, but also hurt our larger economy in different ways.
The epidemic has definitely got several lessons for us. There is a strong case
for prior preparations, building a better surveillance infrastructure including
testing laboratories, easy availability of required equipment and bird flu kits,
better training and capacity building to tackle this pestilence. In the present
case, training on the different aspects of handling the bird flu disease by
the rapid response teams has to be organised on an emergency basis after the
disease was reported.
Effective border sealing and checking the inter-regional movement of birds
within and from outside the infected zone had to be ensured for control of the
contagion. Last, but not least, media management had to be more effective as
issues have often been blown out of all proportions. The fact that reports of
bird flu outbreak has led to people completely stopping to buy and consume poultry
products has adversely affected the poultry industry, despite the fact that
properly boiled poultry, even if infected, does not carry any threat for consumers.
The reaction abroad to the news of bird flu outbreak in West Bengal has, however,
gone overboard and is completely unwarranted. If media reports are to be believed,
many countries have prohibited poultry imports from as distant states as Tamil
Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, which, by no stretch of imagination, could be affected
by this disease. India is not a small country, but a sub-continental entity;
hence, a bird flu outbreak in one state is not likely to affect other states.
Though precautions are in order, these should not lead to unwarranted overreaction.
For the moment, the pestilence is well under control. The government has to
ensure that the aftermath of the outbreak is properly tackled so that the poultry
industry comes back to normal. The media again has an important role to play.
Also, better standards of hygiene and sanitation have to be ensured through
better training and awareness among the entrepreneurs and persons engaged in
the poultry business to prevent future outbreaks of the disease, including its
spread to other states for securing our economic interests.
Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily
reflect those of the Government.