P.T. Jyothi Datta

Mumbai, Feb. 19

AFTER a few hours of brisk business on Sunday morning, Abdul sits close to an iron cage crammed with chicken in a licensed market in South Mumbai. His hands and clothes still stained with signs of the morning sale, Abdul does not believe that bird flu has affected poultry in parts of Maharashtra.

In the trade for over 20 years, he recalls 2003 when bird flu panic drove down chicken prices. It is a conspiracy to malign the poultry industry, he says. A black slate board hangs over his head with Rs 54 chalked on it, indicating the day's price on broiler chicken.

Abdul's disbelief may stem from concerns over his livelihood. But his observation finds an echo in substantiated arguments by members of the scientific community and the poultry industry.

Why were they so secretive, asks a veterinary scientist. Bird deaths in large numbers had been reported over the last 10 days, but the Government insisted it was due to Ranikhet disease, which affects the nervous system and causes death in older birds.

What has changed since? How has it suddenly become bird flu? And if there was a suspicion even then, as media reports quote Maharashtra's Minister of State for Animal Husbandry, Mr Hassan Mushrif, why did they not seal the area immediately, he asks.

If birds were infected earlier in February (when 15,000 birds were apparently found dead), then diseased birds have already been transported to other parts of the State and country, as the region was not sealed. Culling birds now does not rule out the spread of the disease.

And why Nandurbar district? It does not see too much migratory activity, asks an ornithologist. The Government needs to be more transparent on the issue, he adds.

"We are confident it is not bird flu," Ms Anuradha Desai, Chairperson of National Egg Co-ordination Committee, told

Business Line

.

Companies with the vested interest of selling their drug or vaccine have stirred this up, she added.

The Poultry Diagnostic Research Centre (PDRC) and Government laboratories such as the Regional Disease Diagnostic Laboratory (RDDL) have said that the birds were affected by Ranikhet disease.

"We are shocked. What has changed overnight?" she said, adding that the issue is being raised with the Prime Minister's Office.

"We have asked for re-examination of the samples and to stop the culling. If the birds are killed, we will never be able to find out."

The PDRC has screened more than 3,000 samples from across the country and not found anything wrong. And the first signs of this are beginning to show at other poultry markets in Mumbai, where prices have slid to Rs 40 a kg and the crowds have started to dwindle.

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(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated February 20, 2006)
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