Imagine a farmer setting foot in his poultry farm and thousands of chicks swarming up to him in the hope that he will feed them. They have been hungry for days. But he has no feed, and with the little he can find, there is a stampede the moment he throws it to them and hundreds perish. This is the scene playing out in poultry farms across Punjab over the last few days, following steps initiated by the state and central governments in response to the COVID19 scare.

The scene bears uncanny resemblance to what Chigozie Obioma describes at length in his brilliant work Orchestra of Minorities which came out last year.

Developments in the last few days have spelt doom for the poultry industry in Punjab with similar reports coming in from various other places in the region. It all began with the buildup to the coronavirus outbreak scare when certain unscrupulous elements started a rumour campaign saying people could get infected with COVID19 if they consumed eggs or chicken.

This led to an immediate crash in prices. Poultry farmers told The Citizen that things were so bad even before the lockdown that no one was purchasing chicken for even 5 rupees a kilo.

Once the Centre imposed the lockdown, the Punjab government stated that poultry shops would remain open along with other essential items. But the farmers are still hard pressed for relief, because the majority of shops that are open are keen on selling their frozen stock of boneless chicken, or in many cases selling the stock of fresh chicken available with them at a huge premium of up to Rs.200 per bird.

Apprehending losses, also because the Navratras are on when many people give up eating eggs and meat, they are not procuring anything from poultry farmers.

Poultry farmers are in a very desperate situation here. To begin with they are facing an immense shortage of feed amid the lockdown and curfew as transporters are not willing to bring their deliveries.

This has affected the produce that is ready for consumption. “The birds that should have been 1kg to 1,300 grams in weight are weighing just around 600 grams. We are willing to sell them even at 5 to 10 rupees a kilo but we need a mechanism in place,” said Manpreet Singh Chahal who owns three farms in Sangrur district. According to him no fewer than 1.25 lakh birds in Sangrur district alone are ready for consumption.

Sources disclosed that the scenario is so grim that many farmers have clandestinely been dumping their birds on the roads. “We cannot even seek permission to cull them as we might be deprived of compensation if any is announced by the government later,” one farmer said. Another said that because of the shortage of feed many of the birds have started killing and eating each other.

According to Chahal, “I am looking at a huge financial loss: the cost of raising a bird comes to Rs 70 approximately and I have around 50,000 birds. Right now sales are a big zero. You can calculate where the losses are running.”

Farmers did say that officials in many districts have shown sympathy for their plight, and that the administration is trying to work out a solution where doorstep delivery can become feasible. They say that if this can be worked out they may still get some respite, because there is a sizeable non-Hindu population in the state like Muslims, Christians and a large section of Dalits who don’t stop consuming poultry products during the Navratra religious observance.

Moves have been initiated in this direction, they say, but bureaucratic wrangling is delaying a solution which they require immediately.

The longer the administration delays, the greater their losses will be. “There can be a mechanism where one or two butchers move around in a mobile van and provide freshly slaughtered birds to consumers at an affordable rate. This way all the stakeholders including the farmer, van owner, driver and butcher can earn a bit in these trying times. We have provided all the details and statistics to the authorities and are looking for a go-ahead by Monday,” said Chahal.

Another farmer, Amritpal Singh, says that if the ready produce of birds and eggs is not consumed soon, the birds will die in the next five to seven days and the eggs will rot. “We as a society will be facing a shortage of protein that comes from chicken and eggs. We also need immediate veterinary assistance in many places. The government must ensure movement of feed and medicine on the ground,” he said.

Rajesh Garg, president of the Punjab Poultry Farmers’ Association, revealed that while the state government has allowed the transport of eggs to other states, the people transporting them are facing police harassment in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. “Our trucks are being stopped and drivers are being thrashed,” he said.

He further said that while the government notification has placed chicken and meat shops under the category of essentials providers, poultry shops are not being allowed to open on the ground. “It needs to be understood that eggs are the best source of protein in such trying times. Those who are performing difficult duties on the ground need a constant diet of eggs,” he added.