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Do count the chicken: Save poultry to save rural India

The first murmurs of COVID 19 were heard in Dec 2019. At that point, no one would have imagined that a disease having its epicentre in a province of China would have the entire world in a death grip. But it was to be this way.

I’ve been a part of the poultry and feed industry for 4 odd decades now. And I thought I had seen it all. Mad cow disease, swine flu, bird flu, But COVID-19 beats them all, hands down. The disease has no fathomable link with the industry. By now, the industry is likely to have posted cumulative losses of Rs 22,500 crores.

Why? Fake propaganda on social media that coronavirus is spread through consumption of poultry products led to may poultry lovers staying away from India’s favourite meat, setting into motion a chain reaction that has brought this Rs. 1 trillion industry to its knees.

Poultry is the most organized of all animal agriculture sectors in India. It contributes almost Rs. 1.30 lakh crores directly to the country’s GDP. The industry supports over 25 million farmers and employs over five million directly and indirectly in allied fields- poultry production, trading, feed manufacturing, agriculture crops, logistics, poultry-based products vitamins, minerals and pharmaceuticals, exports, etc.  

The industry was as it is reeling under severe price pressures since the past few months and just when it was was hoping for some equilibrium and stability to kick in, COVID-19 struck. Financial losses are the first in line of sight. But the heat map will be far reaching as the industry directly impacts several other allied services that feed into it. Of most concern to me is loss of livelihood, especially of women in rural India.

With men migrating to the cities in droves, ‘feminisation’ of agriculture sector was inevitable, with increasing number of women in multiple roles as cultivators, entrepreneurs, and labourers. In rural India, close to 84% women are involved in agribusiness. Yes, it’s a staggering number, indicative of the high dependence on this sector for generating livelihood.  It’s safe to assume that at least 50% of these rural women are involved in poultry farming or related activity. How did this come to be?

Backyard farming has long since been the backbone of rural India. Poultry breeding in addition to working on their marginal farmlands for self-sustenance and later on as a source of income not only created employment for youth but also involved the women of the house. It was a game changer in the development of rural economy, accounting for approx. 20% of India’s poultry sector. It raised the status of women and guaranteed nutritional security for the family. Of late, the industry has been plagued with prices of feed, medicines, upkeep, which vastly out matches the selling price the bird fetches at the market. Exacerbated by COVID 19, could this well soon be a thing of the past? It will be painful to watch this symbol of emancipation for rural women succumb to COVID-19.

Companies, irrespective of their size in the industry are finding it difficult to pay salaries to their workforce, a substantial number of who are women. Many women are fending for themselves and their families while their men folk are away. Loss of earning will impact their socio economic standing. If there is no correction to their position, it will give away to hopelessness and then there is no coming back. No money means no schools, no food on the table, no social security, leaving them exposed to the elements. So everything that took decades to make, could unravel in a matter of months.

In the 4th week of April, overall unemployment rate in India is estimated to be at 26%. If we are to extrapolate, by the time we come out on the other side of this, approximately three million women are likely to have lost means to livelihood. Which means three million households will be impacted- that many more pushed closer to poverty and hunger. And this number is on the lower side; as per the UN this number could be as high as 400 million people.

To me, loss of livelihood at a time such as we face today is like that iceberg that sank the Titanic. It will rip through the already fragile social fabric in the rural setting and the aftershocks will be felt in the whole country. We cannot afford to have more people thronging to our already over stretched cities & metros. We cannot afford more % of our population at or below the poverty line. If this situation is not handled in a balanced manner, it will add itself to an already long list of problems that we will be facing post COVID-19.

The poultry industry is teetering on the verge of collapse. It’s not far from the truth at all. It has taken us a long time and effort to emerge as the world's third-largest egg producer and fifth-largest chicken producer- making a huge contribution to the recognition India has earned, that of being the world’s fastest growing economy. We have everything to lose if we do not dam this downward spiral quickly. We need help, and we need it fast, else we will find ourselves hurled back by at least a decade. 

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