Flu-hit duck farms in Alappuzha, farmers cry out for relief

Farmers in despair as duck farming sector registers a dip in annual revenue from over I100 crore to less than I10 crore over last decade
Duck rearing is an important occupation for most of the farmers in Kuttanad.
Duck rearing is an important occupation for most of the farmers in Kuttanad. Photo | Express

ALAPPUZHA: Kuttanad, ‘the rice bowl of Kerala, is a land with a lot of geographical peculiarities. Surrounded by waterbodies and vast paddyfields, Kuttanad’s topography presents formidable challenges to its residents. In Kuttanad, around 80% of land where paddy is cultivated lies below the sea level which makes farming in the area an arduous task. Around 1.8 lakh families in the region depend on agriculture sector for their livelihood.

Farmers often have to face flooding which destroys their entire crops leaving them in penury. Along with paddy farming, duck rearing is an important occupation for most of the farmers in the region. Marginal farmers raise a small flock of ducks to manage their daily needs. In a region that is crisscrossed by waterbodies, duck rearing gives farmers a decent income. There are many farmers rear a large number of ducks in vast paddy polders which give them good returns if everything goes well.

However, their fortunes started taking a dip as avian influenza (bird flu) started affecting duck farming in the region.

In the past one decade starting from 2014, the recurring outbreaks of avian influenza have dashed their hopes. Once bird flu strikes the farms, a majority of ducks perish in no time. To prevent the spread of the disease, government agencies step in and cull all the birds in the affected farms to prevent the disease from spreading to other areas. The death of birds and subsequent culling have hit the farmers hard, and the duck farming sector has registered a dip in annual revenue from over Rs 100 crore to less than Rs 10 crore over the last decade.

Rapid response team of the animal husbandry department culling ducks infected by bird flu in Kuttanad
Rapid response team of the animal husbandry department culling ducks infected by bird flu in Kuttanad

Avian flu

Avian flu is spread by migratory birds which flock to wetlands of Kuttanad. In 2014, the disease struck a vast area of Kuttanad. Again in 2016, 2020 and 2024 the disease reared its ugly head and lakhs of birds had to be culled to contain it.

“For the past 40 years, I have been engaged in duck farming in Kuttanad. The vagaries of nature have made life difficult for us. Sometimes, it appears as floods and sometimes it takes the form of epidemics. The bacterial infection has become a normal incident and hundreds of ducks die every season. However, bird flu has become a major threat in recent years,” said duck farmer K T Kuttappan, of Vezhaprathu, South Thalavadi.

“In 2014, I incurred a loss of Rs 7 lakh due to bird flu outbreak. Around 8,000 ducks in my farm died and around 4,000 were culled. The government gave compensation for the culled ducks only. The farmers of Kuttanad have been asking successive governments to implement an insurance scheme, but our pleas have fallen on deaf ears. And we are forced to make up for the loss ourselves,” said Kuttappan, who rears around 12,000 ducks in various paddy polders in the region.

“We avail of loans from banks and private money lenders for farming. After selling the ducks, we repay the loan and again avail of loan for buying a fresh batch of ducklings. Now I have a debt of around Rs 20 lakh in banks. In 2020, the banks served notice to confiscate my properties after I failed to repay the loan. But my friends and relatives helped me overcome the crisis. However, I am facing a similar crisis now. To get out of the cycle of losses, a good farming season is a must. Otherwise, the crisis will continue to drain our finances,” Kuttappan said.

“A grown-up duck (3 months old) will fetch around Rs 200. However, in the retail market, it is priced around Rs 300 to Rs 350. The small-scale sellers buy ducks from us at wholesale prices. Rs 170 is needed to raise a duck. Epidemics are also a major threat to farming. Sometimes the ducks start dying due to virus infection. Veterinary doctors recommend injecting medicine to prevent premature deaths. It is costly which most of us can’t afford. A proper insurance mechanism is the only way to save the sector,” said Samuel Kutty, secretary, of Aikya Tharavu Karshaka Sangam.

“Farmers buy ducklings from private hatcheries paying Rs 23 for each. The feed and medicine cost a significant amount. Most of the farmers rear their ducks in vast paddy fields immediately after the harvest. We have to pay rent to the landowners for this,” said Samuel.

“We went to Thiruvananthapuram 16 times to meet the animal husbandry minister since December 2022 to seek compensation for ducks lost in the bird flu that struck our farms in 2022. The state government is saying that the share of compensation from the Union government is yet to be disbursed. So the disbursal of compensation is delayed by two or three years which lands the farmers in a debt trap. Owing to these difficulties, most of the farmers have stopped farming since 2014. In 2014, the registered number of duck farmers in Kuttanad was 1,620. In 2024, it came down to less than 200,” said Samuel, who has been rearing ducks for the past 55 years.

“Thousands of small farmers, including meat traders and egg sellers, earn a living solely from duck business. When bird flu strikes, it affects only a small number of farms, but its repercussions will soon be felt in the entire sector across the state,” Samuel said.

The lack of a lab facility to identify bird flu is another reason for worry. When ducks start dousing, farmers take them to the Avian Diseases Diagnostic Laboratory at Manjadi near Tiruvalla. The lab will take two to three days to identify the disease. But the Manjadi lab does not have permission to announce the outbreak of the disease. So the samples will be again sent to the National Institute of High-Security Animal Diseases( NISHAD), Bhopal, for confirmation. It would take more than a week. So the government should construct a bio-safety level-3 laboratory in Alappuzha to identify the disease immediately after a suspected outbreak is reported, farmers said.

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