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Brutal burial fever grips flu-fear farm
- 12,000 fowls flung alive into trenches in north Bengal poultry

Tung (Kurseong), Feb. 5: A poultry farm turned into a mass grave as 12,000 fowls were flung into trenches and buried alive by authorities afraid of bird flu, which has not touched the country yet.

Since early this morning, hundreds of workers at the Saint Alphonsus Social and Agriculture Centre here got down to work. Two trenches were dug, measuring 10 ft by 10 ft. The fowls, screeching and flapping their wings wildly, were dumped and buried alive under a mixture of lime powder, bleaching powder and mud. Within an hour, 3,500 were buried.

The centre’s director, Father Joseph Murry Abraham, described this as “standard procedure to kill them. If we slaughter them, the entire place will be filled with blood and that could give rise to other deadly diseases”.

Run by Jesuits, the centre trains children in poultry, vegetable and dairy farming to make them self-reliant. It is home to 66 children and employs around 350-odd workers from neighbouring villages.

“The (bird flu) outbreak has already been reported in about 10 countries and even though the disease has not been reported in India, we felt that it is only a matter of time before it reaches the country,” said Abraham, who has 31 years of experience in poultry farming.

“We cannot afford to wait and put in peril the lives of my children and workers here and the people of this region. If the outbreak does reach this country, it will be unmanageable and this is why we are killing the entire lot of 12,000 perfectly healthy fowls before that happens,” he added. The killings cost the centre Rs 12 lakh.

The authorities decided against distributing the 12,000 birds among workers, fearing they would clandestinely rear them and put the village at risk in future.

Every day, the centre sells around 6,000 eggs at 16 outlets in Kurseong and Darjeeling. But today, the authorities broke the eggs and distributed them among people so that they could not hatch them on the quiet.

“The loss is immense as we invest around Rs 125 on every fowl and our main source of income is through the sale of these eggs. Now we have to look into other means to run the centre,” said Sudhir Bhitrikoty, the manager.

The profits from its poultry sale funds the education of the 66 students who stay on the farm “till they feel like and acquire the skill in various fields”.

The centre replaces around 4,000 fowls every six months. “I have about 1,200 friends in Canada and the US, who have always stood by me since 1961 (the poultry farm was started around that time), and they usually donate around Rs 10-12 lakh every month. We will now use this money to run the centre,” Abraham said. In the past, the money was used to build schools in the area.

Besides, the centre also sells vegetables, mushrooms and dairy products in the local market.

The district administration appeared unaware of the mass killings of the birds. Darjeeling district magistrate Aariz Aftab said: “I have checked out with my officials and there has been no report of bird flu, in Tung or the district. There is nothing to fear.”

Authorities at the centre admitted they have not informed government officials. “We are working independently and we are acting out of concern for our people. If we had informed the authorities, they probably would have stopped us,” said Bhitrikoty.

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