The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Virus spares humans, scare kills

Mumbai, April 7: When his poultry farmer son called up at 9.30 last night, Sayaji Hirekar had prepared himself for the usual complaints about bad business.

But the 25-year-old’s last few words left him stunned.

“If you don’t reach here in an hour, you will never see my face again,” Santosh Hirekar said and hung up.

By the time Sayaji made it to Shevaga village, 20 km from his home in Aurangabad town, his son was hanging from the ceiling at the end of one of his wife’s saris.

The bird flu virus is yet to claim a human life in Maharashtra ' or anywhere else in India ' but Santosh’s death sounds an alarm in a state where more than 1,000 cotton and onion farmers have killed themselves in the last five years.

Local sources said in Aurangabad district, which borders flu-hit Jalgaon, farmers have been offering chickens at Rs 10 a kg and still finding no buyers.

On March 15, the state witnessed its first poultry farmer suicide when Ramesh Mulik, 45, killed himself at Ghat Pimpri in Beed, adjacent to Nandurbar district where bird flu was first reported in India. His debts had grown to Rs 2.5 lakh.

Santosh, the father of a four-month-old child, didn’t write a suicide note, but he had threatened to kill himself in two letters addressed to the Aurangabad collector and divisional commissioner last month.

The letters complained of harassment by moneylenders who were pressuring Santosh to pay back a loan of Rs 50,000 he had invested in his farm of 1,000 birds. He would be forced to end his life, he said, because business was falling fast and 600 birds had died on his farm.

Based on the two letters, the police have booked two moneylenders on the charge of abetting suicide.

But N.T. Jadhav, additional magistrate, said: “We are still investigating if there were any other reasons for his suicide. Villagers said he had a drinking problem, and our officers found 250 perfectly healthy birds on his farm. So, we are still verifying his claims of bird deaths.”

A shopkeeper in Aurangabad said: “Eggs have vanished from the shops and though hotels are still serving non- vegetarian food, chicken dishes have disappeared. The prices of chicken have touched an all-time low of Rs 10-15 a kg, but there are just no buyers.”

The poultry farmers have been pleading with the government for financial relief.

There was more bad news for them with fresh samples from Jalgaon just across the border testing positive for bird flu strains. The Jalgaon administration is now gearing up for its third and biggest round of culling.

The high-security animal diseases laboratory in Bhopal has confirmed that 14 of the last 100 samples sent from the district have tested positive.

After culling about 93,000 chickens in the first round (from March 14), and 2.1 lakh more during the second round (from March 28), Jalgaon this evening was readying to begin culling another 3 lakh birds.

“Yes, this is the largest operation so far,” district collector Vijay Singhal said. “We have to cull 3.1 lakh birds in the 10-km radius that covers 353 villages in nine tehsils across the district. We want Jalgaon to be infection-free at the end of the operation.”

“We had collected 959 samples from 100 villages, and taken a representative sample of 10 birds per village. The tests have found representative samples from 14 villages to be positive,” state animal husbandry commissioner Bijay Kumar said over telephone from Pune.

Kumar said apart from the previously infected blocks like Raver, Chopda and Dharangaon, there were new pockets like Chalisgaon, Pachora, Jamner, Muktai Nagar, and Bhusawal where bird flu samples had tested positive.

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