The Calcutta Municipal Corporation has built a piggy bank but doesn’t know what to do with it.
In a little less than 48 hours since the civic body started its drive against pigs as a precaution against Japanese encephalitis, around 54 specimens of various pigmentations and sizes have been separated from their owners and herded into the Dhapa dumping ground.
Mayor Sovon Chatterjee told Metro on Sunday said those who had given away their pigs for the greater good would be compensated for their loss “by weight”, unaware perhaps that there’s now no way of knowing which animal belonged to whom.
CMC officials and Calcutta police said they didn’t mark the animals or note down other details in their hurry to execute Operation Pig. But with mayor Chatterjee insisting that the government would soon “pass an order to this effect”, the onus is on the conservancy department to figure out how to pay compensation “by weight” without being sure of the pigs’ ownership.
Babe, the loveable piglet from the 1995 Hollywood comedy of the same name, might have exclaimed: “Pigs will fly!”
The drive, triggered by an outbreak of encephalitis in north Bengal, began on Saturday and continued on Sunday morning when the police and conservancy workers raided the slums along the rail tracks in Tollygunge and seized 18 pigs. Saturday’s tally was 24 pigs from Mirza Ghalib Street behind New Market and 12 from Salt Lake.
If the manner in which the pigs were taken away raised the hackles of animal rights activists, public health experts said the CMC’s move to protect the city from a north Bengal-like outbreak was flawed.
“Our workers have been removing pigs from slums, only to keep them in a makeshift enclosure in Dhapa where several thousand people work. Dhapa is also within the city, so the purpose of isolating the pig population is defeated,” a health department official said.
According to experts, Calcutta being at least 360km from the encephalitis zone there was no immediate threat to the city from the pig population. “Culling is not the solution because pigs aren’t the only carriers of the virus that causes Japanese encephalitis. What we need is awareness, mainly in and near the affected zone. People need to keep their skin covered, use mosquito repellents and bed nets,” said a faculty member of the community medicine department at SSKM Hospital.
Till Sunday evening, Japanese encephalitis had officially claimed 111 lives in north Bengal this year.
Bibhuti Saha, a specialist in infectious diseases who was formerly with the School of Tropical Medicine, said isolating or culling pigs wouldn’t make a city any safer from Japanese encephalitis. “The virus thrives in birds and buffaloes as well. While pigs and buffaloes are the maintenance hosts for the virus, birds are categorised as the amplifying host,” he said.
Immunisation of pigs, hygiene in farms and vaccination are some of the ways to prevent the disease, he added.
Debabrata Majumdar, the mayoral council member (conservancy) in the CMC, said enclosures had been built in Dhapa to keep the pigs impounded from various locations. “The pigs are kept in a single makeshift enclosure in Dhapa,” a CMC official said on condition of anonymity.
Animal rights activists accused the CMC of being insensitive. “I have read that the animals are being kept in Dhapa but how and in what condition we do not know. The way they are being picked up and carried away on vehicles is improper. The law states that as long as animals are alive, they should be treated properly,” said Susmita Roy of the NGO Love and Care for Animals.
Three of the impounded pigs died on Saturday, allegedly because of overcrowding while being ferried to Dhapa.
“We will approach the CMC to allow us to see the place where the animals are being kept. If they are allowed to roam freely in the Dhapa dumping ground, they will forage for food and could enter the nearby villages, in which case the threat from encephalitis will increase. If they are being confined to an enclosure, they must be given food. Is the CMC doing that?” Susmita demanded to know.
Japanese encephalitis is far from funny but the manner in which the CMC has been conducting its prevention campaign has been comical, much like a scene in a Govinda film from the Nineties.
In Dulhe Raja, a cop played by Asrani takes orders from Govinda, who fakes his boss’s voice over the phone and asks him to rid the locality of “disease-spreading stray dogs” ahead of the health minister’s visit. Asrani’s character wants to know where he would keep all the dogs, to which the prankster responds by suggesting that all the prison inmates be set free because they can be identified but not the strays!