Burdwan, Aug. 14: In the Panchatantra, Mitra Sharma, a Brahmin, buys a sacrificial goat but throws it away after three crooks insist at different stretches on the way that he is carrying a dog, a dead calf and a donkey.
If Sharma were living in contemporary Burdwan, he would have had a chance to turn the fable on its head by retorting that he indeed set out with pigs but was returning home with a goat.
All Sharma would need to accomplish his mission are five pigs and a will to sell them. If five pigs are sold and evidence of the sale shown to the Burdwan municipality, a goat will be given free as an incentive.
The programme, which took off early this week, apparently to enthusiastic response from pig owners, is part of efforts to fight Japanese encephalitis, which has killed over 200 people in north Bengal this year.
“If someone sells five pigs and shows us the receipt, he will get a goat. If he cannot sell them himself, we will help him,” municipality chairperson Swarup Datta said.
Not that the virus has entered the town. But the civic body is not taking any chances because of a grim past. In the 1980s, an outbreak of the disease had affected around 350 people in Burdwan town alone and claimed several lives.
As with all things novel in Bengal, the cue apparently came from the chief minister. At a news conference last month, Mamata Banerjee had said that all the pigs being bred in unhygienic conditions would be bought by the government. A rehabilitation plan was talked about but has not been finalised yet.
In Calcutta, police were deployed to round up the pigs. The Trinamul-run Burdwan municipality tried out the police option but the outcome persuaded it that goats might be a better bet.
The municipality had caught 42 pigs on July 31 but a wholesaler from Jharkhand, who bought the animals, disappeared without paying. “The next day we went to two colonies with five armed policemen but no one was ready to give up their pigs.”
Enter, the goats.
But why goats? Therein lies a little noticed fallout of the battle against outbreaks. The municipality had also proposed raising the pati hans (spotbill duck) as an alternative to pigs. Ducks can eat up to 1 lakh mosquito larvae a day.
But because of extensive culling after the outbreak of bird flu, the spotbill duck has become a rare species. So the goat was the last resort.
A goat may score high over a pig in religious matters. But in temporal affairs such as economics, people appear to prefer pigs to goats. While a full-grown pig can sell for Rs 5,000, a goat can fetch only Rs 3,500, said Datta, the municipality chairperson.
“The families are extremely poor. They find it convenient to raise pigs as it does not cost them anything.” What the civic authorities were trying to do, he added, was offer these families an “alternative” livelihood.
The municipality has so far spread the news in five to six wards. Officials claim several pig owners have agreed to the deal. The actual exchange is expected to start in a few days when goats are obtained from suppliers in Burdwan.
That brings up another question: what if many of the 2,000 people who own 20,000 pigs in the town turn up to sell? Will there be a “piggybank” in Burdwan?
No. But here comes the tricky part.
The pigs sold so far were bought by wholesalers from some parts of Bengal and neighbouring Jharkhand, probably to be retailed for meat.
The pigs by themselves are harmless because although they serve as hosts for the Japanese encephalitis virus, the disease spreads only when mosquitoes bite the pigs and transmit the virus to humans. The virus infects only when injected into the bloodstream. Pork is not known to be risky since cooking and stomach acids destroy the virus.
But laboratory observations suggest that — in theory — an extremely large dose of the virus ingested through raw meat has the potential to infect an individual if a part of the virus population survives its passage through the stomach and gets absorbed into the bloodstream. But, scientists say, this has not been reported for Japanese encephalitis.
But Jharkhand is unlikely to be amused, especially since Bengal had been stalling potato supplies to neighbouring states till the other day. Withholding potatoes and sending pigs is not a healthy diet for good neighbourly relations.
The potatoes and pigs have another link. Some of the potatoes that were halted to check the price rise in Bengal are being used to feed the pigs impounded in Calcutta. Potatoes have again started rolling across the Bengal border with the government easing the ban for a week.
Burdwan will also be hoping for a happy ending as it battens down its hatches to shut out the virus and avert a replay of the 1980s.
If a report that began with a Panchatantra tale cannot end without a moral, remember the original lesson associated with the goat and the Brahmin.
It is something the Bengal government often charges a section of the media — and some industrialists who come visiting — with: Untruth spoken repeatedly appears to be the truth.