The Pampa river flows gently, its water glittering in the warm January sun. A lush green carpet of paddy saplings stretches out for miles near the water body. But a sombre mood prevails in this picture-perfect setting at SN Kadavu, a village near Karuvatta in Kerala’s Alappuzha district.
A levelled patch of uncultivated paddy field abutting a road along the village looks diseased, sprinkled with bleaching powder. A nearby board reads: ‘Warning! Bird Flu 2021 carcass burning site’.
Seated on a bench outside a thatched structure close to his two-bedroom house a few metres away from the culling site is Devaraj K.V., 52, a second-generation duck farmer. He looks shaken. Devaraj lost 9,240 ducks, his only source of income, to avian influenza (H5N8) in a span of just two weeks.
“It’s been a horrendous couple of seasons,” he says. With an eye on the Christmas market, Devaraj had bought 8,240 one-day-old ducklings at Rs. 22 per chick from a hatchery at Thuruthy near Changanassery in Kottayam district in August 2020. Two months later, he purchased another 1,000 egg-laying ducks at Rs. 280 per bird from Valanchery in Malappuram district, all to help recoup his business that was reeling from the COVID-19-induced lockdown and the closure of restaurants and eateries.
The ducklings were hand-fed for the first 30 days. In the following months, the birds were taken to the Chalunkal and Manthara paddy fields for foraging with the help of seven labourers. “Things were going smooth. I had even struck a deal with poultry traders in Ernakulam to sell my ducks two days before Christmas when the bird flu hit like a bolt from the blue,” says Devaraj.
His ducks started to fall ill on December 20 and began to die one by one. In the next couple of days, some 3,000 ducks in his farm perished. The rest of the birds were culled by the authorities in the second week of January after the outbreak was confirmed in the Kuttanad region. Devaraj estimates his losses at Rs. 8 lakh.
The bird flu outbreak in Kuttanad, a vast area of land reclaimed from the Vembanad Lake spread across Alappuzha, Pathanamthitta and Kottayam districts, was the last straw for these farmers, who were already struggling to come to terms with the losses inflicted by the great deluge of 2018 and the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the third outbreak of avian influenza in the region in the past seven years.
The outbreak was detected in Karuvatta, Pallippad, Nedumudi, Thakazhi and Kainakary in Alappuzha district and Neendoor in Kottayam district. Following the mass death of ducks last month, the authorities sent samples of dead birds to the National Institute of High Security Animal Diseases (NIHSAD), Bhopal. Six of them tested positive for bird flu. On January 5, rapid response teams were despatched to the affected areas, except Kainakary where the disease was confirmed much later, on January 20. In three days, men wearing personal protective equipment culled and burnt the carcasses of 57,687 birds, almost entirely ducks, within a one-km radius of the hotspots in the two districts to keep the virus at bay. The teams destroyed 32,592 eggs and 5,078 kg of feed. The number of ducks that died due to H5N8 stood at 25,265. In Kainakary, 349 ducks, 297 chickens and two geese were culled on January 20 and 21.
A Ramsar site and a designated Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems, Kuttanad, nicknamed the rice bowl of Kerala, is one of the areas where farming is carried out below the sea level. Duck farming to the villages here is what tapioca is to the tropical hills of Central Travancore. Nearly all households in the region keep at least a few of these birds in their backyards, which are a consistent source of income for several families and form the crux of their food security, besides offering jobs to several thousands. It is common to see duck flocks quacking and waddling across roads and paddy fields post-harvest, being guided and goaded by ‘masters’, across the region.
The transformation of duck rearing in Kuttanad from the turn of the 21st century till the first bout of bird flu outbreak in 2014 was staggering. From 6.61 lakh in 2003, the total number of birds grew to touch 9.94 lakh in 2007. On the back of a slew of duck rearing schemes rolled out by the State government, the sector grew further over the next five years up to 2012, to take the bird count to 17.09 lakh.
The bird flu outbreaks in 2014 and 2016, however, put the brakes on this flourishing sector. As per estimates by the State Animal Husbandry Department, around 15 lakh of ducks and ducklings were destroyed in Kuttanad during these outbreaks, while another four lakh ducks died in the floods of 2018, which also caused the destruction of eight lakh eggs besides 75,000 ducklings. The flock size kept by the farmers began to fall and in the years between 2012 and 2019, the bird stock grew by just 3.96% to take the number of birds to 17.76 lakh.
“We conduct duck farming throughout the year with a focus on Christmas and Easter. If ducks survive through the period, we can make some good money even after labour cost and expenses for medicine. But if there’s bird flu or a bacterial infection, our lives turn upside down. After 2014 and 2016, we are unfortunately reliving the difficult moment again. It will take some time to rebound from this crisis,” says Samuel K., a duck farmer from Pallippad who lost a few thousand ducks to the flu outbreak.
Traditional duck rearing
Unlike the modern poultry farming methods of rearing birds indoors, duck farmers of Kuttanad rear ducks in the open, although it makes the birds more vulnerable to diseases like avian influenza. “Ducks are voracious eaters,” says Thomas Kutty, a duck farmer from Karuvatta. “It is not sustainable to hand-feed the birds beyond a specific period. Kuttanad with its vast paddy fields and backwaters is conducive for duck farming. Immediately after the paddy harvest, we move the birds to vast fields for feeding. We keep the birds on the move from one field to another until they are saleable,” says Kutty. According to him, allowing ducks to forage fields is mutually beneficial. The ducks get enough food in the form of rice, worms and insects, and the paddy owners stand to get a few bucks. The ‘Kuttanadan’ ducks (Chara and Chembally — two local breeds) reared like this are branded and are in high demand.
With a dramatic increase in the consumption of poultry protein over the last decade, Kerala is now experiencing a huge gap between the demand and supply of duck meat. The prices rose consequently, from Rs. 160 to Rs. 210 per bird, show estimates available with the Government Duck Farm, Niranam.
While consumers deal with higher prices, about 80% of ‘Kuttanadan’ ducks grown by traditional farmers are now sold for meat at the age of 2.5-3 months — a sharp deviation from the earlier practice of maintaining the female ducks for egg production.
“This is not at all an ideal situation since all the good quality birds are now sold for meat while the State looks to neighbours for duck eggs,” explains Thomas Jacob, Chief Veterinary Officer, Pathanamthitta.
Ban on poultry trade
According to farmers’ associations, there are more than 1,000 big duck farmers in the region, while several thousands, including small farmers, meat traders and egg sellers, are allied to the sector. The bird flu has directly impacted only around 30 duck farmers, but it has rattled the entire poultry sector in the region with the authorities regulating the trade of meat and egg of ducks, chicken and quail in a bid to tame the spread of the disease.
The 24.14-km Alappuzha- Changanassery road has parrot green paddy fields and palm-studded backwaters on either side. Small stalls selling ‘Kuttanadan’ ducks, eggs and local fish along the road stand testimony to the agricultural tradition of the place. However, after the outbreak, the traders whose lives depended on wayside vending have closed the duck stalls. “We are not farmers, but small-time traders. We buy ducks from farmers and sell them for a small profit. The ban on poultry trade has upended our lives,” says Jose K., a trader.
The reports of a bird flu outbreak in the region, which sits next door to some of the most renowned international tourist destinations including Kumarakom, also came at a time when the tourism industry was looking for a revival after being in limbo thanks to the pandemic. In a quick fire-fighting act, most restaurants and houseboats operating in the region have stopped serving chicken and duck delicacies to guests.
“Enquiries seeking the status of the outbreaks have already begun pouring in though we have got no cancellations so far. The bookings, however, will be affected if the scare continues for a longer time as had happened in 2014,” says K. Rupesh Kumar, coordinator, Responsible Tourism, Kerala.
At Vaisyambhagom, 9,000 fully grown ducks including drakes, healthy and unaffected by the outbreak, belonging to Thankachan Kaithakalam, are enjoying their time in the Pookaitha river. “These birds were to be sold in the new year. The outbreak and subsequent restrictions have changed everything,” says the veteran duck farmer. He had sold 12,000 birds on the eve of Christmas but is now expending Rs. 25,000 daily to feed the remaining flock. “The puncha paddy cultivation season is on and there are hardly any fields in the region for ducks to eat from. The only way to maintain the birds is to provide them with compounded feeds. In normal conditions, rearing a duck for meat costs around Rs. 175, while a 120-days-old duck could fetch Rs. 250. All the money I am spending now on the flock is additional cost. If the ban is to remain in place, I will have to suffer huge losses,” says Kaithakalam. He has with him 30,000 duck eggs, which he says “will spoil within days” with no proper facility to store them.
Although duck farmers used to transport the birds to other districts and sometimes across the State as far as Andhra Pradesh for feeding based on the availability of fields, the restrictions in place mean that they cannot take the birds outside the region.
The State government’s compensation plan for the owners of dead/culled birds due to the bird flu has been slammed by poultry farmers as being inadequate. The government has announced a compensation of Rs. 200 for a bird older than two months and Rs. 100 for those less than two months old. Besides, Rs. 5 will be given for each egg destroyed. “The government had given the same amount as compensation during the previous bird flu outbreaks. The prices of ducklings, feed and labour cost have increased in recent years and the government should have considered that while fixing the compensation. I have taken loans from money lenders at exorbitant rates and my family is staring at a debt trap,” Devaraj says. Some farmers say they might not be able to prove the number of birds that perished before the avian influenza was officially confirmed. “I am going to get compensation for the culled birds alone,” says Kutty.
While farmers like Devaraj and Kutty are set to get some compensation, people like Kaithakalam who are unaffected by the disease but are prevented from selling the birds, eggs and meat are left in the lurch. “The government should at least provide the feed free of cost until the ban is lifted,” Kaithakalam says.
The first alarm of a potential bird flu infestation in Kuttanad came from a duck farm at Aymanam in Kottayam on November 25, 2014. Recognising its potential to set off a crisis in Kuttanad, a region well connected through a network of water bodies, the Animal Husbandry Department ordered the culling of all the poultry birds within a one-km radius of the outbreak zones. The Rapid Response Force teams comprising personnel of the Animal Husbandry and Health Departments were formed to respond and contain the outbreak. They culled 0.277 million poultry birds from 288 farms across the region.
A study on the economic impact of the 2014 bird flu outbreak on Kuttanad, which was published by the ICAR – National Institute of Veterinary Epidemiology and Disease Informatics in 2017, had found that the loss due to destruction of feed and eggs was relatively high in backyard farms than their commercial counterparts. This was primarily due to easy access to stored feed and eggs for destruction and also lack of compensation for the destroyed feed.
The analysis revealed a total loss of $10,203 per hatchery on an average. Of this, 59% was destruction of hatchery eggs. The transfer payments (compensation) had alleviated the loss partially to the farmers-producers and hatcheries though it could not offset other stakeholders, it noted. For instance, the decline in tourist inflow to Kuttanad post the outbreak was drastic, severely affecting the backwater tourism sector as a whole. While the loss in gross returns varied based on the types of boats, the loss per tourist boat was estimated to be $2,280.
Pointing out that control measures are only post-incidence, the study also called for the adoption of preventive bio-security measures at the farm level besides periodical screening of domestic birds.
“Frankly speaking, you do not have many other options as long as Kuttanad remains to be a major flyway location for migratory birds. There is always a chance of a bird flu outbreak in the region, especially in November-December. The widespread presence of bird sanctuaries and the huge network of water bodies are not helping the crisis either. For a rural community, that’s a pretty tough hit to take,” says G. Govindaraj, senior scientist with the ICAR- NIVEDI, who led the study.
The Kerala State Planning board, in its proposal for a special package for post-flood Kuttanad, also noted that around 90% of the ducks in Kuttanad are reared without any systematic or scientific feeding practices or disease-control measures. According to the board, the high level of duck mortality due to Duck Pasteurellosis, Duck Plaque and New Duck diseases is a major issue faced by the sector in the region.
“Lack of knowledge about vaccination against these diseases and scarcity of vaccination experts are some of the other factors leading to high levels of duck mortality. Kuttanad urgently needs a large project that would vaccinate most of the ducks within a strict time frame. It also needs proper disease surveillance programmes and vaccination of nomadic ducks to prevent mass deaths. A cadre of field workers has to be created for this purpose,” the report pointed out.
The board also recommended that the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, Pookode, be allotted a project with infrastructural facilities to provide and distribute five lakh ducklings each year, besides facilities for providing services like disease diagnosis, feed analysis, training, custom hatching facilities and field veterinary services.
Risk to humans
Soon after the bird flu was confirmed, the Centre rushed multi-disciplinary teams to study the outbreak and evaluate the public health risk of H5N8. Although the risk of transmission of the H5N8 subtype of the Influenza A virus to humans is considered to be very low, experts warned that mutations might occur and the virus could become more aggressive. “We have tested several samples. No case of H5N8 and H5N1 has so far been detected in humans in India. However, virus mutations remain a threat,” says a scientist with the National Institute of Virology, Pune.
Santhosh Kumar P.K., District Animal Husbandry Officer, Alappuzha, says that there is no conclusive evidence yet that the source of infection was migratory birds. “But there is a high chance that the ducks in Kuttanad got the virus from the migratory birds that arrive in the region in large numbers,” he adds.
With recurring avian influenza outbreaks poised to disrupt the sustainability and viability of duck farming in the region, experts have called for detailed studies. “The need of the hour is to set up a biosafety level-3 lab in the State. After duck deaths were reported in December, 2020, it took two weeks to ascribe it to bird flu as samples had to be sent to NIHAD,” says an official with the State Animal Husbandry department.
Looking at the frightening regularity of the outbreaks, it is time the State adopted these remedial measures.
Enumerating, describing and understanding the population of a society and what people have access to, and what they are excluded from, is important not only for social scientists but also for policy practitioners and the government. In this regard, the Census of India, one of the largest exercises of its kind, enumerates and collects demographic and socio-economic information on the Indian population. However, no data exists in a vacuum. It has its own history, context and purpose.
About the Census
The synchronousdecennial Census going back to the colonial exercise of 1881 has evolved over time and has been used by the government, policy makers, academics, and others to capture the Indian population, its access to resources, and to map social change. However, as early as the 1940s, W.W.M. Yeatts, Census Commissioner for India for the 1941 Census (https://bit.ly/2MbCSAz), had pointed out that, “the census is a large, immensely powerful, but blunt instrument unsuited for specialised enquiry”.
This point has also surfaced in later critiques offered by scholars who consider the Census as both a data collection effort and a technique of governance, but not quite useful enough for a detailed and comprehensive understanding of a complex society. As historian and anthropologist Bernard Cohn had demonstrated, the Census may in fact produce an imagination of society, which suggests the epistemological complexities involved.
While the usefulness of the Census cannot be disregarded, for instance with regard to the delimitation exercise, there is a lack of depth where some issues are concerned. In this context, the discussion around caste and its enumeration have been controversial. Since Independence, aggregated Census data on the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes on certain parameters such as education have been collected. With demands to conduct a full-scale caste census gaining traction over time, some have seen the inclusion of broader caste information as a necessity to capture contemporary Indian society and to understand and remedy inequalities, while others believe that this large administrative exercise of capturing caste and its complexities is not only difficult, but also socially untenable. Following decades of debate, the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) was conducted in 2011 (https://bit.ly/2LYsbkR) and took a few years to complete; this was a distinct exercise from the Census of 2011. The SECC, which collected the first figures on caste in Census operations since 1931, is the largest exercise of the enumeration of caste. It has the potential to allow for a mapping of inequalities at a broader level.
The main concerns
It would be disingenuous to ignore the emotive element of caste and the political and social repercussions of a caste census. There have been concerns that counting caste may help solidify or harden identities, or that caste may be context-specific, and thus difficult to measure. These discussions along with various counterarguments are not new. Commenting on the 1941 Census, Census Commissioner Yeatts observed that, “Thanks to the acute interest in community figures, practically all communities this time were census-conscious and took pains to see that their houses were in the list and that they themselves were counted.” In discussions around caste, scholars such as Nicholas Dirks and Cohn have demonstrated that the Census had the effect of marking out caste and community in the forms we see today.
The other concern is whether an institution such as caste can even be captured completely by the Census. Questions remain on whether the SECC is able to cover the effects of caste as an aspect of Indian social structure in everyday life, or at least to illuminate our understanding of its impact at varying scales — from the local, to the regional and to the national scale. Can the SECC take into account the nuances that shape caste and simultaneously the ways in which caste shapes everyday life in India?
The Census and the SECC have different purposes. Since the Census falls under the Census Act of 1948, all data are considered confidential, whereas according to the SECC website, “all the personal information given in the Socio Economic Caste Census (SECC) is open for use by Government departments to grant and/or restrict benefits to households”. The Census thus provides a portrait of the Indian population, while the SECC is a tool to identify beneficiaries of state support. This difference is significant since it influences not only the methods of collection but also the use and potential for misuse of data.
A road map
What is needed then is a discussion on the caste data that already exists, how it has been used and understood by the government and its various departments to grant or withdraw benefits, and also its utility for the important academic exercise of mapping social inequalities and social change. Linking and syncing aggregated Census data to other large datasets such as the National Sample Surveys or the National Family Health Surveys that cover issues that the Census exercises do not, such as maternal health, would be significant for a more comprehensive analysis, enabling the utilisation of the large body of data that already exists. This linking of the Census with the National Sample Survey data has been suggested in the past by scholars such as Mamta Murthi and colleagues (https://bit.ly/3oaUTMx). Statisticians such as Atanu Biswas point out that Census operations across the world are going through significant changes, employing methods that are precise, faster and cost effective, involving coordination between different data sources (https://bit.ly/2Y1s0aP). Care must however be taken to ensure that digital alternatives and linking of data sources involving Census operations are inclusive and non-discriminatory, especially given the sensitive nature of the data being collected.
Time lag and planning
Apart from themes specific to enumerating caste, there are other issues that the Census and the SECC in particular face. The first relates to the time lag between each Census, and the second to the delay in the release of data. The first of these is inherent in the way the Census exercises are planned. The second, however, also has important repercussions to understanding social change since data may remain un-released or released only in parts. Nearly a decade after the SECC for instance, a sizeable amount of data remains unreleased.
While the Census authorities present documents on methodology as part of a policy of transparency, there needs to be a closer and continuous engagement between functionaries of the Census and SECC, along with academics and other stakeholders concerned, since the Census and the SECC are projects of governance as well as of academic interest. Before another SECC is conducted, a stocktaking of the previous exercise, of what has been learnt from it, and what changes are necessary, beyond changing exclusionary criteria for beneficiaries of state support, are crucial to enable the Census to facilitate effective policy work and academic reflection. Concerns about methodology, relevance, rigour, dissemination, transparency and privacy need to be taken seriously if this exercise is to do what it was set up to do.
Divya Vaid teaches at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University
“All politics is a struggle for power; the ultimate kind of power is violence.” — C. Wright Mills
Donald Trump’s drive to upend a legitimate election has shaken faith in the functioning of democracy worldwide. When a president of a country himself condones the rioters or calls them “patriots”, a grim reality awaits democracy in the face of the pervasive political polarisation ripping apart the very political fabric of a nation. Politicians across the globe sink to new levels of unwarranted incitement of a malleable public, a disastrous and politically debasing tendency of constitutional democracy.
History as a pointer
The loss of faith in the ruling elite points towards a disturbing future. The long and cyclic dark history of civilisation, of wars and violence, of religious fanaticism and irrationality is a loud indication of the failure to model society on rational principles. Our inherently dialectical history confirms the simultaneous birth of opposing forces at the very moment of assertion of any “truth”. For example, the trajectory of liberal democracy evolving into totalitarianism is evidently present in the brute forces of Italian fascism or German Nazism, two striking examples of the birth of vulgar nationalist fervour and racial superiority.
The shock of Capitol Hill
In the wake of the debacle on Capitol Hill, the world awakes to the reality of the scourge of violence within democracy, rousing a serious national debate on what comprises aggression, who perpetuates it, and why. It is imperative to halt the runaway course of democracy towards an environment increasingly subsumed in the violence of fear and hatred, an overwhelming plague in any civil society. Breaking, therefore, through the intellectual vacuity of the official discourse and coming to grips with the history of electoral violence we see that what happened on the Potomac is nothing new in the long history of racist and electoral violence.
But it is not Mr. Trump who is solely responsible. The people are as much to be blamed. Jason Brennan, in his valuable and bracing book,Against Democracy, makes the contrarian conclusion that democratic participation promotes human beings to forget common sense and common politesse. Voters, as he puts it rather uncharitably, are “biased, ill-informed football hooligans” who “can present arguments for their beliefs, but cannot explain alternative points of view”. Along with them are the “hobbits”, a section that lacks fixed strong views on political matters. These two categories have their antithesis in the “Vulcans” who, Brennan argues, “think scientifically and rationally about politics”. Nazism, Trumpism or Hindutva are outstanding examples of this syndrome and the analogy fits in aptly with the credentials of the demonstrators in Washington DC, the “superbiased” who mindlessly fall in line with the manifesto of the ruling dispensation.
Philosophical democratic theory is, therefore, rather perplexing. One aspect is the idolised view of democracy as an inimitably just form of government where people have the right to equal share of political power that empowers the people. However, judging by the history of violence, this could be an absolutely off the mark argument within real-world politics. It only shows that political participation has the potential of making people more irrational, prejudiced and mean. It pulls apart, impedes the social order and creates antagonists of civic order. A higher form of life that democracy promises seems to evade the public.
The debatable questions, therefore, would be: Does democracy leave you smart and active, or dumb and uncivilised? Does it give us a broad outlook or is it selfishly limiting to one’s immediate needs? Does it not make people live in a world of delusion and deceit expediently passing the blame on to the Left or the “professional anarchists” responsible for violent acts of arson and loot, while thousands of protesters sustaining the powerful state apparatus are labelled as “peaceful” or as “patriots”. Death, pain and physical injury of people fighting back for civil liberties and human rights are of no consequence.
The power and brutality of state violence therefore stands legitimised while justifiable or innocent violence accompanying demonstrations against racism or police ferocity result in ruthless consequences. The nightmare of history indeed, brings us face to face with sinister times that impel the need to oppose the offensive right-wing narrative that discourages dialogue, economic welfare and freedom of expression. The erosion of egalitarianism and freedom through unprecedented challenges from anti-humanist forces pushing democratic institutions to the brink of failure is effectively in operation globally.
At the irreducible moment of confronting the nightmare of history, we have a choice before us. Either we accept the politics of ethnic intolerance, inequality and violence or arouse within us the unfaltering urge to resist thestatus quo. In the absence of activism, people are bound to fall prey to irrationality, resentment, xenophobia and the inexorable yearning for fear-inducing power. Shockingly, the right-wing fringe element anywhere in the world, America or India, seem untouched by the state brutality on the innocent and the marginalised.
Recognising the failures of the past while retaining hope for the future, we need to develop a critique of violence within democracies that is adequate to the times. Understandably, there is always a political struggle basic to the recognition of evident and hidden forms of injustice and violence that make people mindful of it, deliberate on it, and act. These are the “political beginnings” that Hannah Arendt optimistically spoke of in her perennially relevant book,Men in Dark Times. To her, the collective power of the people mattered more than the power of the state, but only when the struggle is against authoritarianism and bigotry, not when the masses begin to prop a fascist disposition.
Shelley Walia, a professor, has taught Cultural Theory at the Department of English, Panjab University, Chandigarh
The Centre’s offer to suspend for 18 months the implementation of the three laws that are at the heart of the farmers’ unrest is a conciliatory gesture. It is regrettable that the farmers protesting against the laws that encourage market forces in the sector have rejected the government offer. They have been demanding the repeal of the three laws and a legal guarantee of Minimum Support Price for their produce. The government has refused to concede these demands, but its willingness to put off the implementation of the laws is a right step that could lead to a viable reform package for the agriculture sector. A toxic combination of the Centre’s intransigence, ignorance and insensitivity led to the current flare-up. That India’s agriculture sector requires reforms is not in dispute. The challenge is in identifying the viable measures from the economic, environmental and scientific perspectives and building a wide political agreement for them. The government has now shown wisdom and sagacity by offering to start consultations. Farmers should now not allow their maximalism to obstruct the path to an agreement. It is a case of better late than never.
By creating an environment of trust with the aggrieved farmers, the government can reclaim its authority and role. Further consultations must be through a government-led political process, and the Supreme Court which has assumed an unwarranted role for itself must step back. As Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar pointed out, if the agitation can be ended with this concession from the government, it will be a victory for democracy. The government should do more. Harassment of farmer leaders by investigative agencies must immediately stop. The BJP should restrain its functionaries from labelling protesters as anti-nationals. The farmers, who are being represented by several organisations, must arrive at a common platform for talks with the government. Having been successful in winning the attention of the government and the larger society towards their grievances, the farmers must now suspend their protest, including the plan for a tractor rally in Delhi on Republic Day. The consultations on the three laws and reforms in general must take place in an ambience of mutual trust and a spirit of give and take. The talks must be without preconditions but with an agreed premise that agriculture and farmers cannot be left at the mercy of market forces, and the current crop and remuneration patterns are not sustainable. This requires both sides to be more open-minded than they have been so far. A pause of the laws can be helpful.
The deadly fire in an upcoming production facility at the Serum Institute of India (SII), in Pune has sent shock waves because of the key role played by the company in producing the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covishield COVID-19 vaccine. Five workers engaged in construction have perished, and there are indications that expensive equipment has been destroyed. There is understandable concern about the accident at the SII building, which is located away from the Covishield unit, as the company, reputedly the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer, is now an institution of global importance. It is scheduled to deliver several hundred million doses of Covishield to a host of countries, including less affluent nations depending on the COVAX initiative led by WHO to protect their populations and move towards normality. Such a position of indispensability for the Pune facility in the war against the pandemic casts upon India, Maharashtra and SII, the responsibility of ring-fencing vaccine production against all threats, including the one that normally gets low importance in India, which is fire safety. The initial assessment indicates that Thursday’s blaze may have been triggered by flammable materials set afire by sparks generated during construction work, trapping and asphyxiating workers. It is welcome that the company has offered a solatium to the families of the victims, who included migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, but the bigger task is to convince the world that critical vaccine supplies are not jeopardised by lax safety protocols.
The storage and transport of vaccines, which are time and temperature-sensitive pharmaceutical products, require special care, and COVID-19 has come as a wake-up call to governments to overcome supply bottlenecks and capacity constraints. Even the creation of new vaccine plants to meet future needs would be entirely justified. With a scramble for approved vaccines and inability to produce enough for all countries, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that bilateral deals were threatening the smooth rollout of the COVAX initiative. At close to 3 billion doses, it is the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine that forms the bulk of over 10 billion doses of different vaccines ordered so far. Clearly, Indian production is vital to meeting this demand. Pharmaceutical production must satisfy precision, quality and safety standards comparable to high-technology sectors such as defence and space. High standards of fire safety form the core of all manufacturing: WHO model guidance for pharma units emphasises the availability of site security, automatic fire detection systems, mechanical or manual ventilation, sprinkler systems and fire drills, among other aspects. Too often, safety during construction and operation suffers dilution due to cost considerations, with almost no fire awareness among workers. The Pune fire shows that lives and reputations depend on full adherence to good practice.