Diganta Saikia came back home to Dibrugarh’s Khowang from Delhi in 2015 to help manage the family businesses. But soon the 31-year-old spotted another business opportunity that aligned well with his interests: pigs and pork.

His brother who had also left his life in Bengaluru recently to start anew in Assam harboured similar plans. “One day, I told my brother I want to keep five pigs, and he told me, ‘Even I want to keep five pigs,’” Saikia recalled in a telephone conversation.

The two men put in six months of market research “before buying even one piece of brick”. But as Saikia said: “We already knew how lucrative it was.”

Piggery boom

It was a bit of a no-brainer. Pork is the meat of choice for several communities in the North East – the region consumes 75% of the approximately 4 lakh tonnes of pork produced in India annually. Some estimates show that two in three people in the region eat the meat. The market, though, is plagued by a yawning mismatch between local supply and demand. Even though the region accounts for nearly 40% of India’s total pork production, as much as 70% of the local demand, according to industry data, is fulfilled by shipments from other states.

So, it is perhaps no surprise that when the Saikia brothers opened their piggery in 2018 – significantly larger than the five animals each they planned – it took off.

Saikia and his brother were riding a wave of sorts. It was a time when young people from across the state – several of them engineers, doctors and bankers – were opening modern pig farms, big and small, marked by high-quality breeds and specialised feed.

There was a surge of these farms in Assam starting around 2017, Saikia said.

Before this, pig farming in the state had largely been a backyard operation carried out by communities who traditionally reared pigs.

“People realised that there is a readymade market quite literally at their doorsteps,” said Manoj Basumatary, a banker who quit his job to farm pigs. “The success of a few of us meant that there were role models. They saw the financial success of those involved in the business.”

A training programme for piggery workers. Credit: Special arrangement.

A sudden crash

According to Basumatary, who heads the North East Progressive Pig Farmers’ Association, the piggery sector in North East was valued at over Rs 10,000 crores – until it all came crashing down in 2020.

As with most unsavoury occurrences in the world last year, the roots of this crisis lay in a virus. It was, however, not the novel coronavirus that was the piggery sector’s undoing in Assam. It was the African swine fever virus.

The first signs of an impending epidemic came to light in February, 2020 when pig carcasses started surfacing in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. Pigs were dying by the dozens and were being dumped in the river.

What has followed since is a story of government inertia and administrative incompetence that has brought a flourishing sector to its knees with no revival in sight. Not surprisingly, a parallel black market appears to have sprung up to meet the high demand of the meat in the region, threatening to make the road to recovery for the local farmers even longer.

The government watches

The sight of floating pig carcasses in February cause many to despair but for people like Basumatary it only confirmed their worst fears. China had been ravaged by African Swine Fever the previous year and many had warned that it was only a matter of time before it reached India. In fact, in November 2019, the North East Progressive Pig Farmers’ Association flagged the possibility and called for vigilance and preparedness, particularly because the virus had not been officially reported before in India and the country had no experience dealing with it.

While the African Swine Fever virus is not zoonotic like the coronavirus – it does not get transmitted between animals and humans — it is equally tough to contend with. It is highly contagious. There are no drugs or commercially available vaccines. And it is much more lethal: the disease could have a fatality rate as high as 100%.

Despite the early warnings and the carcasses, critics allege the government dragged its feet when parts of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam started reporting abnormal pig mortality February onwards.

It was only in May that India officially confirmed that the deaths in Assam were caused by the African Swine Fever virus. By the time, more than 2,500 animals had already died in the state, according to government data. The true count, farmers say, was much higher.

In April, the state government in Assam had banned the sale and transport of pork. But it sat on the culling of the animals in the infected areas as disease control protocols warranted. “It made no sense,” said Saikia. “They even identified the areas, but they did not actually do the culling.”

A pig that died from African Swine Fever being buried. Credit: Special arrangement.

Unprepared state government

This despite the Centre advising the state government to do it and releasing the funds for the operation. According to the plan, the state government was to bear half the expenses and the Centre the rest. But Assam’s veterinary and animal husbandry officials say that the state government did not disburse its share in time.

There were other stumbling blocks too. “It coincided with the coronavirus outbreak – we did not have the equipment to do it at that point and we did not know how to go about it,” admitted Ashok Barman, director of the state animal husbandry and veterinary department. “Then came the floods.”

As a result, the virus ran riot in Upper and Middle Assam, wiping out farm after farm. Pig carcasses floating on the Brahmaputra and its tributaries were an emphatic testimony to the catastrophe, albeit overshadowed by the other pandemic.

Questions over official numbers

According to government data, around 18,200 pigs died from the virus in 15 districts of the state. But farmers say that it is a gross under-estimate. The real count, they say, is likely to be more than 10 times higher.

Several farmers Scroll.in spoke to accused the government of manipulating data. “All of the 118 animals I had perished after showing what were classic ASF symptoms, but the lab said it wasn’t ASF,” said Manas Kalita who runs a pig farm in Guwahati. “It was quite obvious that the government was trying to keep the count low to avoid culling and paying compensation.”

Accounts from the hardest-hit districts like Majuli and Dhemaji suggest that the scale of the outbreak may have indeed been much larger than the government let out. These districts are home to large communities of people belonging to the Mising tribe, who rear pigs as a custom.

“There are simply no pigs left in Dhemaji anywhere – not in the commercial farms, not in the backyards,” said Tiken Kakati, a farmer from Dhemaji who lost all his 330 pigs last year.

A flawed court order

Meanwhile, with the beginning of the summer, the commercial implications started to become apparent. The transportation ban was also starting to hurt pig farmers outside the state since the North East was the single largest market for many of them.

Farmers from Punjab and Haryana approached and got permission from the Centre to resume export to Assam. This did not go down well with the out-of-business local farmers in Assam who said this could lead to the disease spreading not just within the state but outside too. The state animal husbandry minister also wrote to the Centre saying it may not be the best idea.

Simultaneously, the North East Progressive Pig Farmers’ Association approached the Gauhati High Court seeking a ban on the transportation of pigs from outside. While in court, they cited public health concerns, there was more to the move. “It was a tactic to apply pressure on the government to provide compensation to the commercial farmers at least,” said Kalita, the Guwahati pig farmer who is part of the association that moved the court.

The court passed a curious order. It allowed transportation subject to the fulfilment of a solitary condition: a vaccination certificate of the animals.

But there was a problem: there is no commercially available African Swine Fever vaccine.

For all practical purposes, the order amounted to a ban on transportation of pigs to the North East — everything that comes by road and rail to the region goes through Assam.

Black market

When the Covid-19-induced restrictions were relaxed, there was a massive shortage of pork in the North East, particularly in the tribal-majority states of Nagaland and Mizoram. Not only had imports stopped, most farms in Assam – the largest producer in the North East by a long margin – were near empty, with all animals having perished to the virus.

“With the lockdown, we were just about making do, but it became a big problem when the weddings began,” said Mar Longkumer, a Dimapur-based businessman. “We just don’t have enough local production for big events.”

Across the region, retail pork prices shot up – by more than 50% in some areas.

Then, the inevitable happened: a black-market syndicate took root to fill in the demand. This was what has been happening, according to several people involved in the industry: a section of local traders would procure pigs at lower-than-normal rates from farmers outside the region – who have no choice but to resort to distress sell given the closure of their rosiest markets – and sneak them in to the North East sell at inflated prices to butchers here.

Counterproductive ban?

A section of farmers have now come to believe that the ban has turned out to be counterproductive. “All my 305 pigs are dead, so I need to repopulate my farm,” said Bidarva Rajkhowa, a farmer from Upper Assam’s Lakhimpur. “And that is only possible when we I can import good breeds from Punjab/Haryana, so this ban isn’t helping at all. In fact, I don’t know whom this ban is helping – surely not any genuine pig farmer, not here, not outside.”

Indeed, that is a question many, frustrated by the transport restriction, seem to be asking. In December, a farmer even went to court seeking permission to import pigs from West Bengal to his farm in Lower Assam. The petitioner, Pranjal Deka, a doctor, pointed out to the court that its insistence on a vaccination certificate made no sense given there was no vaccine against the virus at all.

Earlier this month, the court “recalled” its order that made vaccination mandatory – but the case remains subjudice and the ban remains in place for all practical purposes.

The North East Progressive Pig Farmers’ Association, the original proponent of the ban, seems to be changing its mind too about a complete ban on exports. “We are not in favour of a complete ban, but if you are opening up the ban for consumption and repopulating purpose, it should happen in a systematic manner and with the knowledge of the department,” said Basumatary.

The matter of compensation

What farmers are really insistent on about now is compensation. It is only fair, they say, that the government reimburse them for their losses because it did not do its part to contain the outbreak. “We are blaming the government because they did not take any steps to contain it,“ said Saikia. “They kept delaying the culling exercise – in fact, they have only culled three private farms near Guwahati so far.”

The North East Progressive Pig Farmers’ Association has even threatened to boycott the Assembly elections later this year if the government does not do so.

Barman of the veterinary and animal husbandry department said a “rejuvenation plan” was in the works. “We will give them piglets, but only after the virus has completely been dealt with, “ he said.

But the pig farmers are loath to believe the government yet. “We will only believe they actually release the money for it because they never did for the culling,” said Saikia.

They say that if the government did not step in to help, it would be the death-knell for the sector. “So many young boys who had put their money into it lost everything,” said Pranab J Phukan, who runs a farm in Dhemaji. “Who will now dare to restart again if the government doesn’t help them even a bit to overcome their losses? If the government remains a mute spectator to this, all the gains we had made in this sector would be lost forever.”

As Saikia said, “We were hitting all the right notes in the last two-three years until this came and set us back by 10 years.”