The Hidden Ravages of the Poultry Boom in Tamil Nadu, India

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The Hidden Ravages of the Poultry Boom in Tamil Nadu, India

Fifty-three-year-old Prakash N. is busy tilling his field in Kurumbapatti, a village in Tamil Nadu’s Namakkal district. In a few days, he will plant shallots here. In the adjoining field, the shallot seeds he sowed a few months ago have already put out their long, slender green arms above the rich, black soil.

But there’s a color here that doesn’t fit. Bright, white specks wriggle over and under the smooth shallot shoots in the steady Aadi monsoon breeze. The specks dance on the black soil. Some flutter their way to my feet.

“You’ll find it everywhere here,” Prakash says.

Less than 70 meters away is the source of all that fluff: a large poultry farm with nearly ten sheds, each up to 250 meters long, containing around four lakh white egg-laying chicken. Here, in Gayathri poultry farm, chickens are housed in cages neatly stacked one on top of another in up to three tiers. Their feathers land on almost everything in the vicinity: soil, crops, grasses, shrubs and roads. Even you.

But the white chicken feathers are the least of the concerns here. Step within a 100 meters of most poultry farms – and fine poultry dust will cake you from head to toe. A strong, musty odor, like soggy cat food that’s gone bad, will hit your nostrils.

Even if you get used to the stench or the dust, as you do over a period of time, the flies are impossible to ignore. They are almost everywhere.

“Life has become hell here,” says farmer K. Nataraj, as he swats at flies mobbing a vessel of water beside him on the narrow verandah outside his house. He lives next door to another large poultry farm in Kurumbapatti in Namakkal.

Namakkal is a poultry hub. Known as India’s ‘egg capital’, this roughly 3,300-sq.-km district is home to an estimated 1,175 poultry farms. Its 1,100-odd poultry farmers own around 45 million egg-laying birds. Their produce – broiler chicken and white-shelled eggs – feeds people across the country.

Produce from Namakkal and its neighboring districts, such as Erode, also finds its way to foreign markets, including countries in the Middle East. But while the poultry industry is a crucial source of livelihood for people in these states and districts, farms have several undesirable environmental and health consequences in their neighborhood.

As part of an investigation, The Wire Science found that these consequences include fecal contamination of nearby open wells, reports of poultry dust, strong off-putting smells, a profusion of flies and a swelling population of stray dogs. All these together have made life harder for people living near these farms.

Doctors told The Wire Science that dog bites had become more common in some areas – even as a “silent prevalence” of lung cancer could be correlated to the poultry industry (although studies will be required to confirm).

The Indian government has issued guidelines and best practices for poultry farms to follow, but state governments haven’t enforced them properly. Monitoring local ecosystems and studying the environmental impacts of poultry farms in more detail and undertaking environmental surveillance to understand less-known aspects such as antimicrobial resistance or emerging zoonoses, could be the need of the hour as a changing climate and habitat loss increase the risks of diseases spilling over from animals to people.

A growing demand for poultry

The global demand for meat is increasing. In 2018, the world produced more than 340 million tons a year – that’s three-times more than it did 50 years ago. Poultry production grew the highest in this time: 12-fold between 1961 and 2014. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, poultry meat production increased from 9 million to 133 million tons globally over the last six decades or so, and egg production rose from 15 to 93 million tons.

In India, increasing incomes and a growing urban population have led to a higher demand for poultry and meat. Today, the country is the third largest producer of eggs in the world. In 2021, India’s egg production was around 122 billion units, up from some 16 billion units in 1986. India’s most recent livestock census, in 2019, pegged the country’s poultry population at almost 852 million birds.

Between 2012 and 2019, India also recorded a growth of 16.8% in poultry numbers. In 2015, the poultry industry was worth Rs 80,000 crore (US$1.3 billion), dominated by the commercial sector. Around 3 crore small and medium farmers make up the more unorganized backyard poultry sector. According to the 2019 census, this sector grew a phenomenal 46% when compared to the previous census in 2012.

In 2019, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal and Maharashtra had the highest poultry numbers in the country – but chief among them was Tamil Nadu, with a population of around 12 crore (120 million) birds.

In Tamil Nadu’s Namakkal district in particular, the poultry industry has grown in extraordinary fashion. According to an estimate listed in a case study of the Namakkal layer bird industry by scientists at the Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, Namakkal, the poultry population increased from 3 lakh birds (3 million) in 1975 to 75 lakh (7.5 million) in 1985. Today, the poultry population in the district is approximately 4.5 crore (45 million), according to the study.

Companies in the district export eggs and egg products to 17 countries in the Middle East and West Africa. Of the 3.08 crore (30.8 million) eggs produced every day in Namakkal, around a tenth are now exported to Middle Eastern countries.

Erode district also has a swelling poultry population. Per the Development Commissioner of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, the population of layer birds in the district increased form 21 lakh (2.1 million) in 1996 to 25.5 lakh (2.55 million) in 2000. The rise in broiler numbers over this time period has been even greater: more than three-fold from 4.6 lakh (460,000) to 16.6 lakh (1.66 million).

But it seems the staggering growth of the poultry industry in these districts has come at several costs to local communities and the environment.

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Chicken feathers decorate the soil, road and shrubs just outside a large poultry farm in Kurumbapatti, Namakkal, Tamil Nadu / Credit: Aathira Perinchery/The Wire Science.

The land is changing

In Namakkal, the proliferation of poultry farms and the expansion of existing ones has changed, and is changing, land-use patterns. The success of poultry farming in the district means the people are converting crop lands to residential areas as well as poultry farms, said K. Jagatheesan, deputy director of agriculture, Namakkal district.

For example, in Kurumbapatti, the land on which Gayathri Poultry Farm now stands used to be cropland before, said Prakash N., a farmer.

“All of this used to be millet fields,” he said, pointing to the adjacent farm and the fallow land opposite the road.

Recent changes in weather – including extreme heat and shifting rainfall patterns – have also ensured that agriculture is more difficult now than it used to be, said Valiyammal S., who cultivates a range of crops, including groundnut, ragi and cotton in Sarkarpalayapalayam in Namakkal. Combined with low market prices, this is also why practicing farmers are giving up cultivation, she said.

Changes in land cover may seem innocuous but they have several consequences for the local environment. Thanks to the sources of pollution that they create, changes in land use can affect both surface and underground water quality, researchers found in a 2010 study in Maheshwaram, Telangana. They identified poultry farms as one of the many factors causing this deterioration.

The conversion of fallow and agricultural land to poultry farms also means more built-up area. And more built-up area means fewer habitats available for birds and other wildlife. That’s because croplands – especially those supporting low-intensity agriculture, meaning the use of fewer pesticides and fertilizers – can also support such biodiversity, as at least one study found in 2016. New poultry farms don’t retain any natural vegetation to minimize the chance of wild birds using the area for roosting or nesting, which can help prevent diseases from spilling over from wild birds to caged chickens.

This is in fact a concern that emerged in a case heard and disposed of by the southern bench of the National Green Tribunal on August 24 this year. According to guidelines laid down by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), a statutory organization to control air and water pollution constituted under the Union environment ministry, poultry farm owners are required to develop a “green belt” along the boundaries of poultry farms to lower their air and sound pollution.

However, the poultry farm in question – in Rasipuram taluk in Namakkal – didn’t have one. Then again, veterinary and animal husbandry officials who inspected the property didn’t cite the lack of a green belt as a concern because, according to them, roosting wild birds on vegetation within poultry farms could pass infections to chicken.

While the National Green Tribunal subsequently ordered that the Rasipuram poultry farm halt operations for other reasons, it suggested that the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) – one of the respondents in the case – take immediate but temporary measures to ensure a sufficient green belt until the CPCB could suggest remedial options.

The Wire Science reached out to the TNPCB to find out measures being taken; this article will be updated as and when the board responds.

The case also touched on the impact of the poultry farm on groundwater in the locality. The petitioner in the case, a local resident near the farm in Rasipuram, had alleged that the poultry farm’s consumption of well-water had lowered the water table and that pollutants from the farm had deteriorated the water’s quality.

Falling water

While many rural areas in Namakkal and Erode have access to piped water for drinking, poultry farms aren’t allowed to use this water for their operations, farmers – including Bharat K. in Namakkal and Satheesh Ramasamy, whose family runs a small poultry farm near Sivagiri in Erode – told The Wire Science. So, poultry farms depend entirely on borewell water for their needs.

This spells trouble for the water table, especially in summer, when the water level is already low and the same borewells fuel water-intensive crops such as sugarcane in Erode.

This said, there is no limit on the amount of groundwater farms can extract for their use. Poultry farms don’t require a ‘no objection certificate’ to draw groundwater because the government considers it an “allied agricultural activity”. In Namakkal district however, the certificate is mandatory for any purpose other than extracting water for drinking and agriculture. This is because of the 30 revenue firkas (district sub-divisions) in the district, the state government categorized 18 as having an “over-exploited” water table in 2014. A more recent assessment, in 2018, by the Public Works Department found that the water table of 20 of the 30 firkas in Namakkal were “overexploited”.

In its August 24 order regarding groundwater extraction by the Rasipuram poultry farm, the National Green Tribunal suggested that the TNPCB account for the availability of groundwater in the area and fix the quantity of water that could be drawn from the well by the farm, to prevent depletion of groundwater in the well. The board hadn’t responded to queries from The Wire Science about the steps being taken in this direction at the time of publishing.

Something dark in the water

Poultry farms also reduce water quality in several ways.

This can happen when farmers dump dead birds in or nearby water bodies, such as ponds, for example. This used to happen in the eri (water tank) near her fields, Valliyammal said. The 63-year-old cultivates vegetables and cotton in four acres opposite the Pavayeeammal Poultry Farm in Sarkarpalayapalayam.

“Chickens die every day in the farm and they used to dump it in the eri,” she said. “This was a problem because our livestock used to drink this water.”

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S. Valiyammal, a small farmer in Sarkarpalayapalayam, says that low market prices for crops and changes in weather patterns ensure that many are giving up agriculture / Credit: Aathira Perinchery/The Wire Science
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Small broiler chicken farms in Erode, Tamil Nadu / Credit: Aathira Perinchery/The Wire Science.

However, the poultry farm owners stopped the practice when locals spoke to them about it, she added. They now dispose of dead birds within their compound. Bharath K., who owns the Pavayeeammal Poultry Farm, confirmed that they bury dead birds in a deep pit inside the compound. This is in line with norms stipulated by the CPCB.

Another way poultry farms affect local water bodies is when surface water runoff from farms – containing high concentrations of nitrate from poultry sheds – mixes with water in nearby ponds, lakes or open wells. This is especially a problem during the monsoon, a 2010 study in Maheshwaram, Telangana, found. Researchers pointed to an overall increase in groundwater contamination between 2003 and 2008, due to uncontrolled sewage disposal caused by urbanisation and a growing number of poultry farms.

To understand if water bodies near the poultry farms were polluted, The Wire Science collected water samples from five water sources near such farms in Namakkal and Erode. Four of these were open wells located within 300 meters of the farms (cultivating both layer and broiler chicken). One sample was from a borewell within 100 meters of a large layer farm in Namakkal.

All four open wells near farms contained varying but significant levels of coliform bacteria (specifically, 80-500 colony forming units, or CFU, per ml of water). Three had varying levels of Escherichia coli (3-200 CFU/ml) as well. The borewell sample, despite being within 100 meters from a large layer farm, didn’t contain any significant levels of coliform bacteria or E. coli.

“It’s certainly fecal contamination, especially in view of the fact that the deep borewell is relatively better off,” said Jayshree Vencatesan, managing trustee of the Care Earth Trust, Chennai, who has been studying wetlands for more than two decades. “When surface water shows such a high [level] of E. coli, it’s apparent that recurrent contamination” is the problem.

The tests also revealed high concentrations of phosphates and nitrates in some water sources – on par and sometimes higher than levels permitted by the Bureau of Indian Standards in drinking water. These levels indicate “leaching of additives, especially an agri- or animal husbandry kind of residue,” Vencatesan said. “Water is certainly contaminated. [It] must be leading to digestive tract/metabolic disorders by now across the food web.”

Farms and humans

While doctors do report the usual digestive-tract-related health concerns in Namakkal, they’ve also been reporting a higher incidence of upper respiratory-tract infections (URIs). Dr Kokila S., a medical officer-in-charge at the Valayapatti Primary Health Centre near Kurumbapatti, said that the incidence of URIs is even higher than that of diabetes and hypertension.

Poultry dust – particulate matter from feathers, litter, feed, etc. – can cause several health problems among poultry workers, including respiratory illnesses, studies have found. According to Dr Sudha Selvi, head of general medicine at the Namakkal Medical College and Hospital, the district also has a “silent prevalence” of lung carcinomas, seemingly higher than that in nearby Salem, where she worked previously. But screening such cases to understand the cause is essential to establish a link – if any – between poultry farms, dust and cancer, she added.

Dr Kokila also said she also treats many more people with dog and cat bites now than she has in the last five years.

The lack of proper disposal of dead poultry and the absence of fences or walls in some farms – which signal non-compliance with CPCB mandates – mean stray dogs often have easy access to poultry, dead or alive. Such access to food can ‘provision’ stray dog populations, independent scientist Chandrima Home, who has studied stray dog populations and their impact on wildlife, told The Wire Science.

An increase in dog-bite cases – such as what Dr. Kokila noticed in Valayapatti – could indicate a spike in stray dog populations, according to Home. More bite cases also mean a higher probability of rabies, a viral disease that dogs are known to carry and transmit. Rabies is a big public health concern in India: 35% of the world’s annual human deaths due to dog-mediated rabies occur here alone. While Tamil Nadu reportedly became the first state to have implemented a state-wide, multisectoral rabies control initiative in 2004, including ensuring the availability of anti-rabies vaccines, the state continues to report a not-insignificant rabies deaths. DTNext reported that over eight months in 2022, the state has already recorded 18.

The number of stray dogs has also increased in their localities, several residents near poultry farms said. Nataraj K. and his family have noticed such a spike in Kurumbapatti, where they live. He said they lost 10 of their goats in the last year to strays. Nataraj’s animals weren’t insured, and he doesn’t expect to receive compensation from the animal husbandry department.

There are no studies on the environmental consequences of proliferating dogs and their links to poultry farms in Namakkal or Tamil Nadu at large. But the dog menace that residents of Tamil Nadu have complained about is similar to what Abi Tamim Vanak and his colleagues have been observing in Baramati in Pune, Vanak told The Wire Science.

Baramati has registered a big increase in the number of small poultry farms in the last decade, Vanak, a scientist at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru, said. The lack of a proper disposal mechanism for dead birds has meant farmers stuff dead birds in sacks and toss them in the countryside, he said – “hundreds of birds, daily”, across a 100-square-kilometer landscape. Thus, the numbers of dogs roaming the countryside – as opposed to strays in villages or those owned by farmers – has shot up.

“We’ve seen up to 60 dogs in one place,” said Vanak, who studies the impact of stray dog populations on wildlife.

This in turn has affected Baramati in two ways.

First, when people poison dogs, they inadvertently kill wildlife too. Farmers sometimes lace poultry carcasses with pesticides, Vanak said, and jackals, hyenas and foxes also prey on poultry waste in the area, killing them in sizeable numbers.

Second, a surge in the dog population could increase human-wildlife conflict. Baramati and its surrounding areas are home to sugarcane fields that leopards are known to use. And for leopards, dogs are easy prey, so they often track the canines and potentially come closer to human settlements in the Baramati countryside, Vanak said.

dogs
Credit: Pariplab Chakraborty/The Wire Science.

Public health

The threats that feral dogs living near poultry farms pose doesn’t stop there, however: it could have deeper implications on public health as well. A 2014 study found evidence of avian influenza virus infections (specifically, H5N1 and H9N2) in dogs living next to live poultry markets in China. This could have been due to indirect contact between dogs and poultry, such as through aerosol and fecal transmission, or directly, through the consumption of dead bird carcasses.

Both stray dogs and stray cats may already be immunocompromised due to poor diets and open wounds, among other reasons, making them more susceptible to cross-species pathogen transmission. They could thus increase the risk of the emergence and transmission of novel influenza A viruses and threaten both veterinary and human health, the study warned. Periodically surveilling dogs near poultry farms can be a crucial early warning system to track novel viral spillovers, the scientists suggested.

But forget tracking dogs’ viral loads, however: there’s barely any data on the population of stray dogs in these areas to begin with. No Central or state departments keep a tab of stray dog numbers or their population growth, Home said.

There’s also no surveillance of another crucial aspect in this system: antibiotics. Poultry farmers use antibiotics – ideally meant only for sick chicken – in rampant fashion. The drugs work here as a ‘growth promoter’, enabling the chicken to grow to weigh as much as 2.2 kg in their short life span of 35-42 days, according to a senior veterinary doctor and animal health expert who didn’t wish to be named because they could get into trouble at their workplace for talking about this. One 2018 report found that farmers even use colistin, a ‘last resort’ antibiotic that doctors administer to people only if their infections are resistant to most other antibiotics.

At present, Tamil Nadu farmers’ antibiotics of choice are ciprofloxacin and enrofloxacin, especially for broiler chicken, per the animal health expert. Both are second-generation antibiotics that should ideally be used only to treat bacterial infections in chicken. According to the expert, using these drugs as ‘growth promoters’ helps advance harvest time by a week, allowing farmers to harvest broilers as soon as Day 35.

Like in every natural system, the drugs pass through the chicken and into the rest of the food web – including to humans. It also seeps into the water and soil, such as when farmers use excreta from chicken treated with antibiotics as manure. Such continuous exposure to antibiotics can also encourage bacteria to become antibiotic-resistant, rendering future treatment of infections much more challenging. And of course, the more common these antibiotic-resistant superbugs become in the environment, the more at-risk people will be.

“In India, the environmental dimension of [antimicrobial resistance] is yet to be realized,” said Indumathi M. Nambi, a professor at IIT Madras who studies environmental antimicrobial resistance.

There are no published studies of environmental antimicrobial resistance caused specifically by poultry farms in Namakkal, Erode or other poultry-growing districts in Tamil Nadu or even South India. But in Maharashtra’s Baramati, Vanak and his team have reported that the soil in and around poultry farms has high concentrations of antibiotic residue.

Here, antibiotics reside in agricultural fields as well. According to findings by Vanak et al., soon to be published, antibiotics fed to poultry show up in the birds’ fecal matter, which the farmers then sell locally as manure. Other farmers purchase it for their vegetable farms and other fields. Ultimately, antibiotics fed to poultry can easily find their way into humans when they consume food crops grown on poultry manure.

In fact, in Tamil Nadu, farmers use the birds’ excreta extensively as manure in their fields. The manure also crosses state borders: poultry-farm owners in Namakkal and Erode sell the substance to farms in Kerala and Karnataka, where farmers apply it as manure in coconut orchards, rubber plantations and vegetable fields, poultry farm owner Bharat K. told The Wire Science. The use of poultry manure could thus be introducing antibiotic-resistant microbes in these states as well.

However – and again – there have been no studies yet to confirm this. Studies worldwide have made this association very clear. According to one review, agricultural soils are a “major sink” for antibiotics and of antimicrobial resistance caused by livestock farming.

In India as well, a 2017 study by the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, reported that the unsafe disposal of poultry litter and waste in agricultural fields caused multi-drug resistant bacteria to proliferate in and around poultry farms in four states in North India. Bacteria isolated from soil and poultry litter samples here were also resistant to 10 of the 13 antibiotics researchers tested them against.

India's poultry needs

chick art
Credit: Pariplab Chakraborty/The Wire Science.

But for all these environmental and health effects, India needs its chickens and eggs for both economic growth and to improve public health. The poultry industry is a crucial source of livelihoods and income for farmers in several states, and plays a big part in empowering women in rural areas.

At less than 100 rupees per kg for chicken meat, and Rs 4-6 (US$0.05-.07) per egg, both animal products are also a critical source of cheap protein for India, where protein consumption levels are lower than the prescribed limits and where the risk of protein deficiency ranges from 6% to 42%. Nutritionists have in fact argued that for India to achieve an “enhanced dietary quality” in the coming decades, it needs to shift from a “cereals-only focus, to stronger investment in pulses, dairy and egg production”.

Ensuring protein availability can go hand-in-hand with sustainability. The Indian government issued guidelines to regulate the operations of poultry farms in 2015. Under these guidelines, poultry farms with more than 1 lakh birds need to obtain ‘consent to establish’ and ‘consent to operate’ from the respective State Pollution Control Boards or the Pollution Control Committee under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1974 and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1981, among others. The guidelines also regulate odour and solid waste management.

Based on an order of the National Green Tribunal in 2020, the CPCB updated these guidelines in August 2021. With this, farms with more than 25,000 birds also had to obtain clearances from the respective state boards and committees.

In December 2021, in response to a plea by animal welfare activist Gauri Maulekhi four years earlier, the tribunal noted that poultry farms with 5,000-25,000 birds also pollute and couldn’t be left unregulated. So the CPCB updated its guidelines in January 2022 to mandate such poultry farms to obtain all levels of clearances as well.

The last two updates also provided specific directions vis-à-vis the farms’ locations. They had to be at least 500 meters away from residential areas to spare local residents from the smells and the flies, and at least 100 meters from rivers, canals and other sources of drinking water, to avoid contamination.

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Poultry waste below a layer farm in Namakkal, Tamil Nadu. Poultry farmers sell this as manure to other districts and states Credit: Aathira Perinchery/The Wire Science.

Enforcement, monitoring, accountability

There are rules in place. Yet India is – and states like Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are – going in the wrong direction.

Experts are agreed that for both people and the environment, the most important thing is for the guidelines to ensure poultry farms adhere to environmental norms to be implemented better. For example, the Gayathri Poultry Farm in Kurumbapatti has several measures in line with the CPCB guidelines. They include biosecurity measures for poultry production as issued by World Organization for Animal Health – like a vehicle tire dip that prevents infections from entering or exiting the farm. On the other hand, the Pavayeeammal Poultry Farm in Sarkarpalayapalayam, which houses more than a lakh birds like Gayathri Poultry Farm – does not.

According to the TNPCB – as specified in the Rasipuram case heard by the green tribunal – the board has issued instructions to district environmental engineers (DEEs) to prepare an inventory of poultry farms, ensure they are brought under the “consent mechanism” and that they follow the CPCB guidelines of January 2022. The Namakkal DEE had already issued show cause notices to 436 farms in 2021 for not obtaining consent from the TNPCB. The Wire Science contacted both the TNPCB as well as the Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries Department of the state for their comments but didn’t receive a response.

Indeed, implementation of the guidelines, as well as developing systems to regularly monitor local ecosystems, is crucial, according to Vencatesan. “Monitoring is absolutely critical, especially during summer, when concentration [of pollutants] spikes,” she said.

She added that it might be a good idea to weave such a mandatory monitoring system into law, so that it becomes enforceable at the state-level as well.

Accountability is crucial as well. Many small and medium-sized poultry farms follow a “decentralized” model of management, in Vanak’s words. Large companies like Suguna Food Pvt. Ltd. and Baramati Agro Ltd. supply poultry farmers with the chicks and all the feed they need to grow the birds on. That, for instance, is how most farms in Erode in Tamil Nadu and Baramati in Maharashtra work. The farmers are responsible for meeting all the other requirements: space, water, labor, medicines.

This model may benefit farmers, but this is exactly where environmental compliance goes for a toss, Vanak alleged. There is little accountability: the responsibility to adhere to mandatory guidelines to prevent pollution falls squarely on the shoulders of farmers, who don’t usually follow it because there are no audits.

Disease surveillance in farms should be important and perhaps mandated because India along with China and some Southeast Asian countries are hotspots of emerging infectious diseases, Home added.

This in turn throws the spotlight back onto the dogs – which can spread several viruses, including distemper, parvovirus, hepatitis and rabies. “While domestic dogs may still recover from distemper, for wild carnivore populations [Indian foxes and jackals, e.g.], this will be a death knell that surely reiterates the need for better disease surveillance.”

Addressing some core issues such as the ease of getting antibiotics over the counter can help tackle the concern of antimicrobial resistance, said Raman Muthusamy, a former project manager of the One Health Poultry Hub, a UK-based project that explores the effects of rapid poultry expansion and the attendant risk of diseases. “We need to bring in a prescription audit, ensure proper veterinary medical records are in place and follow up on vets.”

We’ve also failed, and “miserably” at that, to raise awareness among farmers as well as pharmaceutical shop employees and veterinary practitioners about the problems that such rampant use of antibiotics in poultry can cause, Muthusamy added. “There are ways and means to restrict the use of antimicrobials. It may be a tough task when it comes to implementation, but that’s where the state and the Centre have to take responsibility as regulators,” he explained.

India’s National Action Plan on Antibiotic Resistance ended in 2021 – but “progress under the plan has been far from satisfactory,” Kamini Walia, a scientist at the Indian Council of Medical Research, New Delhi, wrote last year. “Too many players, missing governance mechanisms and absence of funding have been recognized as key impediments to the effective rollout of action plans in other countries as well.”

Similarly, boundaries in science ought to disappear if we want to make progress on antimicrobial resistance, Nambi, the IIT Madras professor, said. Doctors and environmentalists should keep talking to each other instead of working in silos, as should experts in the fields of veterinary medicine, fisheries and agriculture. Such a ‘One Health’ approach – as the WHO recommends – is important, she added. If antibiotics that worked well 10 years ago don’t anymore, we should know why.

“If [doctors] are seeing trends in resistance, they should document it.”

Lived realities

The documentation that exists but is being ignored right now pertains to the plight of the people living near the poultry farms. In their lived realities, antimicrobial resistance and pathogens jumping from one species to the next are far from the top of the problems list. The top spots are occupied by swarms of flies, obnoxious odors and drifting dust – and of course about making just enough to get by. Their quality of life is poor overall, and they blame the poultry farms for it.

A young mother who lives next door to Nivetha Hatcheries in Kasaba Pasur, Erode, doesn’t let her toddler play outside the house. “Stench, flies, dust, everything is a problem here,” her neighbor told me. I asked the neighbor for her name; she refused. The farm’s owners are from the same village, rich, belong to the dominant caste, and are influential. “There’s nothing we can do,” she said.

A sense of helplessness hangs in the air around these poultry farms – much like the stench wafting from there. The least privileged, who live right next door to these farms, are the worst-affected. Landed farmers like Nataraj K. in Kurumbapatti are ready to speak out without fear, but the daily-wage workers near Supreme Farm in Poondurai Semur, in Erode, hold their tongues. Many, like that woman, even refuse to share their names fearing retaliation by the farm owners. Fifty-year-old Nanjamma’s

shack is within 20 meters of the farm. Flies attempted to settle on both our bodies as we chatted.

“The fly menace is so bad that we are not even able to eat food properly,” she said. Her waving hand chased away a few of the insects, even as others bore down in their place.

Have they complained to local authorities to take action? They don’t bother, she said. “We know that they won’t do anything. And they will target us if we complain about the farm owners. We are just resigned to our fate.”

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Flies settle on a water container in K. Nataraj’s veranda in Kurumbapatti, Tamil Nadu. Photo: Aathira Perinchery/The Wire Science.

This story was produced with the support of the Earth Journalism Network and was originally published by The Wire Science on September 30, 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty/The Wire Science.

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