The first step for the development of a poultry industry in India was taken in 1860 with the founding of the Indian Poultry Club in Lucknow by some British officers. Then in early 20th century foreign missionaries began to import foreign or exotic breeds. One of the first breeds to be imported was Ceylonese, followed by European and US breeds that were bigger, and most importantly, faster breeders.
The rise of the poultry industry in India was very fast with farmers switching to poultry farming from agriculture. Annual turnover rose from Rs 60 crore in 1960 to Rs 660 crore in 1970. It is estimated that 120 million broiler chicken are produced in India annually.
With the onslaught of exotic high-yielding breeds, the native breeds have taken a backseat. Backyard poultry industry has become non-existent in urban areas. But concentrating on a very restricted genetic stock and, therefore, destroying the rich and varied fowl diversity, could have grave consequences. One such is the attack of diseases. The exotic breeds have also brought diseases along with them. Attempts have been made to find suitable antidotes for deadly diseases that sweep away entire flocks, year after year, but the threat still looms large.
Besides, efforts to export chicken legs by countries like the US threatens to jeopardise the domestic poultry industry. Chicken breasts are a delicacy in the US, while legs (considered "dark meat') could be sold at a throwaway price of Rs 16 per kg (17 to 20 cents a pound). On the other hand, tangri (legs) is a treat in India. With the Indian government's decision to remove quantitative restriction (QR) under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules by April 2001, all the discarded chicken legs from the US could reach India. After duty and trade costs, it could be sold for a measly Rs 40 per kg in India as against the Rs 70 tag attached to a kg of chicken here.
After removal of QR there is a possibility of 1.5 million poultry workers losing their jobs. Besides, it will completely take over whatever market is left of the desi stock. The All India Poultry Federation, as a way out, is suggesting a 150 per cent import duty.
However, says P N Bhat, former secretary, animal husbandry and currently president of the Asian-Australasian Association of Animal Production Societies, breeders are not bothered about WTO. "All this hue and cry against the import is done by traders who feel their share of the loot will go down. While the breeder sells chicken for Rs 33 per kg, the retailer sells it at Rs 90 per kg,' he says. So the breeders are exploited anyway, he adds. Whatever the outcome, there is enough bad news already for indigenous fowl.