A bird flu over the commie nest

  • 28/02/2008

I was trying to think what I would do if I were a chicken-owner and it looked like the flu had arrived in the village. I would worry, of course, about money: how would we make ends meet? If I had an unfriendly neighbour, I would start to worry that he was going to blame us if his chicken were to die. If I were given to looking for someone to blame, I would start to wonder if, somehow, it had to do with the fact that some people keep their chicken in a horrible mess. If I were given to being messy, I might be worrying that someone else might be thinking the same about me. But most of all, I would worry about the fact that somewhere, some time probably not too far in the future, the virus will mutate into something that could kill me and my near and dear ones. And, of course, if this was really me, I would be panicking.

The one thing that would not have occurred to me is to try to spend more time with my chicken. But by all accounts this is what people are doing in West Bengal: hiding them inside homes,
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driving them across the state border to sell, turning back the people sent to cull them. As a result, the epidemic has turned into a threat to poultry owners the state over and possibly beyond, and we seem to be flirting with what might be the first great public health crisis of this millennium.

The problem, in part, is that the people do not believe what the government says. They do not believe that the risks are as grave as the government makes them out to be and they do not believe they will get compensated. This is why a few health officials got manhandled when they tried to cull the chicken and others got turned back. This is why the chief minister of West Bengal had to announce that compensation would be paid on the spot. This is why he has been asking his party members to help with the culling.

A part of the problem is also that people do not entirely believe that the government will keep its word. Will the local cpi(m) leaders be made to part with their chicken? Or would they be given a special dispensation, as they so often have been? Would the government be willing to delay culling till it was clear that the chicken in a hamlet were actually sick? What if there were a lot of protests: would the government back down? Or raise compensation levels?

It all goes back to credibility. The right to define and represent public interest in situations such as the current bird flu episode, situations where being decisive is critical (because, for example, the bird flu virus allows no time for public debate and political negotiations), without freshly seeking the mandate of the people, is at the core of what constitutes the authority of any state. In the eyes of many people in West Bengal, the state no longer has an automatic claim to that authority: After thirty years of Left Front rule