The first murmurs of COVID-19 were heard in December 2019. At that point, no one would have imagined that a disease having its epicentre in a province of China would have the entire world in a death grip. But it had to be this way.
I have been a part of the poultry and feed industry for 4 odd decades now and I thought I had seen it all. Mad cow disease, swine flu, bird flu, but COVID-19 beats them all, hands down.
Especially because the disease has no fathomable link with the industry. Yet, by April end, the industry is likely to post cumulative losses of Rs 22,500 crores. Why? Fake propaganda on social media that coronavirus is spread through consumption of poultry products led to many poultry lovers staying away from India's favourite meat, setting into motion a chain reaction that has brought this Rs. 1 lakh crore industry to its knees.
Poultry is the most organised of all animal agriculture sectors in India. It contributes almost Rs. 1.30 lakh crore directly to the country's GDP. The industry supports over 25 million farmers and employs over five million directly and indirectly in allied fields - poultry production, trading, feed manufacturing, agriculture crops, logistics, poultry-based products vitamins, minerals and pharmaceuticals, exports, etc.
The industry was reeling under severe price pressures for the past few months and just when it was hoping for some equilibrium and stability to kick in, COVID-19 struck.
Financial losses are the first in line of sight. But the heat map will be far-reaching as the industry directly impacts several other allied services that feed into it. Of most concern to me is the loss of livelihood, especially of women in rural India.
With men migrating to the cities in droves, 'feminisation' of the agriculture sector was inevitable, with an increasing number of women in multiple roles as cultivators, entrepreneurs, and labourers. In rural India, close to 84% of women are involved in agribusiness.
This is a staggering number, indicative of the high dependence on this sector for generating livelihoods. It is safe to assume that at least 50% of these rural women are involved in poultry farming or related activities. How did this come to be?
Backyard farming has long since been the backbone of rural India. Poultry breeding in addition to working on their marginal farmlands for self-sustenance and later on as a source of income not only created employment for youth but also involved the women of the house.
It was a game-changer in the development of rural economy, accounting for approximately 20% of India's poultry sector. It raised the status of women and guaranteed nutritional security for their families.
Of late, the industry has been plagued by high prices of feed, medicines, and upkeep, which vastly outmatch the selling price the bird fetches in the market. Exacerbated by COVID-19, could this well soon be a thing of the past? It will be painful to watch this symbol of emancipation for rural women succumb to COVID-19.
Companies, irrespective of their size in the industry, are finding it difficult to pay salaries to their workforce, a substantial number of whom are women. Many women are fending for themselves and their families while their menfolk are away.
The loss of earnings will impact their socioeconomic standing. If there is no correction to their position, it will give away to hopelessness. No money means no schools, no food on the table, no social security, leaving them exposed to the elements. Everything that took decades to make could unravel in a matter of months.
In the fourth week of April, the overall unemployment rate in India is estimated to be at 26%. If we are to extrapolate, by the time we come out on the other side of this, approximately three million women are likely to have lost means to their livelihoods. This means three million households will be impacted, and that many more pushed closer to poverty and hunger. And this number is on the lower side; as per the UN, it could be as high as 400 million people.
To me, the loss of livelihood at a time such as we face today is like that iceberg that sank the Titanic. It will rip through the already fragile social fabric of the rural setting and the aftershocks will be felt across the whole country.
We cannot afford to have more people thronging our already overstretched cities and metros. We cannot afford a higher percentage of our population at or below the poverty line. If this situation is not handled in a balanced manner, it will add itself to an already long list of problems that we will be facing post-COVID-19.
The poultry industry is teetering on the verge of collapse. It has taken us a long time and effort to emerge as the world's third-largest egg producer and fifth-largest chicken producer, making a huge contribution to the recognition India has earned, that of being the world's fastest-growing economy.
We have everything to loose if we do not dam this downward spiral quickly. We need help, and we need it fast, else we will find ourselves hurled back by at least a decade.
(The author is Managing Director, Advanced BioAgro Tech Limited.)