New Delhi: Anil Kumar, a pig farmer in Aminagar, a small farming village in Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr, has been counting losses this year. In March, a mysterious illness swept through his small piggery, and within days all of his pigs dropped dead. The disease had killed all of Kumar’s 110 pigs in just a month.

Kumar is a Valmiki by caste. Considered among the lowest in the Hindu caste hierarchy, people from Kumar’s community are forced to rely on sanitation and cleaning work to earn a living. And when there is a lack of such informal jobs, they often fall back on parallel sources of income such as rearing pigs. The outbreak of this illness exposed the vulnerabilities of Aminagar residents, particularly those from the Dalit communities who depend on pig farming. 

The tragedy is part of a wider issue. Since at least early 2020, while the world grappled with a pandemic that affected humans, pigs too have been dying in “blue” blood – the bodies of dead pigs turn pale blue in this illness. Just as Kumar does it, pig rearing in India is largely limited to Dalit and tribal communities. For these communities, who lost their informal jobs during the pandemic, a silent epidemic tearing through pig farms meant further economic hardships. 

While the lower strata of society struggled, another cattle disease was troubling cow rearers in north India. Cow ownership is much more among the upper and dominant caste communities. As was widely reported back then, the Lumpy Skin Disease (LSD), a contagious viral infection, was spreading among cows.

Official documents reviewed by The Reporters’ Collective reveal a stark disparity and systemic discrimination in the Indian government’s response to livestock diseases. While the Union government made all-out efforts to prevent the spread of LSD in cows – a disease with a relatively low mortality rate – pig farmers, mostly from marginalised Dalit and tribal communities, were left to fend for themselves. The Collective’s investigation, which included visits to Dalit settlements in Agra, Bulandshahr, Ghaziabad, Gautam Buddha Nagar and Delhi, lays bare the extent of the government’s neglect.

Of the total domestic pigs in India, around 25% are estimated to be reared in the northeastern states. Uttar Pradesh (UP), which had around 13% of the country’s pig population in 2012, saw it decline to 4.5% by 2019, which is more than any other state. In his visits to piggeries across UP, this reporter found how the disease outbreak had compounded the challenges faced by the pig farmers.

The pigs, it was found, were battling two highly contagious diseases: Classical Swine Fever (CSF) and African Swine Fever (ASF). Both CSF and ASF are haemorrhagic diseases –  causing excessive internal bleeding – with a near-hundred percent mortality rate.

The government’s failure to adequately diagnose the two diseases made the situation worse. Although medically different, both CSF and ASF share clinical symptoms, leading to misdiagnoses and a likely underestimation of CSF in India. The neglect extended beyond a lack of resources and support.

Counting Pigs and Losses

The livestock census in India, conducted every five years, paints a grim picture of the country’s pig population. The recent 20th livestock census in 2019 recorded a dramatic decline in pig numbers, mirroring a trend in the previous three censuses. In the 18th, 19th and 20th livestock census, pig numbers dropped by 17.6%, 7.54% and 12.0% respectively. 

Kumar [left] at his pig farm in Aminagar, Bulandshahr, talking to another pig rearer, Satish Goyal [right] about medicines that he gave his pigs. [Photo: Alok Rajput]

Often landless and informally employed as daily wagers, Dalits and tribal communities in UP see pigs as a vital source of financial security. Income from pig rearing varies from region to region. In western UP, for instance, a single pig can fetch around Rs 25,000, a significant sum for those living on the socio-economic margins. So, when Anil Kumar lost his 110 pigs, he estimated that he suffered a loss of at least Rs 25 lakh within a month. Amid an already declining population, serial pig mortalities since 2020 have burnt a hole in their livelihood.

Pig rearing as an occupation is largely limited to certain notified castes within Dalits in UP, including Valmiki, Bhangi, and Musahar – but primarily within the Pasi community. Rae Bareli, which houses the second-largest Pasi population in UP also bears the largest share of the pig population in the state. This underscores the strong correlation between pig rearing and caste hierarchy in the Hindu social order.

Agra, with its significant Scheduled Caste population – nearly a fourth of the district – has the third largest pig count in UP. In Loha Mandi, a commercial area on Agra’s western side, Valmiki families reside along a polluted nallah running across the locality. Here, this reporter met a 28-year-old man, Prasant Valmiki with a college degree and an Industrial Training Institute diploma, who still struggles to find a stable job. For Prasant, like many other young Dalit men, a college degree hasn’t proved enough to provide upward economic mobility. With limited prospects, Prasant set up a small rooftop piggery. In January 2024, he invested around Rs 1.2 lakh to purchase 20 piglets but within three months, all of them were dead. 

“They didn’t have any prior issues,” Prashant recounted to The Collective. “but they developed a fever, their bodies turned red and then pale blue, and eventually all of them died.”

For Lack of Information

The first suspected case of CSF can be traced back to 1944 in UP’s Aligarh. The Indian government estimates that this high mortality disease results in an annual loss of nearly Rs 430 crore. In contrast, ASF’s arrival in India ​​is relatively recent, with the first detection occurring in northeastern states in April 2020. ASF has since spread across the country, and as per official records, pig farmers suffered a total loss of Rs 26.54 crore until 2023.

A lack of proper diagnosis shrouds the true cause of India’s mass pig deaths. Interviews with pig farmers in UP indicate how disease identification is difficult. A lack of widespread official testing makes it impossible to definitively determine which of the two diseases is killing these pigs. The problem gets compounded by the unavailability of reliable official data which, at times, is because the pig farmers are reluctant to share information. They would rather sell their symptomatic pigs to prevent financial losses.

Reliable research suggests that CSF could be responsible for a staggering 92.06% of pig deaths in India. According to the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH) between 1996 and 2015, India witnessed 2,618 CSF outbreaks, with a peak occurring between 2011 and 2015. Recent outbreaks in neighbouring Bangladesh and Japan are indicative of CSF’s global and regional prevalence.

India reports ASF and LSD outbreaks to the World Organization for Animal Health (WOAH) – a WHO-like global organisation dedicated to animal health – but as per their data, India doesn’t appear to report the ongoing CSF outbreak in India. The Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying (FAHD) told The Collective that it reports CSF deaths but a glitch might be the reason why it doesn’t get reflected on WOAH’s portal.

The Collective found a low rate of diagnosis in both ASF and CSF, and no clear distinction in identifying individual pig deaths from the two diseases in the Ministry reports. Without these any effective intervention remains difficult. 

According to the reply to a Right to Information (RTI) request from the government-run Indian Veterinary Research Institute, 98 samples were collected between 2022-23 to 2023-24 to detect ASF in UP. For CSF, 128 samples were collected in a decade. The data shows a low rate of testing with a significant increase in 2023-24, which appears to have happened after mass deaths were reported across the state.

Fund Cuts Fuel the Crisis

Despite its presence in India since the 1940s, research on CSF prevention remains scant. This neglect can be largely attributed to ownership patterns and social marginalisation of Dalit and tribal pig farmers which draws little attention. 

One of the significant attempts to study CSF happened in 2009. Recognising the prevalence of pig rearing in the northeast, in May 2009, the Indian government along with the International Livestock Research Institute and Ratan Tata Trust initiated research in selected northeastern states. This paved the way for a central government-sponsored scheme for CSF control, Classical Swine Fever Control Programme (CSF-CP), included in the 12th Five Year Plan in 2012.

“A new component namely; ‘Classical Swine Fever Control Programme (CSF-CP)’ has been included with 100% central assistance,” read the technical guidelines to states. The success of the CSF-CP scheme was centred on a mass vaccination drive of pigs.

Conceptualised during the previous Congress-led UPA II government, the CSF-CP campaign was later integrated into the country’s main animal disease control program, Livestock Health and Disease Control (LH&DC), in 2014. Initially focused on the northeastern states, the program was to be extended to other states depending on the availability of the CSF vaccine. 

However, by the time the CSF-CP came to fruition in 2014-15, the political landscape had shifted. Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was now in power. The change in government also brought in fundamental policy changes. The Planning Commission, which oversaw five-year plans including the one with CSF-CP, was dissolved and replaced with the NITI Aayog. And in 2017, when the 12th Five Year Plan ended, the Modi government scrapped the entire system of five-year plans that had been in place since independence.

The abolition of five-year plans and the drastic budget cuts to the animal disease control program – from Rs 298.40 crore in 2017-18 to Rs 194.45 crore in 2020-21 – significantly hampered animal health initiatives in the country, including the CSF-CP. 

The 30th Standing Committee on Agriculture pointed out the “drastic reduction” in the budget for animal disease control.

These cuts meant that the budget for the National Animal Disease Reporting System, which received a share of funds for diagnosing animal diseases, dwindled to zero by 2020-21. This happened despite the promise of regular animal health check-ups in the 2019 BJP election manifesto.

Even with the government maintaining nearly 100% utilisation of the allocated funds for animal disease control, the 30th Standing Committee on Agriculture raised serious concerns about the Ministry’s “misleading approach” and demanded an explanation for the “non-achievement of physical and financial targets.” 

It further noted similar discrepancies in the Establishment and Strengthening of Existing Veterinary Hospital/Dispensary, another component under the animal disease control program LH&DC, in 2017-18 and 2020-21. The report indicates that a sufficient budget was available yet no new veterinary hospitals were established in the two years, leaving the existing infrastructure inadequate.

The Committee expressed discontent over the irregularities in financial progress and zero physical achievements under the animal disease control program LH&DC. 

The Ministry claimed that a satisfactory response was sent to the Standing Committee. However, the committee rejected the Ministry’s reply calling it a “half-hearted approach”.

Pinning the blame for budget cuts and its under-utilisation on the states, the ministry told The Collective what it had told the committee earlier, “that the release depends on the proposed deliverables by states and UTs under their action plans.”

A Biased Response

Union government’s neglect of the country’s livestock health stood exposed in its contrasting responses to three diseases. In September 2019, Lumpy Skin Disease (LSD), the viral infection known for its low mortality rate, was reported in cows in Odisha. This was when CSF was already prevalent in the country, with a few major outbreaks reported from the northeast in 2020-21. And, the other pig disease, ASF, had made its mark by April 2020.

Recent outbreaks highlight the ongoing crisis and add to the urgency. While pig deaths due to ASF were reported from Mizoram and Nashik, it isn’t clear what caused deaths in UP. This reporter recorded at least 1,700 pig deaths reported by pig farmers from UP. Symptoms described by them were consistent with both ASF and CSF, but the real cause remains undiagnosed with a lack of testing.

The Collective’s investigation revealed a blatant disparity, especially in CSF-driven pig deaths. Despite facing a 100% mortality, piggeries received no government aid in the financial year of 2020-21 when the CSF outbreaks were noticed. In the same period, with no funds for CSF-CP, not a single CSF vaccine was administered in the country.

A Standing Committee report indicating zero vaccinations against CSF.

Documents suggest the ministry failed to quickly transfer existing vaccine production technology to multiple institutions to boost production, especially in the northeastern region which was the worst hit by CSF. 

In stark contrast, the Union government responded swiftly to LSD that primarily infected cows. Timely diagnosis, vaccination drives and revaccination campaigns were implemented. Even unspent budgets, in consultation with various stakeholders, were strategically redirected to further control the disease. 

This resulted in significant control of LSD – owing to 100% LSD vaccination in ten states – within four years. The government went beyond immediate control to prevent future outbreaks. Nearly 3.5 crore LSD vaccines were given to cows since the start of 2024. Meanwhile, countless pig deaths due to ASF and CSF continue unabated.

“Pig disease overlapped with Lumpy which affects cattle. Since the cattle share the largest section of Indian livestock, it was obvious that the government paid much heed to Lumpy. At the same time, the problem in piggery got aggravated because pigs are often owned by people of marginalised castes,” said Vikas Bajpai, professor at the Centre for Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The Union government addressed all LSD-related concerns separately under LH&DC’s Assistance to States for Control of Animal Diseases – with vaccination against LSD remaining at its core. In 2019, during the first LSD wave, assistance to states was suddenly increased to a six-year high of Rs 93.61 crore – a 321% increase from the previous year. Of this, Rs 10 crore was immediately sent to Odisha where the outbreak was first reported. 

In the 66th Standing Committee report on the spread of LSD, the Ministry admitted that it faced no shortage of funds in dealing with LSD. But when northeastern states faced a severe CSF outbreak in 2020-21, the government reduced the CSF-CP budget to zero

The ministry, however, denied any bias in terms of budget allocation to LSD over other diseases while maintaining that budget spikes are due to various other budget components.  

The gross financial bias underscores the government’s priorities. Extra attention towards LSD’s prevention appears as attempts to protect the lives and financial security of cow owners over the needs of Dalit and tribal pig farmers, who continue to bear the brunt of this crisis.

For CSF the stress is prevention through vaccination, but in case of ASF-related pig deaths compensation can be sought. In the last five years, according to a ministry data, pig farmers in Uttar Pradesh were compensated with Rs 30 lakh for ASF-related deaths in 2022-23.

A pig farm on the outskirts of Ghaziabad. [Photo: Alok Rajput]

Lured by the promising profits, Satish Goyal, an upper-caste farmer in UP’s Gautam Buddh Nagar, went against social norms and started a pig farm on his ancestral land in 2016. By late 2022, he lost his entire herd of 1,500 pigs, worth approximately Rs 3.5 crore. He claimed that no samples were collected from his farm for a correct diagnosis.

“I am not aware if it was the outbreak of CSF or ASF but all of my pigs were going through high fever while their skin was reddish which converted into pale blue. And, eventually one by one all of them died,” said Goyal.

Lack of compensation makes the situation worse. As Pushpendra Tomer, an upper-caste Hindu and a colleague of Goyal explained how desperate farmers often sell their symptomatic pigs.

“In the absence of any government facility to compensate the pig deaths, pig farmers often sell their symptomatic pigs. While they do make some money, the contagious pigs move to newer areas potentially infecting others,” said Tomer.

Alok Rajput is a TRC Investigative Reporting Fellowship special grantee. He is an independent journalist and sociology researcher.