A murder of crows circles at a distance, awaiting an opportunity to dive-bomb a cow’s carcass lying in a freshly dug-up pit, when the knocking noise of a tractor engine leads to a flurry of activity beneath. Three men rush to the vehicle and help its driver lift and dump two more carcasses—dotted with skin lumps just like the first one—into the large pit. As the sky turns from blue to shades of bronze, the tractor makes a dozen rounds, bringing back more dead bovines to fill up the mass grave. When the number piles up to 20, a JCB machine starts covering the mound with soil that it has excavated from an adjoining site. It’s dark by now. The crows have left, and so have the men, leaving behind another gaping hole in the rugged ground. To be filled up tomorrow.
The scene playing out on the outskirts of Santrela village along the Churu-Bikaner highway in Rajasthan has become commonplace across the state, as it fights the most invasive and fatal outbreak of lumpy skin disease (LSD) that the country has ever seen.
A contagious disease caused by a virus that belongs to the same family (poxviridae) as the smallpox and monkeypox viruses, LSD spreads among cattle through vectors such as houseflies, mosquitoes and ticks (see What is Lumpy Skin Disease?]. Native to Africa, LSD was first reported in India in 2019 and had spread to 15 states by 2021, but mortality was never so high. In 2022, Gujarat reported the first case in April, though the alarm bells started ringing when the disease further spread to Rajasthan and at least nine other states/ UTs in July-August (see Origin and Outbreaks).
The outbreak is particularly severe in Rajasthan. “Lumpy came like a wildfire, consuming our livestock,” rues Meenakshi Meena, the sarpanch of Rajawas, an affluent village on the outskirts of Jaipur, as she tends to the open wounds of her cattle. In just under two months, the viral disease has infected 1.3 million of the 14 million cattle in the state, leaving about 60,000 dead. The official toll across India—with deaths reported in at least seven other states—has crossed 70,000, though the actual figures, say experts, could be much higher.
Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi acknowledged the severity of the outbreak, when he addressed the World Dairy Summit in Greater Noida in Uttar Pradesh on September 12: “In the recent past, there has been loss of livestock in many states of India due to the disease named lumpy. The central government, along with various state governments, is trying to control it. Our scientists have also developed a vaccine for it.”
The vaccine that the PM was talking of is Lumpi-ProVacInd, indigenously developed by two institutes under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. Unlike in other countries, which resort to culling of infected bovines to curb the virus spread, mass vaccination and sequestering the cattle remains the only option in India. Since the commercial launch of the Lumpi-ProVacInd vaccine could take several months, India has launched a massive drive meanwhile using the goat pox vaccine that, according to experts, is just “60 to 70 per cent effective” against LSD.
In Rajasthan, orders have been placed for 4.1 million vaccines with a million already administered, says Lal Chand Kataria, the state’s minister for animal husbandry. However, with carcasses rotting in the open and multiple mutations of the virus fuelling fears of a fresh wave, the Rajasthan High Court on September 19 told the state government to ensure that the uninfected bovines are “adequately” vaccinated and the dead ones are buried safely.
In Rajasthan, the wave of cattle deaths originated along its western border with Pakistan and surged through various districts, moving in crests and troughs, before hitting Jaipur with full intensity earlier this month. The outbreak has left the state’s rural economy devastated, since, according to government data, 80 per cent of the rural households in Rajasthan keep livestock, and the animal husbandry sector alone contributes to about 10 per cent of the state’s gross domestic product. Even as the state accounts for only 7 per cent of the country’s cattle population, it contributes to nearly 13 per cent of India’s total milk production, second only to Uttar Pradesh.
Rural households, therefore, have been hit with a double whammy, says Dr N.M. Singh, additional director, animal husbandry, Rajasthan. “The death of a domesticated cow often leads to a lot of trauma in the owner’s family because of both the emotional attachment as well as the loss of investment and steady income,” he says. About a hundred kilometres from Jaipur, at Dhaka Ki Dhani village in Sikar district, Om Prakash has lost three cows to LSD, leaving him with just five bovines. As he applies burnt engine oil on the wounds of a calf (it apparently repels insects and facilitates healing), the small-time dairy farmer hopes his remaining livestock survives the outbreak. His daily income has dropped by Rs 1,200 per day with the daily milk production dwindling from 50 litres to 20 litres within just over a week. To add to his woes, he had to spend Rs 1,000 on each of his cows’ burial.
Bigger dairies are feeling the pinch too. In Bikaner, Babu Lal, managing director of the Urmul Dairy, was expecting to raise its daily milk collection from 70,000 litres to 100,000 litres. Instead, it has fallen to 55,000 litres. “Even as cows with better immunity have survived, their milk yield has fallen drastically,” says Babu Lal. Officials in the animal husbandry department say that the infected milch animals may take up to a year before they can contribute to a normal yield. An official expects losses to be to the tune of Rs 500 crore this year, adding that the figures could rise further if the outbreak isn’t controlled soon.
Rajasthan continues to report a bulk of the cow fatalities due to LSD in India, though the state officials allege underreporting by other states. Kataria attributes the high incidence of LSD to a large cattle population in Rajasthan, and the extended rainy season that led to rampant breeding of mosquitoes and flies, carriers of the virus. The freely wandering stray cattle are further increasing the risk of spread. At a cow shelter run by the Fatehpur Panjrapole Society in Sikar, two veterinarians have been deputed to treat infected cows brought in ambulances from the nearby areas. Yet, 105 have died.
P.C. Kishan, commissioner, animal husbandry, says the daily mortality due to LSD was as high as 4,000 in Rajasthan in the initial days of the outbreak. Currently, it has come down to about 1,000, but with the LSD virus mutating over time, the fears of another surge—even in areas such as the westernmost district of Jaisalmer, which has not reported any death for three weeks—looms large. “So far, six mutations of the virus have been detected in the state,” says Kishan.
Besides vectors, stray animals and virus mutations, the disposal of carcasses has emerged as a major challenge. At Santrela, where the panchayat has identified an open space to bury carcasses brought from half a dozen neighbouring villages, all caution has been thrown to the wind. About 15-20 carcasses are dumped in a large pit over several hours before being buried. Ideally, each carcass should be covered with salt and soil immediately, to keep flies and mosquitoes away. Villagers say it is not practical, given the high fatality rate in rural areas. Even in towns, where contractors are supposed to safely dispose of the carcasses in dumping grounds, these are being thrown in the open, adding to the risk of virus spread.
The detection of at least six mutations of the virus in Rajasthan have fuelled fears of a fresh wave
Given the way the virus has spread, leading to high mortality among cows, necessitating their mass vaccination and ‘social distancing’, comparisons are being drawn with the coronavirus. Hameed, a bullock-cart driver who works on the outskirts of Bikaner, is convinced: “Lumpy is like Covid-19. Nothing works on it, and it spreads unabated. But, unlike the coronavirus, which hit the urban areas hard, this disease is ruining our villages.”
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has accused the Ashok Gehlot-led Congress government in Rajasthan of failing to prevent the spread, unlike most other states, despite early detection and warning. The chief minister, on his part, has written to the Centre, urging it to declare LSD a “national calamity”. The state government has also released Rs 30 crore to fund the ongoing efforts to control the outbreak while all MLAs have contributed Rs 10 lakh each from their discretionary funds. This, clearly, is not enough.