India’s Second Plague: Locusts

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India’s Second Plague: Locusts

Already hard-hit by the coronavirus, India’s farmers are also battling a massive invasion of locusts.

India’s Second Plague: Locusts

Pakistani children try to avoid locusts swarming in Rahimyar Khan, Pakistan, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Siddique Baluch

As if food supply chain distortions, paucity of farm labor, and dwindling cash reserves due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown weren’t calamitous enough, Indian farmers have another firefight on their hands: locusts.

Invading armies of locusts have been posing a threat lately to farming communities. The potential for locusts’ exponential growth and crop devastation has jeopardized the food and economic security of arid and semi-arid regions as well as agricultural powerhouses.

Locust sightings and attacks in India’s border states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh have been giving sleepless nights to farmers and authorities since last winter. Concerns are intensifying as the sowing period for kharif or monsoon crops like rice, maize, millet, pulses, soybean, and groundnut approaches in June.

For farmers, locusts are the most destructive of insects. They feed voraciously on almost all types of crops; a large swarm can eat as much as about 35,000 people in one day. Locusts also breed rapidly, with a single female desert locust laying 60-80 eggs thrice during its roughly 90-day life cycle. With such aggressive growth, one square kilometer of land could hold up to 40-80 million of these insects. They also travel great distances, covering up to 150 km daily.

Locust attacks have already wrecked pastures and crops across swathes in Africa, including Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Eritrea, and Djibouti. The migratory pests also penetrated into Tanzania, Uganda, and South Sudan, wiping out entire fields of maize, sorghum, and wheat crops.

In February this year, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations had warned about the “threat” of hatching and band formation of locusts in southern Iran and southwest Pakistan. The UN predicted this could jeopardize farmlands across southwest Asia, including western India.

Worse, the second wave of locusts, expected this summer, is projected to be 20 times more damaging than the first one. The UN estimates its size to be around 1.9 trillion locusts.

While locusts are not a new phenomenon in India, they usually arrive only from July to October, and not in such blinding swarms.  Their unexpected sightings along the Indo-Pak border before April this season have thus raised concerns. State governments have requested that Prime Minister Narendra Modi declare the insect attacks a “national calamity.” Pakistan, which has also been a great victim of locust swarms, also proclaimed a national emergency due to persistent locust invasions earlier this year.

Last year’s locust incursions in India were the most significant since 1993, say agricultural experts. Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar noted in the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of India’s legislature) that 88 percent of the 168,548 hectares of Indian farmlands affected by locusts in the past year lost over one-third of their crops.

Locust attacks are thus jeopardizing the agricultural economy of several Indian states. Villages in India’s western states of Gujarat and Rajasthan, which border neighboring Pakistan’s desert areas, are especially vulnerable to locust invasions. Thick, mobile, ravenous swarms of yellow locusts flew into India from Pakistan last summer, devastating rabi (spring) crops across western Rajasthan and parts of northern Gujarat. Local authorities in Rajasthan and Gujarat had to treat over 430,000 hectares of infested areas with sprayers mounted on tractors and other vehicles.

The situation has been especially grim in the desert state of Rajasthan, where millions of locusts have been attacking the state’s crops since April. Their swift movement is being facilitated by dust storms, whose frequency increases during the dry summer months, say meteorological experts. India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh has also borne the brunt of brutal locust attacks on its sugarcane farms.

Farmers say that while the rabi crop has been harvested this year, locusts can still endanger the sprouting cotton crop, vegetables, and fodder sown last month. “We’re also worried about the damage they can cause to the tender millet and moong dal crops we’re preparing to sow now,” rues Ram Prasad, a farmer based in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan.

In a desperate bid to scare away the insects, small-hold and marginal farmers like Prasad have been banging plates and lighting fires. Across many stretches, scarecrows are a common sight. To draw media attention to the menace, a legislator arrived in the Rajasthan state assembly with a basket full of locusts perched on his head.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot on May 14 appealed for central government assistance to address the hazard. Gehlot reminded Modi that locust invasions last year had wrecked crops worth billions over 12 districts.

The damage in Gujarat, Modi’s home state, has been no less alarming. Swarms of locusts demolished crops across 25,000 hectares in the state this winter. The state government had to launch a combined operation with the center to bring the crisis under control. Truckloads of chemicals and other emergency equipment were ferried to affected spots like Banaskantha, Patan, and Mehsana, three of Gujarat’s 33 districts. The areas faced locusts attacks on mustard, castor, and wheat crops.

Given the risk posed by continued locust invasions, the Indian government has also invested heavily in drones and specialist equipment as well as holding consultations with  international experts. “We’re also monitoring the movement of the pests on the ground and doing aerial sprays to scupper a fresh outbreak,” says a senior official of the Ministry of Agriculture.

The official adds that awareness campaigns have also been launched across affected states to sensitize farmers. Pamphlets and stickers are being distributed to highlight pest prevention measures and messages are being hand painted on the walls of offices and warehouses and granaries across affected states to drive home the point.

However, some farmers have pointed out that the use of pesticide sprays to protect crops and kill locusts can often be counterproductive. “Through our experience, we can say that these chemicals not only harm crops but also fail often to keep locusts at bay. Besides, it is too expensive to buy all this equipment at a time when we’re already struggling with coronavirus. It’s the proverbial catch-22 situation,” says Jagdish Prakash, an Uttar Pradesh based farmer. Prakash’s sugarcane crops were wrecked by locusts last year.

Why is the world seeing such an influx of locusts lately? According to climatologists, the phenomenon is an indirect fallout of climate change. At a media conclave held in Alwar district, Rajasthan by Delhi-based think tank Centre for Science and Environment in February, experts attributed the proliferation of locusts to changing weather patterns and shrinking wildlife habitats, among others.

Anil Sharma, a desert locust specialist, revealed that while locust invasions are not extraordinary occurrences, their recent attack in India is akin to an unprecedented “plague-like situation.”

In his presentation, Sharma explained how rainwater had gathered in the arid desert spanning Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen after it was hit by Cyclone Mekunu in May 2018. This created a fecund breeding ground for desert locusts. In October that year, the Arabian Peninsula was also hit by Cyclone Luban, which further multiplied locust populations.

The insects moved eastwards toward Pakistan and India in search of food, further increasing the pests’ stranglehold over a staggering geographical span. “They come very suddenly. This insect is dreaded most by farmers across the world. The swarms are so thick that they even block sunlight,” said Sharma.

There is no quick-fix solution to the locust menace. Beyond chemicals, pesticides, and drones, it is imperative to tackle the root cause of global warming and invest in upgrading climate resilience and adaptation techniques. An expensive and complex process, this will require global cooperation and coordination. But it has to be done. Else, as these pernicious pests have demonstrated, the costs will be staggering and recurring.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based editor and journalist.