If you thought our worries would come to an end after the Covid-19 Pandemic dissipated then you are excessively wrong. While India was braving a Super Cyclone which went by the name of ‘Aamphan’ and pronounced rather weirdly as ‘Oomphoon’. A huge swarm of locusts were found traversing all the way from the Horn of Africa towards the Indian Subcontinent to add fuel to the already existing fire of worries and misery affecting the poor and the downtrodden farmers and every individual associated with agriculture and agricultural produce.
If you thought they were just another insect with vibrant colours on their back that the media was unnecessarily creating a frenzy about, then you have a horror movie in store for you,once you proceed with this article. So, what are Locusts ? They are a species of short horned grasshoppers in the family of Acrididae that have a swarming phase. These grasshoppers are normally innocuous, their numbers are low, and they do not pose a major economic threat to agriculture. However, under suitable conditions of drought followed by rapid vegetation growth, their brains trigger a dramatic set of changes. This happens after a monoamine happiness neurotransmitter is ejected in their brains after which they start mating and breeding abundantly.
They then become so crazy (and yes, I mean, ‘crazy’ in the actual sense of the word) that they become sociable enough to form bands of winged adults ready to travel huge distances while eating onto every piece of green vegetation that comes their way.
They are notoriously known for stripping fields naked in minutes and damaging crops causing a considerable amount of loss and food shortage. According to UN Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates, a swarm the size of Paris can eat the same amount of food in a day as half the population of France (based on the calculation that one person eats 2.3 kg of food a day).
Did we have locusts outbreaks in the past ?
Well, history has it that locusts were present in our legendary myths such as the Mahabharata. Post civilisation, records suggest that we have witnessed eight outbreaks since the 19th century from 1812 to 1889 and a ninth in 1896-1897.
According to history of the Locust Warning Office published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there were “serious invasions” of locusts in India every few years during the 1900s. A “five-year invasion” from 1926 to 1931 is estimated to have to have damaged crops worth Rs 2 crore (about $100 million at today’s prices). The Britishers were in fact so perturbed that they for the first time in India’s history did something of consequence – they built a Locust Warning Organization (LWO) in 1939, with its permanent headquarters in New Delhi and a substation in Karachi which still continue to function and has provided invaluable insights in this season.
What does a Locust attack mean for India ?
Locusts have already wreaked havoc in the north Western belt of India’ Agricultural Land. Such sightings are not uncommon, but the present one is the worst India has seen in almost three decades. The ones affecting Indian farmlands are desert locusts belonging to the grasshopper family. They are more devastating than other species of locusts.
For a developing nation, like that of India, a locust infestation means a serious threat to food security. They arrived from Africa, through Iran and Pakistan and have not only registered their presence in the borders of Rajasthan and Gujarat but also states which are rather in the interior such as Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. It has also gone as far as Maharashtra in the South. Reports from FAO suggest that there might be an association of the movement with the Cyclone that ravaged Bengal and Orissa with its strong westerly winds from the Bay of Bengal.
While the rabi crops, recently harvested, survived the onslaught, the locusts can take a heavy toll on India’s kharif produce if not controlled by the time the harvest season arrives. It’s a grave prospect for farmers already struggling to shake off the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown.
How are we controlling Locust swarm ?
Desert locusts are primarily being controlled by organophosphate chemicals (the prime ingredient in herbicide and pesticide) applied in small albeit concentrated doses. They have to be proactively sprayed either by aerial sprayers or hand-held sprayers.
In modern times, based on locust swarm cycles, farmers have devised a plan to harvest crops before the locusts can come and attack. It is of paramount importance to note that humans have a distinct advantage to fight locusts because of technological advancements in the newer past. However it is still pertinent to monitor for locust breeds as it is economically beneficial and comparatively easier to destroy eggs than fully grown up locusts.
After a successful trial in Samod Village, it was proved that drones would succour immensely to combat the “locust plague” as it can reach difficult terrain. Dr. Prakash said though the drones were not as effective as sprayers, which are usually mounted on tractors and fire tenders, they would be useful as an “additional support” for sprinkling the chemicals on the locust swarms at places like foothills and sand dunes. A drone can spray pesticide on a nearly 2.5-acre area during a flight of 15 minutes.
In rural areas of India, farmers have been known to beat steel utensils during late afternoons and evenings. They also played loud music at night and create wood-fire, to ward off locust swarms from farms, albeit temporarily.
How India is reaching out and collaborating with other countries?
India has offered assistance to both Iran and Pakistan to combat locusts together since these are the countries which have been affected by it. As of now, however, only Iran has accepted the offer. This was predictable since Pakistan and India have been political adversaries since time immemorial. The External Affairs Ministry has approached state-owned HIL for the manufacture and supply of the pesticide Malathion Technical to Iran.
Strident efforts are underway across the countries to control the current ‘plague’. But we are yet to quantify the degree by which damages and losses have been suffered.