As India battles the novel coronavirus pandemic and reels from the humanitarian crisis caused by the two-month-long lockdown to contain its spread, a new threat has emerged in Northern and Central India: a swarm of locusts.
Locusts are short-horned grasshoppers that devour crops and other vegetation. They sometimes cause so much destruction, they could threaten a country’s food supplies. The insects could pose a “severe risk” to India’s agriculture this year, the United Nations has warned
Since the second week of April, swarms of locusts have been sighted in parts of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. According to experts, this is the worst locust outbreak in India in 26 years. In Jaipur, social-media users posted pictures and videos emerged of locusts in residential localities.
On May 26, locusts were spotted in parts of eastern Maharashtra including Amravati district, Wardha and parts of Nagpur. On May 27, the Delhi government issued an advisory on preventive measures to deal with the locusts.
So far, the insects have been sighted in 41 of India’s 739 districts, said KL Gurjar, the deputy director of the Locust Warning Organisation under the Ministry of Agriculture, in an interview to Scroll.in.
Locust sightings at this time of the year were unusual, Gurjar said.
To prepare for this, the Ministry of Agriculture said on May 27 that it would deploy drones to spray insecticides on fields in states that reported locust attacks. The ministry also stated that sprinkling operations were conducted in 303 locations spread over more than 47,000 hectares till May 27 in 21 districts of Rajasthan, 18 in Madhya Pradesh, two in Gujarat and one in Punjab.
The swarms that have entered India at this time are the result of spring breeding in parts of Iran and Pakistan. It was crucial for these countries to have coordinated their efforts with their neighbours India and Afghanistan.
But with the rising political tensions between India and Pakistan, such coordination has not been easy, according to Gurjar. “That is the situation…you know both countries on their issues…on Article 370 [and] after that,” Gurjar said, referring to the Centre’s decision to scrap the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019.
Excerpts from the interview below:
Why are locusts perceived as a threat?
Because they eat the vegetation and the crops. But presently, fortunately, there are no standing crops in Northern India. There is less [impact] in terms of crop damage. However, it settles on the trees and eats the leaves so this is the only threat and further these are moving to extended areas from Scheduled Desert Areas in Rajasthan to non-Scheduled Desert Areas in Madhya Pradesh.
This creates panic in the public…that such a big swarm is moving…and they may harm but they do not harm human beings or animals. They are just sitting on the trees and eating the leaves.
What do locust sightings at this time of the year signify for India? Is it unusual to see them now? What explains it?
Yes, it is very much unusual this time because its scheduled time is from the month of June, July [till] August, September, October. But this time they have migrated earlier from other breeding areas to India…because they were in Iran and Balochistan where population was more and a buildup of that population and the prevailing Western winds both helped and they migrated earlier.
Does climate change have anything to do with this?
Maybe. Climate change and control of operations in individual countries…that is the measure factor. How much you control? It has a 90-day cycle so within that how much you are able to control the remaining and subsequent breeding. This is important.
Could you tell us a bit more about India’s preparedness to deal with this? What is our strategy especially since the Agriculture Ministry had known about this in February?
We were expecting that this year the locust attack would be two to three times more so the Ministry of Agriculture has prepared accordingly. We have given an order of 60 new spraying machines and preparations of the aircraft for spraying. These are in process and will be available soon.
By when will they be available in India?
The machines are coming from the UK very shortly around June 11 or 12 and rest of the consignment will come June-end. The aerial kits will also come later on.
Would it not be delayed by the time those machines come at the end of June?
No. This time we are doing the operations on locust control jointly with the state agriculture [governments] and with the local spraying machinery available with the farmers. There is no shortage of resources.
So far, how many districts in India have been affected by locusts?
In Rajasthan it is 21 districts, in Madhya Pradesh it is 16 districts, in Gujarat it is two districts and one district in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh [each].
In what way did they impact these districts? Have these districts seen significant crop loss?
Not crop loss. It is just that they have gone through these districts. In some pockets, in some scattered places there have been minor crop losses reported.
Could you please elaborate how locusts are dealt with?
If we do not contain and manage this stage [breeding] of locusts then it will mature after 10 to 15 days, change its colour to yellow, and after copulation the female will lay eggs in the desert area 5 cm to 10 cm below the ground. For this, they need a sandy soil. So this is the process of multiplication or life-cycle. We have to stop this stage. At a time, a female lays 60 to 80 eggs in a sack.
Since the swarms have flown in particularly from East Africa, how has India coordinated with its neighbouring countries like Pakistan, for instance? How crucial is coordination from both ends to deal with this situation? How many meetings have been held?
We are regularly doing virtual meetings weekly in association with the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations] [with] all four countries India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan…India is ready to work jointly. But there are some you know…they are not of the view that they can do jointly…that it is not possible to work jointly between India and Pakistan.
Why is that? Is it not crucial to work together?
That is the situation…you know both countries on their issues…on Article 370 [and] after that. However, our locust officers are cooperating and we are exchanging our views and they are making efforts. But at the top country level, you know the relations.
Are there some distinct features about the sightings this year? For instance, swarms of locusts have been spotted in urban areas as opposed to rural ones?
Yes, they are settling and then going from whatever city that comes on the way. It is not a permanent phenomenon that it will stay there.
What are the additional threats of locust swarms ravaging through the country especially in the light of Covid-19?
In the light of Covid-19, our staff and officers are working and they are doing an excellent job. They are taking care of [maintaining] social distancing. However, this is also a disaster so we are doing this work on priority.
Where could locust swarms be headed to next? Delhi, for instance, has already been alerted to be the next on the trail.
Today [May 28] the wind direction has changed and it is towards North also and Northwest…so now it depends upon the wind. Presently, there are no threats to Delhi.