As India struggles to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, it faces a new challenge. Several parts of the country have experienced heavy infestations of locusts – an insect that devours crops and foliage, often leaving devastation in its wake.

If there’s a silver lining to this cloud, it is that India has two centuries of experience in dealing with locust swarms. India’s Locust Warning Organisation, which is at the forefront of battling the infestation, was established 81 years ago during the colonial era. Perhaps India could use some lessons from the past to avert the crisis that the current locust outbreaks might trigger.

It is not surprising that the colonial authorities made relentless efforts not only to contain the threat of locusts but also understand the science behind infestations. After all, the insects had the power to devastate the agricultural economy. For the British imperialist state which drew significant revenue from the exploitation of Indian agriculture, locusts posed no trivial threat: they could lead to famine and cause starvation, which would threaten the slender basis of British power in India.

How could the British let a tiny organism ruin their ambitious project of colonisation?

The origins of locust control

In the nineteenth century, India experienced serious locust outbreaks in 1812, 1821, 1843-’44, 1863, 1869, 1878, 1889-’92, and 1896-’97. Several efforts were made to combat the swarms. The first of these measures was to systematically collect and record data regarding locust occurrences. The British encouraged entomologists – scientists who study insects – to research locusts with the hope of understanding this phenomenon.

Until the early twentieth century, the containment of locust plagues remained a regionalised effort. The responsibility of control lay largely with provincial revenue departments.

However, the colonial system of locust control yet remained a dynamic one, employing an interesting mix of local reliance and global cooperation. It rested on the exchange of knowledge and techniques between various provinces of India as well as with other countries similarly ravaged by the pestilence.

Only after the 1927-’29 outbreak that ravaged the central and western parts of India was the need felt for a centralised organisation to gather information about locusts and control them. This resulted in the formation of the Standing Locust Committee in 1929 and the Central Locust Bureau in 1930. This culminated in 1939 in the establishment of the present-day Locust Warning Organisation.

Villagers bang pots in an effort to clear locusts from crop fields near Miyal village in Banaskantha district some 250 km from Ahmedabad in December 2019. Credit: Sam Panthaky/AFP.

One of the key ideas in colonial times was to destroy the breeding grounds and locust larvae before they could fly. Several techniques were employed for this purpose. One of them was the use of oil-tarred screens to kill locusts (also known as Cyprus screen, because it was popular in that country). They did not prove effective.

The other two popular methods were the net system and the dhotar method. The net system involved holding a “capricious” bag and swinging it around fields, trapping young locusts in the process. The dhotar method involved using a blanket to trip locusts resting on bushes.

All of these methods required great manpower, so the British began employing Indians for the purpose. The challenge was that many Indians regarded locust attacks as a “heaven-sent visitation” and felt that god would take care of them. They were not very enthusiastic about extending their support to the colonial state – they believed that locust control was part of the British government’s responsibilities. Moreover, villagers were often preoccupied with harvesting and sowing crops and felt that carrying the extra burden of locust annihilation work was too cumbersome.

Encouraging public participation

The British deployed a very tactical carrot-and-stick method to incorporate Indians into its system of locust management. The villagers were often told to render all possible assistance in their power and were warned that if they refused to do so, they would have no help from the government in their claim to remission of the tax assessment if their crops were destroyed.

This was not an unpaid job. They were often rewarded with cash for the locusts they killed. It was believed that this would serve as a kind of relief work.

Incorporating local people into the system of locust control often took into account the caste dynamics and ritual hierarchies. It was mostly people from the “lower castes” who participated in these exercises, attracted by the monetary compensation on offer. The upper castes mostly remained aloof.

A farmer in Jaipur holds up a locust that has been killed after being sprayed with pesticide. Credit: PTI

British colonial officials in the late 19th century relied heavily on observing Indian ecology, which helped them realise that birds could help to limit the locust population. Officers in various parts of India noted that kites, crows, storks, starlings, peafowls, and rosy starling birds fed on locusts. They also observed that birds killed more locusts than human effort ever could. Official devised an insect-control technique that involved ploughing the fallow lands where locusts were resting: the escaping insects became an easy target for birds.

Officials were helped by the knowledge that similar techniques were being applied in places like Syria, where birds like rosy pastors, domestic fowls, partridges were used to exterminate locusts. This method became so successful that it was practised well until the twentieth century. It received favourable mention in the interim report of the Locust Committee of 1929, which recommended protecting birds like starlings and mynas which fed on locusts as a preventive measure against locust outbreaks.

It is notable that this scientifically sound, non-chemical method employed by British authorities in India to counter locust attacks was a common practice followed by many countries through the 19th and 20th centuries and remains relevant to the present day.

International cooperation

The colonial state realised that fighting locust outbreaks required inter-state and international cooperation, along with coordinated efforts of the state and its subjects. Even at a time when India lacked an organised system of locust control, networks of knowledge and technique exchange existed between various Indian provinces as well as with other countries.

From 1929 onwards, it became evident that the periodic locust invasions in India had their origins outside the country, mostly in Iran, Arabia, or Africa. By then, the British and the French colonies started to develop centralised bodies for locust control. In British India, this culminated in the establishment of the Locust Warning Organisation in India. In the following decades, research on locusts was further encouraged , cross-country exchanges intensified and several international bodies formed aimed at the global control of locust infestations.

Today, when countries across Asia, Africa and the Middle East grapple with the locust menace, perhaps, it is time to learn from history. The magnitude of locust attacks and the need for international cooperation were deemed so essential that in 1943, at the height of World War II, the French resistance organised a conference in the Morrocan city of Rabat to deal with the problem. The meeting was attended by representatives of several Saharan countries.

A lotus swarm in Damoh, Madhya Pradesh. Credit: PTI

It is time to also reconsider some old techniques for combating locust infestations. During China’s Great Leap Forward from 1958, a plan to eliminate “four pests” – rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows – greatly reduced the sparrow population. China paid the price for this when a locust outbreak occurred because sparrows had maintained an equilibrium by feeding on the insects. In the following decades, as locust swarms multiplied, China developed a “duck army” to wage a fight against the swarms.

China’s deployment of the duck army is now becoming a diplomatic policy. In Feburary, there were news reports that China was considering sending its duck army to Pakistan to deal with the locust menace. (This didn’t not materialise eventually.)

Among the other species known to be effective in checking the locust population are pigs, toads and snakes. Ground beetles and parasitic flies are known to reduce the locust population too.

Insecticides may give temporary relief during an infestation, but they might also endanger the birds that act as natural predators of locusts. The way ahead lies in state-supported protection of birds. This should include a conscious effort to bring back species like house sparrows that have been disappearing rapidly.

Pallavi Das is a doctoral candidate at University of Delhi specialising in the history of science, technology and medicine.

Vineet K. Giri has an MPhil from the University of Delhi and specialises in environmental history.