India braces for worst locust attack in three a long time: Authorities procure drones, pesticides but financial damage from crop loss to be huge

Already overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic, farmers in north India are now worrying over the kharif crop even as a new wave of locust attack, predicted to be the worst in almost three decades, is expected by June.

“Locusts are a regular feature in the country but this attack is huge. It is a once-in-a-three-decade situation and timed very badly for us as we are already dealing with coronavirus,” Soumitra Dasgupta, Inspector General, Wildlife, Ministry of Environment and Forests, told PTI.

Desert locusts have engulfed around 35,000 hectares in seven of India’s states, threatening some vegetable and pulse crops, government officials and farm experts told Reuters. In April, locusts flew in from Pakistan and wreaked havoc in 18 districts of Rajasthan and 12 districts of Madhya Pradesh, sending farmers into a scurry to save their wheat and oilseed crops. But earlier this week, swarms flew into Jaipur’s Murlipura and Vidhyadhar Nagar areas, in the absence of crops to devour in agricultural patches.

Two unusual behaviours are seen in the nature of locust attacks this time around. While most locust attacks largely affect Rajasthan and Gujarat, other states including Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra were impacted in the latest attack. Additionally, the swarm was spotted at an unusual time of the year, as opposed to the usual June to November period in which the pests are seen.

New swarms bred in the Horn of Africa and parts of the Arabian Peninsula after two cyclones in the region in 2018 are likely to move towards India. Even though the attack forecasted to occur in June will fall in the lean season — the gap between the harvest and next sowing seasons — which indicates that the crop loss may not be extensive, the problem may intensify at the onset of monsoons, considered a breeding period for locusts. Monsoon rains mark the beginning of rice, cane, corn, cotton and soybean sowing, leaving authorities with a small window to tackle the crisis.

What is a locust?

Locust is an insect that devours leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, bark and growing points. A small swarm eats as much in one day as about 35,000 people and an adult insect can consume roughly their own weight in fresh food per 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 kilometre of land could hold up to 40-80 million of these insects. They also travel great distances, covering up to 150 kilometres daily.

Damage caused so far

The locusts are currently active in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh. Rajasthan is currently the worst-affected state, according to the Union environment ministry.

Desert locusts entered Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh’s constituency Budhni in Sehore earlier this week through the Neemuch district and subsequently travelled to parts of Malwa Nimar and were close to Bhopal, according to NDTV.

Agricultural department personnel in Maharashtra started spraying chemicals on crops and other vegetation to save them from the pests. “The swarm of desert locusts entered the state from Amravati district,” Agricultural Department Joint Director Ravindra Bhosale told PTI. “It then went to Wardha and now it is in Nagpur’s Katol tehsil. Central agencies in this field had alerted us about the locust attack and necessary information had been passed on to villagers as well.”

Around 1,200 litres of water have been sprayed with insecticides in the state’s affected areas.

The wind patterns may make matters worse and take the swarm of locusts, heading right now to Rajasthan’s Dausa and Karauli towards Delhi. “At present, the winds in Delhi are blowing from Rajasthan side. This means that the locust attack could hit Delhi. (However) from 28 May, the wind pattern might change to easterly,” said Kuldeep Srivastava, head of IMD’s regional weather forecasting centre.

Delhi, with 22 percent of its area under green cover, could be severely impacted by the locust attacks. Mohammad Faisal, an entomologist at Yamuna Biodiversity Park, told Times of India that locusts have been known to affect water supply and railway lines. After their attack, railway tracks become slippery and wells get clogged.

Heavy rainfall in the central and eastern region in counties like Yemen, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Iran, Afghanistan have helped in the breeding of the locusts. Favourable climatic conditions for the pests have resulted in their multiplication that is 400 times more than usual, according to a report by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). The Horn of Africa is facing the worst desert locust crisis in over 25 years, while Kenya and Iran are facing their most serious locust crisis in 70 years, Down To Earth reported. This swarm of locusts, when it enters India has the potential to destroy the kharif crop.

“It (locust swarms) could destroy the early kharif crop now and then in June and July. It could also have another impact which is that farmers who are worried about the loss due to locusts, might not sow or might sow less than what they usually would,” an official at the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare told The Wire on the condition of anonymity.

In the event of a locust attack in June, the government, already strained after announcing a Rs 20 lakh crore economic stimulus package in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, will have to not only announce relief for impacted farmers, but will also have to mull measures to combat inflation caused by food shortage.


The Locust Warning Organization (LWO) has identified four large swarms of locusts in the country which are between two and three square kilometres in size. Two of these are in Madhya Pradesh, one in Rajasthan, another close to Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh and smaller one in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha.

India will also use drones and specialist equipment to monitor the movement of locusts and spray insecticides to ward off a new outbreak. This comes even as officials and experts noticed a change in the locusts’ attack strategy. The pests that usually fly in low lying areas were observed to be flying a greater height, according to an Outlook report.

Kailash Choudhary, a junior minister for agriculture, said the government has beefed up the LWO workforce and bought new equipment and vehicles to survey and spray insecticides, he said.

The Madhya Pradesh agriculture department has issued an advisory to the farmers in affected districts to keep continuous vigil keep the insects at bay by using loud sounds through drums, banging of utensils and shouting. Sixty percent of the insects were removed by spraying chemicals in Madhya Pradesh’s Mandsaur district, while fire brigade teams stayed on standby in Uttar Pradesh’s Jhansi.

Rajasthan, currently the worst affected state, has decided to provide farmers who are insured under the PMFBY with advance payment of 25 percent of their likely claims. This will be implemented in six districts – Barmer, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Jalore, Bikaner and Sirohi, according to The Wire.

The LWO has to go beyond issuing alerts and advisories. “The government should immediately arrange for aerial sprays of pesticides to control the rapidly escalating situation. The states do not have the wherewithal to manage the scale of the outbreak this year,” Ajayvir Jakhar, the chairman of Bharat Krishak Samaj (Indian Farmers’ Forum) told PTI.

Last week, the World Bank approved a record $500 million in grants and low-interest loans to help countries in Africa and the Middle East fight swarms of desert locusts. Meanwhile, Pakistan has already declared a national emergency.

Locust attacks in the past

As per the Union Agriculture Ministry data quoted in an India Today report, locusts damaged crops worth Rs 10 crore during the 1926-31 plague cycle. During the 1940-46 and 1949-55 locust plague cycles, the damage was estimated at Rs 2 crore per cycle, and at Rs 50 lakh during the last locust plague cycle (1959-62).

India recorded 25 locust plagues and upsurges between 1964 and 1997. The colonial government set up a locust warning organisation in 1939 in Karachi, now in Pakistan, after a series of locust attacks. India set up a separate surveillance organisation in 1946. Locusts last swarmed Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh in 1993 and have not been seen since 1974 in Maharashtra.

As per the government records, 190 locusts swarms had attacked an area of at least 3,10,000 hectares in Jaisalmer, Barmer, Bhuj and Jalore districts of Rajasthan in 1993. Large areas in these districts again had to be treated with chemicals to get rid of locust swarms in 1997 and 2005.

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