Normally, with the arrival of the monsoon, locust swarms enter the desert areas of India via Pakistan for breeding in the summer of June-July.
By Prabhutta Mishra, Deepa Jainani and BV Mahalakshmi
While the agriculture sector is seen to be the silver lining in the Covid-19 cloud thanks to robust winter harvest, brisk pre-kharif sowing and intensified procurement of rabi wheat, a worst locust attack in decades could play spoilsport. After the migratory pests showed their menacing presence in at least five states namely Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, the locust swarms on Wednesday entered eastern Uttar Pradesh. Telangana, eastern Indian states and the national capital region are on high alert too, as the fast-moving pests could reach these areas anytime, aided by wind.
In several parts of the country the authorities have been caught unprepared and if the locusts are not controlled before monsoon (these breed in moisture), the kharif sowing of crops in the entire northern, western and central regions could be adversely affected, potentially lowering the output of food grains, oilseeds and cotton. Already, the spread of the locusts has damaged fruit and vegetable crops in many parts of the country.
The Centre’s agriculture ministry under its Directorate of Plant Protection Quarantine & Storage is the main agency in charge of locust control, having 10 offices in border districts of Rajasthan and Gujarat. “Unless fresh swarms of locusts do not come from Pakistan side, it may take another 10 days to control the infestation in border districts of Rajasthan. However, there is every possibility of new swarms of locust re-surfacing from Pakistan during the second fortnight of June,” a field level officer engaged in the control activities told FE. “This year’s incident will be probably larger than the last major one in 1993 that India faced,” he said.
As many as 700 tractors, 75 fire engines and almost 50 other vehicles are engaged in spraying pesticides to kill the locusts, Trilochan Mohapatra, director general of Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), told Bloomberg. Drones would also be deployed, he said. District-level field staffs in the Indo-Pak border areas are struggling since mid-April to fight the pests due to lack of infrastructure and non-availability of materials in time. Only one drone was engaged in Rajasthan on Wednesday for the first time while two more will be deployed in Madhya Pradesh on Thursday, sources said.
Meanwhile, Uttar Pradesh government has asked all district magistrates in eastern part of the state to remain prepared for the movement of the swarm of locusts in their areas. A letter has been sent to them in this regard by the principal secretary-agriculture Devesh Chaturvedi. Earlier on Tuesday, the entire Bundelkhand region, as well as Agra, Mathura, Etawah and Firozabad had been put on high alert as the large swathes of locusts were seen entering the state from the Jhansi border. Another swarm was witnessed moving towards Agra late on Tuesday night. But due to the direction of the wind, they bypassed Agra and have gone towards Madhya Pradesh, he said.
While the Rabi crop has largely been harvested, the locusts are posing a major risk to vegetable crops and maize in UP. Increasing its readiness for the locust attack and its plausible damage and to prevent damage to crops, the UP government has asked all municipal councils to start a drive to spray insecticide and farmers are being told to create loud noise like clapping and beating of drums and plates to ward them off. Commissioner – cane and sugar, Sanjay Bhoosreddy, has also issued instructions to all departmental officers and scientists of sugarcane research centres to conduct awareness campaign among farmers to protect the sugarcane crop from these pests in the state.
The Telangana Agricultural Department too has sounded a high alert as the locusts have already reached Nagpur and Amravati in Maharashtra, which shares border with Telangana. State agricultural officers of northern Telangana districts – Adilabad, Nirmal, Komurambhim Asifabad, Mancherial, Nizamabad, Kamareddy and Jayshankar Bhupalapally – have been alerted in order to prevent damage that may occur due to infestation. According to Telangana Agriculture Department Commissioner B Janardhan Reddy, directions to district collectors and agriculture, horticulture officers have been instructed. “All the concerned officials have been instructed to be vigilant about the possible locust infestation. Required pesticides and chemicals have also been kept ready for spraying. Fire engines may also be used in case of emergency,’’ he said.
A 2014 report of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) had recommended that all aircraft involved in locust control come equipped with a GPS-based track-guiding and logging system as well as an onboard flow meter. In addition, application tracking using a GPS should also be used in ground treatments. However, nothing of this sort has been planned in India. Though the government has decided to provide the pesticide – Lambda Cyhalothrin free of cost to farmers, there is hardly any taker in Rajasthan as there is neither standing crop nor sowing work going on.
FAO has warned new swarms might migrate to the summer breeding areas along both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border from East Africa. As vegetation dries out, more groups and swarms will form and move from these areas to the summer breeding areas along Indo-Pakistan border. Good rains are predicted during the first half of June along the Indo-Pakistan border that would allow egg-laying to occur, it said.
Currently, 89 fire brigades for pesticide spray, 120 survey vehicles, 47 control vehicles with spray equipments and 810 tractor mounted sprayers have been deployed for effective locust control, as per requirement during different days, agriculture ministry said in a release. Temporary control camps have been established in Ajmer, Chittorgarh, Dausa in Rajasthan; Mandsaur, Ujjain, Shivpuri in Madhya Pradesh and Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh, it said. Control against locusts has been done in 47,308 hectare area in total 303 places in Rajasthan, Punjab, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh until May 26, it said.
The farm and allied sector will likely remain somewhat insulated from the damaging impact of the pandemic and grow at 3% in FY21, contributing about 50 basis points to the country’s economic growth, Niti Aayog member (agriculture) Ramesh Chand had said on April 29. The gross value added (GVA) in the sector was assumed to have grown 3.7% in FY20. A decent expansion of the farm sector will partly soften the blow to the economy, which is ravaged by the Covid-19 outbreak and is widely expected to experience sharply negative growth in the current fiscal.
At this point, the locust invasion is manageable, but if it continues it will be a problem for kharif crops, ICAR’s Mohapatra said. Until May 11, the hoppers and pink swarms have been controlled in an area of 14,299 hectares of Jaisalmer, Sri Ganganagar, Jodhpur, Barmer and Nagaur districts in Rajasthan and Fazilka district of Punjab, the agriculture ministry officials said. Since these migratory pests travel during the day time as per the wind direction, it is difficult to predict their movement.
Normally, with the arrival of the monsoon, locust swarms enter the desert areas of India via Pakistan for breeding in the summer of June-July. But this year, presence of locusts was reported on April 11 as the uncontrolled swarms of the previous season in Pakistan breed continuously without any check. During 2019-20, there was also a massive locust attack in India, which was controlled by operations conducted from May 2019 to February 2020 in which 4.03 lakh hectare was treated with pesticides and other chemicals.