In 2019, over 150 swarms of desert locusts were recorded; so far this year about 25 swarms have been observed. Since April, close to 54,000 hectares of area was treated with insecticides to control the pest in six states -- Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. And this is even before normal locust arrivals begin in June-July.
Should Indian farmers be worried about their kharif crop, planting for which is going to begin shortly? Monsoon arrived in Kerala earlier this week and is forecast to be normal during the June-September season, but can the gregarious desert locust spoil the party? Some locust swarms now moving in border districts of Rajasthan are as vast as 6 km in length and 2 km in wide. They can travel up to 150 km a day in search of food, and a small swarm can eat as much food in a day as 2500 people.
According to some experts what India should be most worried about is the latest forecast issued by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). According to the FAO forecast of 27 May, “Several successive waves of invasions can be expected (in India) until July in Rajasthan with eastward surges across northern India as far as Bihar and Odishafollowed by westward movements and a return to Rajasthan on the changing winds associated with the monsoon."
Specifically, FAO has forecast that between 22 June and 19 July, locust swarms will travel to India directly from their spring breeding habitats in East Africa (Somalia, Ethopia and Kenya), West Asia (Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen), Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Summer breeding along the India-Pakistan border is an added threat.
With effective control in the Indian border states, locust swarms are unlikely to pose a grave threat to India’s rain-fed kharif crop season, and therefore unlikely to jeopardise food grain production. But farmers in states like Rajasthan, Gujarat and parts of Punjab may pay a heavy price due to localised losses.
“The unusual invasion in April-May proved that we were underprepared due to which swarms reached up to Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh and beyond," said Ajay Vir Jakhar, chairman of Bharat Krishak Samaj, who farms in an area close to India’s international border with Pakistan—in Punjab’s Abohar district.
Jakhar, who is also the chairman of the Punjab Farmer’s Commission, flagged severed issues regarding India’s locust control strategy. The ministry of agriculture was late to act, the Centre is yet to provide any financial aid to affected state governments, and while Pakistan declared an emergency way back on 1 February, India stepped up control operations only in May, after swarms moved beyond border states. Also, India is importing sprayers from United Kingdom, a country with no current history of locust attack.
The laxity is despite several central ministers-- Kailash Chaudhary (minister of state for agriculture) and Gajendra Singh Sekhawat (minister of water resources) hailing from Rajasthan. “There is a clear and present danger but the centre is yet to take up aerial spraying which states are not equipped to do," Jakhar said.
The earlier than usual arrival of locusts have already damaged the cotton crop in parts of Bikaner and Hanumangarh in Rajasthan, which scientists say is a wake-up call for India to engage with countries like Iran and Pakistan to control the trans-boundary pest.
“There is a fear that winter breeding of locusts could have taken place in desert areas of Rajasthan due to a prolonged monsoon last year. That partly explains the presence of swarms in April this year," said Bhagirath Choudhary, founder director of Delhi based South Asia Biotechnology Centre.
Instead of depending on forecasts from FAO which have no personnel on ground, India must step up intelligence gathering on its own and also coordinate with countries like Iran and Pakistan to control the pest, Choudhary added.
Scientists within the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), however, are confident that desert locusts will not have any significant impact in the coming months. “In April and May locusts arrived following conducive spring rains in east Africa, Baluchistan and Iran (which aided breeding). The swarms moved beyond India’s border areas in search of food aided by westerly winds. That is unlikely to happen in June and July," said S.N. Sushil, entomologist and former plant protection advisor at the agriculture ministry, currently principal scientist at the Indian Institute of Sugarcane Research, Lucknow.
India is well positioned to control locusts despite profuse summer breeding which is likely between July and October along the India-Pakistan border, Sushil added.