Explained: Why the locust attack in India this year is worrisome

The locusts are currently active in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
Locust attack in Rajasthan
Locust attack in Rajasthan
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One of the worst locust swarms in India is ravaging the western parts of the country, exacerbating a situation already made worse by the lockdown. The locusts are currently active in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Rajasthan is currently the worst-affected state, according to the Union Environment Ministry. What is even worrying is that the swarms of locusts have entered urban areas in Rajasthan. 

Locusts are not new to India, but up until now, remained largely confined to Rajasthan, and even has a Locust Warning Organisation (LWO). There has reportedly been no locust upsurge since 2011, according to LWO. The desert locusts normally swarm western Rajasthan and northern Gujarat during the summer (from approximately June to November), but they were first spotted by the Locust Warning Organisation in April this year, an environment ministry official told PTI.

In February, the Food and Agriculture Organisation had issued a warning about a twin invasion of desert locusts coming to India starting May. "This year there is a twin danger of swarm invasion from Iran and as well as from the Horn of Africa," FAO's Senior Locust Forecasting Officer Keith Cressman had told IANS.

The locusts invading India

Locust is a large, mainly tropical grasshopper, with strong powers of flight and it migrates in vast swarms, which cause extensive damage to vegetation. While there are different types of locusts, the one in India is the desert locusts, which are short-horned grasshoppers. The desert locust is considered the most destructive migratory pest in the world and a single swarm covering one square kilometre can contain up to 80 million locusts.

Locusts devour crops, threatening the food security of a region. According to the Directorate of Plant Protection, Quarantine and Storage under the Ministry of Agriculture, an average small locust swarm “eats as much food in one day as about 10 elephants, 25 camels or 2,500 people.” Locusts eat leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds and bark, and also break down trees because of their weight when they settle down. They also reproduce rapidly, about 20-fold in three months, according to the FAO.

A badly-timed, serious infestation

Soumitra Dasgupta, Inspector General, Wildlife, Ministry of Environment, told PTI that it is a very badly-timed "serious infestation" that has occurred. It is the desert locust which has attacked India in huge numbers and may lead to crop losses.

"Locusts are a regular feature in the country but this attack is huge," Dasgupta told PTI.

Locust swarm in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Image: PTI 

Another official in the ministry said the locust attack is threatening to spread further to the east and poses "an escalating danger to food security".

Dasgupta added, "Desert locusts have arrived in western India. It is a regular feature in the country but happens on a very small scale. 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."

Threat to food security in India

Since locusts devour crops, it could put pressure on the availability of food at a time when the lockdown has affected the country and farmers are already bearing the brunt.

An official at the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare told the Wire that it is possible that the locust swarm could impact the kharif crop. “For one, it 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. So, the total production could reduce because of both these factors. That is why it is essential to control these swarms right now,” he said.

Throwing light on the role of the government in facing the situation in India, Ajayvir Jakhar, the Chairman of Bharat Krishak Samaj (Indian Farmers' Forum), said, "The government should immediately arrange 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."

However, Dasgupta said, the Ministry of Environment has no role to play in managing this outbreak and it has to be dealt with by the Agriculture Ministry and the states concerned.

"We don't deal with the issue. Technology and the way out is with the Ministry of Agriculture. Chemical spray is being used by states to get rid of the locust. It is a serious infestation and there is a possibility of crop loss. The agricultural ministry has a cell that deals with locust in the country. They have issued some advisories. It happens on a very small scale. But this attack is big," he said.

In India, locust survey and measures to control it are the responsibility of the LWO under the Ministry of Agriculture. India and Pakistan cooperate at the border to share information, other experts have said.

How they migrated to India

Roxy Mathew Koll, Senior Scientist, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology and Lead Author, IPCC Oceans and Cryosphere, said the outbreak started after warm waters in the western Indian Ocean in late 2019 fuelled heavy amounts of rains over east Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

"These warm waters were caused by the phenomenon called the Indian Ocean Dipole -- with warmer than usual waters to its west, and cooler waters to its east. Rising temperatures due to global warming amplified the dipole and made the western Indian Ocean particularly warm.

"Heavy rain triggers the growth of vegetation in arid areas where desert locusts can then grow and breed. These locusts, which migrated to India early this year, might have found greener pastures as the pre-monsoon rains during March-May were in excess over north India this year," Koll said.

With PTI and IANS inputs

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