The threat of locusts in Fazilka, Muktsar and Bathinda districts of Punjab, adjoining Rajasthan, is not over yet. The locusts may resurface, especially in the summer when there are dust storms and the weather is conducive for these insects, say agriculture experts.
“As of now, the locusts have come in small numbers to Punjab, but these have set the alarm bells ringing. They are unable to survive in the cold weather, so it needs to be studied whether their resistance has increased. The governments of India and Pakistan should devise a strategy to deal with the menace. The governments of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Punjab should take effective steps and try to control it at their level,” says Prof SPS Brar, who retired from the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics, Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana.
Kahan Singh Pannu, Secretary, Agriculture, says, “Usually, the insects grow where they cause harm to the crops, but this locust breeds in deserts. It can come anytime again. Our teams are on the alert in Fazilka, Muktsar and Bathinda districts. We have made adequate arrangements for insecticides and asked private companies too, but there is no eco-friendly method available to deal with these locusts. The situation seems to have arisen due to rain in Rajasthan last year, which resulted in ample vegetation there.”
Ajay Vir Jakhar, chairman, Punjab State Farmers’ Commission, says, “I had warned the state government about locusts in June last year. At that time, some people had laughed at me, saying that the locusts had not appeared in the past 25 years. Now, the locusts have come. The situation is presently under control and Punjab has very little role to play in controlling the locusts. The state government can only request the Centre to take appropriate action and write to Pakistan, which has been done. Senior officers have visited villages along the Rajasthan border. We can’t stop locusts from multiplying. They have come from Pakistan.”
This time, the Agriculture Department officials were better prepared and sent surveillance teams to Rajasthan, which was already witnessing crop loss due to the locust attack. As per some reports, this attack has been the worst and the longest in the last 60 years. Desert locusts have affected rabi crops on a whopping 3.6 lakh hectares in Rajasthan.
In Punjab, the locusts were first spotted this season on January 23. Thereafter, the situation worsened in some villages in Fazilka district, bordering Sriganganagar district in Rajasthan. Farmers are adopting traditional methods like making a din by banging saucepans and lighting fires to ward off locusts.
The situation is relatively better in Muktsar and Bathinda districts, where 5-20 locusts were found in the fields and these too were neutralised by farmers or had died naturally. Thereafter, no fresh arrival of locusts has been reported in these two districts.
Farmers are concerned as a swarm (about 40 million locusts per sq km) can devour food equivalent to what 30,000-35,000 people eat in one day. Apart from eating leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, tree barks and shoots, these locusts can damage a massive amount of crops just with their collective weight.
Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh recently urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to direct the Union Ministry of External Affairs and the Indian High Commission in Islamabad to immediately take up the issue with the government of Pakistan, from where the pests were emanating. He also sent Additional Chief Secretary (Development) Viswajeet Khanna to tour the area to assess the situation and evolve a strategy to combat any unforeseen exigency due to locusts.
Recent surveys have confirmed the presence of locust hoppers in small numbers in the villages of Gumjal, Kallarkhera, Dangarkhera, Panjava, Panniwala Mahla, Achariki, Bhangarkhera, Rupnagar, Bareka, Bakainwala, Haripura and Khuian Sarwar of Fazilka district, besides Raniwala, Midda, Danewala, Aspal, Virk Khera, Bhagsar, Tappa and other villages in Muktsar district.
Farmers claim that the state government was caught unawares on the ground when the locusts were sighted in the fields. “The officials simply visited the spot and said the situation is so far under control and there is no need to panic, but we should remain alert. If a swarm enters our fields, who will be responsible for it? Who will suffer the losses? Now, everyone is aware of the situation, but no concrete action is being taken. Teams of the state government have neither sprayed any insecticide nor supplied it to us so far. Even now, some officials are visiting the fields, taking photos of live or dead locusts and returning to their offices,” claim some farmers of Bhagsar village.
They add, “The videos of locusts that have gone viral on social media are causing panic. We can’t easily distinguish between old and new videos. Every time someone spreads rumours, we have to rush to our fields to keep a vigil. We are worried more about the summer season, when there is a high possibility of these locusts arriving in large numbers.”
Lachhman Singh, an 87-year-old farmer from Jandwala village in Jalalabad subdivision of Fazilka district, who has thrice seen locust attacks, says, “The current arrival of locusts from across the border can’t be termed as an attack. Before Partition, I saw an attack by the ‘tiddi dal’ (in Pakistan) and then twice in the 1950s in my village here. We used to call it ‘kaali haneri’ (dark storm) as the locusts came in lakhs. At that time, there was hardly any insecticide and we used to kill these with our own practices, burying them in the soil. Now, we have modern gadgets. Farmers should not worry.”
Situation under control: Agri Dept
Sutantar Kumar Airi, Director, Agriculture Department, Punjab, says, “A small group of locusts had come to Sriganganagar district, of which some entered our state. The situation is under control and no loss due to locusts has been reported anywhere in state. The number of locusts was comparatively high in villages along the Rajasthan border — Panniwala Mahla, Gumjal and Kallarkhera in Fazilka district. We have sprayed insecticides in these villages. Farmers should not get panicky.”
He adds, “We have made lists of boom sprayers owned by farmers, private companies and cooperative societies, so that if the need arises we may use them immediately. The farmers have been made aware of the insecticides and their dosage.”
PAU experts claim that India has not witnessed any full-blown locust cycle after 1962. However, during 1978 and 1993, large- scale upsurges were observed. Localised locust breeding has also been reported and controlled in 1998, 2002, 2005, 2007 and 2010. Since 2010, the situation has remained calm and no major breeding and swarm formation have been reported, they claim.
However, the solitary arrival of the desert locust has been reported from time to time at some locations in Rajasthan and Gujarat. The Locust Warning Organisation (LWO) undertakes regular surveys in the desert areas of Rajasthan and Gujarat to monitor the presence of the desert locust and the ecological conditions. During the survey, an assessment is made to determine whether the locust numbers have crossed the economic threshold level (ETL), which is 10,000 adults per hectare and 5-6 locusts per plant/ bush that may require control.
According to Dr PK Chhuneja, Head, Department of Entomology, PAU, the current spotting of locust hoppers in small numbers in Punjab does not pose a serious threat but one needs to guard against fresh incursions from across the border, in view of the expected post-winter temperature rise and the presence of crop vegetation over a large contiguous area.
“The farmers of border districts of Punjab need to be more vigilant and inform the PAU or Agriculture Department officials about new incursions of the desert locust so that control measures, if required, can be taken up to curb the menace,” he says.
Linked to climatic change
As immature or maturing desert locust swarms have been observed in some districts of Rajasthan and Gujarat since December, some agriculture experts say, “The appearance of the locust in the winter months is a new phenomenon and may be linked to climate change. Surveillance by scientists of the PAU Regional Research Station at Abohar and officials of the Agriculture Department has revealed the presence of locust hoppers in small numbers or groups (5-20) in Fazilka, Muktsar and Bathinda districts. These hoppers do not cause any damage to agricultural and horticultural crops unless they appear in swarms that comprise hundreds of thousands of them.”
Threat to food security
In Rajasthan, the locusts are posing a major threat to food security. The desert locust that belongs to the grasshopper family covers a large distance aided by the wind during the day. It rests only at night.
Locusts are considered to be among the most dangerous pests known to humanity. They reproduce fast — 20-fold within three months. An adult locust can eat quantity equal to its weight daily and a swarm can consume a huge amount of food.
In the districts of Punjab along the Rajasthan border, at this time of the season, rabi crops like wheat, mustard and gram are being grown. Kinnows are present in a large number of orchards, thus the orchardists are also wary.
Whitefly attack on cotton
In 2015, the whitefly attack had wiped out two-thirds of standing cotton crop in Punjab and caused damage worth crores of rupees. Some farmers had even committed suicide due to their debt after the crop failure. The attack mainly took place in the cotton belt, comprising Bathinda, Muktsar, Fazilka and Mansa districts. Spurious pesticides were blamed for the failure in controlling the whitefly. The then Director, Agriculture, was suspended and a case registered against him.
Some agriculture experts say the menace of the whitefly, a sucking pest, had grown around 2005, when Bt cotton was introduced. However, there is no study that confirms any link between Bt cotton and the whitefly.
As per Dr SPS Brar, in 1983, the heliothis came in an epidemic form in Punjab and devastated almost the entire cotton crop. Synthetic pyrethroid insecticides arrived in 1984 and proved very effective till 1990. However, thereafter, these too did not prove very effective and farmers started mixing insecticides. “We got the unwanted mealybug about 10-15 years ago. Then, 3-4 years ago, a hopper was spotted on maize crop in Hoshiarpur district. A sister insect of the present locust was witnessed on maize and fodder crops last year. “An integrated approach is required to deal with these insects. It’s time to use biological methods, traditional techniques and insecticides as well,” he says.
Scare in the air
The locust, a large-sized insect, is a short-horned grasshopper of migratory habit, which attacks crops or green vegetations. It causes extensive damage due to its feeding pattern. Locust hoppers are easily identifiable; the young immature adults are pink, while the old ones become dark grey or yellow with dark purple to black mandibles.
The Agriculture Department says chlorpyrifos, lamda cyhalothrin and malathion insecticides are effective against locusts. “A locust has an average life span of five-six months. Luckily, in our state these don’t get a conducive atmosphere for breeding, thus we don’t have to worry. These locusts breed in deserts and remain active throughout the year,” says Dr Kamaljeet Suri from the Entomology Department, PAU, Ludhiana.