India is on the alert for crop-munching desert locusts, which according to a UN warning, pose a “severe” risk to the country’s agriculture this year, as a top pest-monitoring agency flagged signs of an early-than-usual summer invasion of the species of grasshoppers from across Pakistan.
This has prompted the Union agriculture ministry to consider importing equipment from the UK, apart from deploying drones, satellite-derived tools, special fire-tenders and sprayers at pre-identified border locations.
Protocols are in place for India to hold videoconferencing meetings with authorities in Pakistan for joint strategies, an agriculture ministry official said requesting anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the media.
Locusts can fly up to 150 km daily and a one square km swarm can eat as much food as 35,000 people in terms of weight in a single day, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s Desert Locust Information Service bulletin.
A surge in locust attacks since last year is being attributed to favourable breeding weather caused by a large number of cyclones in East Africa. India, China and Pakistan face the most risk in Asia, according to the UN. Pakistan has already declared an agricultural emergency, according to the official cited above.
Locust attacks are known to cause a considerable drop in agricultural output. A moderate infestation chomped through winter crops in an estimated 300,000 hectares in Rajasthan and Gujarat in January. The crucial summer sowing season begins next month.
The alert on Wednesday came after a month of monitoring by the locust warning office, a wing under the agriculture ministry’s directorate of plant protection. Their field agents spotted clouds of the insects in mid-April in Rajasthan’s Sri Ganganagar and Jaisalmer districts.
Agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar consulted representatives of the pesticide industry on May 13, a second plant quarantine department official said. Tomar reviewed broad measures to fight off infestations. The ministry now plans to import some equipment from the UK.
In December last year, India held preparatory meetings with Pakistani teams on the India-Pakistan border in Munabao and Khokhapar in Rajasthan’s Barmer district, an official said.
India is constantly monitoring the pests and scheduling more talks with Pakistani representatives during the entire June to September kharif (summer-sown) season, said KL Gurjar, deputy director at India’s directorate of plant protection.
Gurjar was one of the participants at the border talks in December. A report of a senior locust forecasting officer of FAO to the government noted that “swarms would be present in Haryana and Punjab, moving east towards Bangladesh similar to 1950 when there were devastating plagues that lasted up to 14 consecutive years.”
“Despite the Covid-19 lockdown, the locust control offices are working since April 11, 2020, with 50 spray equipment and vehicles, in coordination with officials of district administration and state agriculture department,” a statement from the farm ministry said.
Normally, with the arrival of the monsoon, locust swarms enter the Scheduled Desert Areas of India via Pakistan for breeding in June and July, but this year, their presence was first reported on April 11.
“The situation remains extremely alarming in the Horn of Africa, specifically Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, where widespread breeding is in progress and new swarms are expected to form in the coming weeks,” an FAO alert issued this month said.
Heavy cyclones made for favourable breeding conditions also in the southern Arabian Peninsula for at least nine months (June 2018 to March 2019), allowing “three generations of breeding that was undetected and not controlled”, FAO said.
Pest specialists are drawing on standard strategies, such as maintaining sufficient reserves of melathion, the principal insecticide. “Overnight, they can devour field after field. One large swarm can cover several districts,” said JN Thakur, a former chief of locust monitoring at the agriculture ministry.
According to Thakur, India has an experience of fighting the pest from two previous outbreaks, in 1950 and 1993, but the country lacks large insecticide-spraying aircraft, which are the most effective way of dealing with a large-scale crisis.
Until May 11, the pests have been “controlled in an area of 14,299 hectares of Jaisalmer, Sri Ganganagar, Jodhpur, Barmer, and Nagaur districts in Rajasthan and Fazilka districts of Punjab”, the official said. Swarms are active in Barmer, Phalodi (Jodhpur), Nagaur, Sriganganagar, and Ajmer districts of Rajasthan.
The Union government has decided to conduct awareness campaigns and training for farmers and officials from these states.