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Worst Locust Attack in India in 26 Years: How Can it Plague the Indian Economy?

May 28, 2020 9:40 AM 4 min read

India is experiencing possibly the worst locust attack it has seen in 26 years. We have a look at what a locust attack is and how it poses a massive threat to the Indian economy.

In an alarming turn of events, after wreaking havoc across acres of maize, sorghum and wheat crops in East Africa, a swarm of crop-eating desert locusts have been sighted in parts of Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, the major agrarian belts in the country, in the past couple of days.

While India was able to successfully fight the first wave of swarms earlier this year, the second wave has come sooner than expected, and it is possibly the worst the country has seen in the last 26 years!

What are the odds of this happening in 2020! Well, it does seem like we have stepped into a Stephen King novel.



Needless to say, the attack, if not tackled on a war footing, could prove to be another nail in the coffin for a country battered by the pandemic, severely damaging agricultural produce as predicted by the United Nations (UN).

It is worthwhile to recall here that the Indian farmer is already grappling with issues of distorted food supply chain, paucity of farm labour, and dwindling cash reserves.

Here’s a shot of the locust attack from Panna in Madhya Pradesh. 



What are Locusts?

Locusts have been considered as harbingers of bad omen and destruction since as far back as they go, appearing in movies (Exodus: Gods and Kings,Days of Heaven), books (The Day of the Locust, Things Fall Apart), paintings and illustrations, other than the more famous reference in the Old Testament wherein the vengeful God sent a swarm of locusts as the eighth plague to teach the Egyptians a lesson for refusing to free the Israelites.

Well devoid of all creative embellishments, the desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) is a short-horned grasshopper that is innocuous while it is in a “solitary phase” and moving about independently.

They generally avoid other locusts unless they are mating - or if they are compelled to be together due to food shortage (more precisely “drought followed by rapid vegetation growth”). When this happens, these desert locusts enter their ‘gregarious phase’ by forming huge swarms that can travel great distances - up to 150 km daily - to find food.

The current invasion of desert locusts originated along the Red Sea, in Yemen and Oman, during the 2018 to 2019 winter. The rains, brought by the October 2018 cyclone Luban, produced areas full of vegetation where the locusts could feed, breed and become gregarious.

From January 2019, small swarms spread in the Arab Peninsula, along the Red Sea and even reached Iran and Pakistan.


Why is it a Matter of Concern?

While locusts are not a new phenomenon in India, they usually arrive only from July to October, and rarely in such blinding swarms.

To begin with...locusts are polyphagous, i.e., they can feed on a wide variety of crops. As per the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), an adult locust can eat about 2gms each day.

Now that may hardly seem like a cause of concern. But consider this: An adult female locust lays 80-90 eggs thrice in her three-month life cycle. If left uncontrolled, a swarm can grow exponentially to 40-80 million locusts per square kilometre. A large swarm can eat as much as about 35,000 people in a day!

Thankfully, the rabi crop has already been harvested and farmers are yet to commence plantings for the new kharif season. But horticulture and other vegetation have seen the damage. As per reports nearly 5,00,000 hectares of crops spread over Rajasthan have been destroyed. 16 out of 52 districts in Gujarat and 17 districts in UP have reported an impact too. Moreover, these locusts can still endanger the sprouting cotton crop, vegetables and fodder sown last month.

The looming fear is that these locusts can breed to high enough populations to form swarms and wreak havoc during the rabi season in Rajasthan and Gujarat.


History is the Only True Teacher

India has been a victim of locust plagues and upsurges from 1812 to 1997. Thankfully, there have been no locust upsurges since December 2011. As per the data available with the Union Agriculture Ministry, locust attacks damaged crops worth ₹10cr ($1.3m) during the 1926-31 plague cycle. During the 1940-46 and 1949-55 locust plague cycles, the damage was estimated at ₹2cr ($0.2m) per cycle while also causing destruction worth ₹50L ($66,364m) between 1959-62. 


pesticide spraying in agricultural fields


What is Being Done?

Staring at the possibility of an attack of greater magnitude in the months to come, the Government has amped up its preparedness through various measures.

These include monitoring the movement of the pests on the ground, aerial spraying, investing heavily in drones and specialist equipment, launching awareness campaigns to sensitise farmers, as well as holding consultations with international experts.

In addition to this, the Government has also reached out to Pakistan to open a bilateral channel for “better coordinated response to deal with the common enemy”.

Some small-hold and marginal farmers have also resorted to banging plates and lighting fires.

Besides this, the Centre has placed an order for 50 mounted pesticide sprayers with the UK and green-lighted the use of drones to spray insecticide.

However, some farmers have pointed out that the use of pesticide sprays to protect crops and kill locusts can often be counterproductive. These chemicals not only harm crops but also fail often to keep locusts at bay. Indiscriminate aerial spraying of insecticides is also ill-advised as this can damage crops as well as affect human settlements. Besides, these are expensive investments for a farmer already struggling with mounting amounts of debt.

What should we do then? Well sometimes the solution might be as simple as sending 100,000 ducks to the scene of crime!


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