Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook flooded with several videos and images of locusts buzzing on the Gurugram skies on 27th June 2020. This was the first recorded locust attack in Gurugram’s history. The locust swarms had already flooded crops in numerous villages in Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh in May.

However, how many times before 2020 had you come across the news of Locust Swarm?  I believe your answer would be, “never before” or “less than thrice”, isn’t it? Is India really new to our insects-guests? What makes this year’s attack by the devastating insects so different?

Well, would you nod in denial because we owe this to Covid-19 as well? Okay, no more guessing games!

NO, Locust Swarms are nothing new for India and the Indian subcontinent. Locust swarms generally arrive in our country during their summer breeding season i.e. July, September, and October, every year. In fact, India has a long history of locust plague, locust outbreaks, and locust upsurges. The current swarms are Locust Upsurge, to be precise. Locust swarms have been a regular visitor of the country for centuries now but the most recent and significant upsurge was in 1997 when four (4) swarms of locusts invaded our farmlands and covered the skies.

Now, what did ‘normal’ locust swarms in India look like?

The locusts generally arrived in India during their breeding season of July-October. Their swarms remained restricted to Rajasthan and interior areas of Gujarat, predominantly.

Also,

According to Richard Munang, United Nations Environment Programme expert on climate and Africa – the current swarm, with a larger population, entering India is linked to climate change, caused due to the Industrial Revolution in major countries.

So…

1. Why are these locust swarms catching a lot of media attention unlike ever before?

  1. the early arrival of the swarms
  2. larger population
  3. the damaging effect on the already unbalanced economy

The early arrival of the swarms and the larger population

The phase of severe drought for years and then heavy rains in the year 2018 made a favourable breeding environment for Locusts. This turn of unnatural natural events resulted in an about 8,000-fold increase in the locust numbers by 2019. The locusts soon formed swarms and moved towards Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and then into Pakistan. The locust then rested in Iran and Pakistan and bred again. Thus, newer swarms formed and travelled to India.

The damaging effect on the already unbalanced economy

The first locust swarms arrived in May after the harvest of the Rabi crops. The Rabi cropping season is from October-March. Thus, the damage caused to our crops by the first attack cycle was lesser than what it could have been. BUT the Kharif season starts with the first rains in June. The damages caused, by the current locust swarms, to the tender Kharif crops would be devastating for the country.

Covid-19 has already caused severe disruptions in the farmers’ community. Our agrarian country’s farmers are dealing with untimely rains, hailstorms, manual labor absence and/or shortage due to the lockdown imposed earlier, disrupted supply chains. The blows of several locust swarms are only an addition to their cry. The events mentioned above will further lower food production and cause high inflation.

Thousands of migrant workers have died from hunger in the current Covid-19 pandemic. Workers are penniless. People are stuck without a morsel of food. Crops worth several lakhs have been damaged already and according to the experts, locust swarms coming from the Arabian Sea are yet to come.

Well, just in case you’re still unsure about the hype, according to FAO estimation, a swarm of 40 million locusts can eat as much food as 35,000 humans. According to experts, these locust upsurges could soon turn into a global plague, unlike ever before. Now, do you feel what the buzz is about?

What can our farmers do about it? What should the government be doing? How can we tackle these locust attacks? Let’s get into it step by step.

As mentioned initially, “Locust swarms have been a regular visitor of the country for centuries now”. This indicates that Indian farmers have expertise in dealing with the menace caused by the locusts. The situation should be much better this time.  We have better knowledge about the phenomenon, increased communication with neighbouring countries handling the same menace and enhanced technology.

2. So, how is India dealing with the locust upsurge of 2020?

State governments are being rendered help by the Central government. According to the official reports,  by May 30th 89 fire brigades and some drones had been deployed to spray pesticides. Numerous sprayers had been ordered from the UK. In addition to that, 120 survey vehicles, 47 control vehicles with spray equipment, and 810 chemicals tractors with sprayers had been deployed for effective locust control. Organophosphate groups of chemicals such as Dichlorvos aka DDVP are generally being used. Many villagers have been asked to make noise by beating ‘thalis’ and bursting crackers.

The burning question is:

With the exponentially rising number of Covid-19 cases, immense crop damage already caused, and rising inflation, can India afford to shower all its crops with pesticides?

How beneficial would it be to create toxic chaos in the coming months?

3. No food OR poisoned food?

How can we choose between the two? If not for pesticides then how else to prevent the crops from damage?

Spraying pesticides isn’t something that the government can avoid considering the severe threat that the locust swarms possess. As mentioned earlier, we can lose food worth feeding 35000 people to a swarm of 40 million locusts, just in one day.

With the increased population, favourable breeding environment, and fast-moving winds, the toxic sprays are inevitable. Indian farmlands carry the experience and expertise(to a certain level) in dealing with locust swarms for about more than two centuries now. Usage of pesticides wasn’t something common back then. Back then, the farmers aimed at disrupting the Locust’s breeding which eventually tackled the locust outbreaks. Sounds logical, right? If only the authorities had peeped into our history and taken measures beforehand.

Nevertheless, coming back to our topic, locusts are the most endangered by the predatory birds of the area. Birds like Crows, Sparrows, Starlings, etc. In fact, even ground beetles, snakes, pigs and toads feed on a significant amount of these pests in any given local area.

The main point that I want to make is that our authorities cannot ignore the fact that heavy spraying of pesticides kills not only the pests but also the natural predators of these notorious pests. Of course, pesticides cannot stand in the arena with all these natural predators because their absence can be catastrophic. Wait, you don’t believe this? Okay, it’s story-time, anything for you dear readers!

Our neighbour and friend-cum-foe country, China, had witnessed the chaotic effects of the aforementioned “absence of natural predators of locust” in the past already.

4. What had happened in China? 

  • China’s Great Leap Forward from 1958 was a push by Mao Zedong – the father of Modern China –  to change China from a predominantly agrarian society to a modern, industrial society.
  • The Four Pests Campaign was one of the first actions taken in the Great Leap Forward to eradicate rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows.
  • Now, sparrows ate grains as well as a large number of insects. With no sparrows around, the locust population skyrocketed, quite understandably.
  • The Chinese leaders realized their mistake after 3 long years.
  • Although the central idea behind the Great Leap was the rapid development of China’s agricultural and industrial sectors, the results were catastrophic and lead to the Great Chinese Famine.
  • Eventually, China ended up developing a duck-army and importing more than 2 lakhs sparrows to tackle the locust swarms.

Do you understand why endangering natural predators could be catastrophic, dear readers?

I believe that it is never too late. If determined, our farmers and the concerned officials can still take measures to learn from past mistakes. They can be more prepared to lessen crop damage from any future locust swarm. Meanwhile, the government must incorporate monetary refunds to the farmers in their relief schemes and ensure proper information sharing to the farmers to tackle unnecessary myths and rumours. At the same time, the pesticide tsunami must be avoided because poisoning the food equals to no food!