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Explained: The locust attack in Gujarat’s farms — why and when do swarms strike

A small swarm on average eats as much in one day as about 10 elephants, 25 camels, or 2,500 people.

Written by Avinash Nair , Gopal B Kateshiya , Edited by Explained Desk | Ahmedabad |
Updated: December 26, 2019 9:51:27 pm
Some 10 swarms have entered Rajasthan since May; however, the crisis is currently the most acute in Gujarat. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

Gigantic swarms of locusts have descended on parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan, destroying crops and triggering panic. The first large swarm arrived in Gujarat about 10 days ago. In Rajasthan, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot earlier this week reviewed measures taken to deal with locust attacks in the western districts.

Some 10 swarms have entered Rajasthan since May; however, the crisis is currently the most acute in Gujarat.

What parts of Gujarat have been affected by the locust swarms?

Currently, at least 99 villages in the Vav, Tharad, and Suigam talukas of the border district of Banaskantha are affected by the swarms of locusts that began coming in to Gujarat from October onward.

The swarms first entered Kutch district, and have now reached Patan and Banaskantha. The worst affected villages are Daiyap of Vav taluka, and Antrol, Bhardasar, Kasavi, Takhuva and Radka villages of Tharad taluka, spread over an area of 15-20-kilometre radius.

What has the Gujarat government done to counter the pest attack?

The government has formed 27 locust control teams that has been engaged in spraying insecticides in the affected regions, especially in the Banaskantha district of North Gujarat.

The government has also ordered a survey of farmers affected by the locust swarms.

About 20 tractor mounted sprayers are currently being used to fight the locust attack. Until Wednesday, these teams had covered 1,815 hectares of 99 villages of Banaskantha by using insecticide sprayers mounted on tractors.

On Thursday (December 26) afternoon, the office of the Gujarat Chief Minister posted on Twitter a video of a team from the state’s Agriculture Department spraying pesticides on standing crops in Radka and other villages of Banaskantha district.

On December 23 and 24, the taluka development officer of Tharad had issued two advisories to all village sarpanchs and the principals of government primary and secondary schools, asking villagers to use primitive methods such as beating drums, chasing after the insects in large groups while making a loud noise, and spraying kerosene.

Videos showing Gujarat BJP chief Jitu Vaghani moving through farms beating a steel plate in an attempt to drive away the locusts had gone viral. Farmers were also seen trying to drive the insects away from their farms by using fire and smoke.

The local office of the Agriculture Department in Banaskantha has issued a circular asking farmers and villagers to clang metal plates with sticks, which officials said will not allow the locust swarms to settle.

At the time of the attacks in Kutch district in October, government officials had asked farmers to dig trenches around their farms in order to save their crops. Four villages of Lakhpat taluka had been affected then. With the help of the locust control teams, some 96% of the total affected area had been sprayed with the pesticide malathion.

What is the extent of damage locusts can cause?

The locust division of the Directorate of Plant Protection, Quarantine and Storage, Faridabad, under the Union Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers’ Welfare, says that a small swarm of the desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria), a polyphagous feeder (eating a large variety of plants), eats on average “as much food in one day as about 10 elephants, 25 camels or 2500 people”.

Locusts devour leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, bark and growing points, and also destroy plants by their sheer weight as they descend on them in massive numbers, it says.

According to the Directorate, locusts damaged crops worth Rs 10 crore during the 1926-31 plague cycle. During the 1940-46 and 1949-55 locust plague cycles, the damage was estimated at Rs 2 crore each, and at Rs 50 lakh during the last locust plague cycle (1959-62).

Although no locust plague cycles have been observed after 1962, during 1978 and 1993, largescale attacks were reported.

Bhuj in Gujarat saw the last upsurge in 1993. In Banaskantha, farmers fear that locust swarms will destroy the mustard, cumin and wheat crops currently standing in their fields.

When are locusts most likely to attack?

The Locust Warning Organisation LWO (comprising of all field units), a central government body responsible for issuing warnings and monitoring and controlling locust attacks, undertakes regular surveys in the scheduled desert area of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Haryana, which are prone to swarms, to monitor the presence of desert locusts and ecological conditions.

The assessment is to determine if the locust numbers have crossed the economic threshold level (ETL) which is 10,000 adults/ha. and 5-6 hoppers/bush that may require control.

These surveys are done regularly during the entire year, but most importantly from May to November when desert locust activity is considered at its peak due to congenial breeding conditions.

This coincides with the monsoon season in Rajasthan and Gujarat, says the contingency Plan.

Officials of the Agriculture Department in Gujarat said that the locust menace is a natural occurrence which varies in intensity every year. The locusts remain inactive during evening and morning.

Most swarms enter Gujarat through Rajasthan and Pakistan, riding on the wind to travel across large distances. India is most at risk of a swarm invasion just before the onset of the monsoon. The swarms usually orginate in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa.

The Gujarat government has said that this menace which began a week ago will continue for a few more days till the “direction of the wind changes.”

The government has also ordered a survey of the farms that have been affected by locusts.

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