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Explained: Why, despite efforts, the chain of periodic locust invasions is yet to be broken in India

The pests have been appearing periodically after a gap of 2-3 or 5-7 years. Around 26 locust attacks have taken place in India in two major cycles. After independence (1947), 25 attacks were observed.

Written by Anju Agnihotri Chaba |
Updated: February 6, 2020 6:22:52 pm
Explained: Why, despite efforts, the chain of periodic locust invasions is yet to be broken in India To observe the locust, intensive surveys are conducted by walking along the wind direction and driving at low speed to count flying locusts.

The locust, a short-horned, desert grasshopper that attacks standing crops and green vegetation, has been making news in India since May-June 2019, when it appeared in Rajasthan and Gujarat. In Kharif season (June to October) last year, it was also seen in a few areas along Punjab’s border with Rajasthan.

The situation was about to come under control but for a winter swarm that arrived from Pakistan on December 15 and became the farmers’ worst nightmare as it ravaged crops across several acres of farmland. Experts at the Locust Warning Organisation (LWO), which has been taking measures to control attacks by the pest for the past eight decades in the country, said that despite all of LWO’s efforts, the chain of periodic locust attacks in India is yet to be broken.

What measures are being taken by the LWO to control locust breeding/attacks in India?

Experts at the LWO said around three dozen offices including 10 circle offices are working on this issue. They have been doing regular field surveys to keeping a close and regular watch on an over two lakh sq. km area (nearly 11,500 villages) of three states including 1.79 lakh sq. km in Rajasthan (52 per cent of the state’s total area), and the remaining in Gujarat and Haryana.

To observe the locust, intensive surveys are conducted by walking along the wind direction and driving at low speed to count flying locusts. “We kill them either at the stage of breeding in the desert or before their migration,” said a senior officer at LWO, adding that air-sprayers are being used in deep desert areas.

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How often have there been locust attacks in India since the establishment of LWO in 1939?

The pests have been appearing periodically after a gap of 2-3 or 5-7 years. Around 26 locust attacks have taken place in India in two major cycles. After independence (1947), 25 attacks were observed. Among these, the attacks of 1949-55, 1962 and 1993 were most devastating when 167 and 172 swarms were noticed in 1962 and 1993 respectively. Since 1993, locust attacks have occurred less frequently. The latest attack of 2019-20, has had quite a severe effect on crops in Rajasthan.

How much financial loss have they caused?

According to LWO, to date, the financial loss due to locusts is said to be Rs 50 lakh, Rs 2 lakh and Rs 7.18 lakh in 1962, 1978 and 1993 respectively. A loss of Rs 2 crore was incurred in 1940-46 and 1949-55. Before the LWO was formed, a loss of Rs 10 crore is estimated in the 1926-31 cycle.

Why has the chain not been broken even after 80 years?

LWO experts said it is because there are 30 countries in four regions of different continents that have an arid climate with large deserts that provide an ideal breeding ground for the locust. Most of the time, locusts are coming to India from Pakistan, or from the Middle East via Pakistan.

“Laxity by any country would lead to its spread in all these countries which they invade one after another by following almost the same path…,” said Dr K L Gurjar, deputy director, Plant Protection, LWO Faridabad.

“We have four commissions for these 30 countries including the Commission for Controlling the Desert Locust in NorthWest Africa (CLCPANO), Commission for Controlling the Desert Locust in Western Region (CLC PRO), Commission for Controlling the Desert Locust in Central Region (CRC) and Commission for Controlling the Desert Locust in Southwest Asia (SWAC) which includes Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. Sincere efforts are required by every commission to control it,” he added.

Also read | How farmers are fighting locusts: Beating empty utensils, squishing them manually

Where did the current locust attack originate?

“The current attack in India, which started in 2019, has its origin in Yemen, where there was internal conflict and civil war. When the locust was breeding in heavy numbers there in 2018-19, the country could not take care due to its attention towards the civil war and lack of resources to control it. The insect went out of control, took the route of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Somalia, Ethiopia and other countries located on both sides of the Red Sea where they multiplied rapidly,” said Dr Gurjar, adding that the locust breeds in high temperatures and high humidity, which is prevalent in areas around the Red Sea.

“In African countries, there are large deserts like the Sahara and sometimes it is difficult to reach the big sand dunes despite air sprays. After breeding, the insects fly in small and large swarms to various countries,” he further said.

What efforts can be taken to stop this cycle?

The chain can be broken only when the pest is killed at the time of breeding or before migration to another country. “The swarms which are coming to India (Rajasthan) have been following the same path, starting from central or western region and then Pakistan mostly in summers,” said Dr Gurjar, adding that apart from breaking the chain of summer attacks, the winter swarm has now posed another challenge.

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