Last May, when Chattar Singh spotted a large dark cloud of locusts approaching his fields, he was quite shaken. Last time he had seen something of this kind was about three decades ago.
“I remember they would come in large clusters during the winters. People in my village would be very scared since it destroyed everything,” recalls the 60-year-old farmer who lives in Ramgarh village of Jaisalmer (Rajasthan). “At that time there was a locust department in my village as well, which was very active in controlling them,” he adds in a telephonic conversation with Indianexpress.com.
In the past 25-30 years though, Singh says locusts had ceased to be a problem and so the department also became inactive. Consequently, when the locusts re-appeared last summer, he along with other residents of Ramgarh did not know what to do except banging pots and pans, and burning car tyres with the hope of scaring aways the insects. By January he says locusts had destroyed almost half of his crop before disappearing, only to reappear in April.
About 800 km away in New Delhi, Prabha Dubey (76) is confused reading about the prediction of a locust attack on the city. The only other time she had come across locust invasions in an urban area was back in the 1950s and 60s, while she was a kid residing in Ballia (Uttar Pradesh). “A cloud of darkness would descend all around as they arrived, and we would keep shut inside our homes,” recalls Dubey. She says the invasion of the locusts were frequent then, and would be followed by several rumours and myths including that of the locusts, or ‘tiddiya’ as they are called in North India, eating up small children.
On Tuesday, as the Ministry of Environment sounded the warning of a swarm of desert locusts heading towards the capital, after having ravaged through parts of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Maharashtra, most people in the country sweated over the advent of yet another disaster amidst a global pandemic this year. For those of an older generation though, it brought back memories of a time when locusts were a frequent feature in the country, feared immensely in villages as the harbinger of destruction, and newspapers carried vivid accounts of their plague-like presence.
A bad omen since ancient times
The widespread devastation caused by locusts since time in memorial is evident from the fact that they appear in dramatic ways in every major religious text. They occur in the fourth century BCE text, Mahabharata, as part of a poem that Karna recites to his rival Arjuna when they encounter each other in the battlefield. The tenth chapter in the Book of Exodus in the Bible mentions locusts as the eighth plague that is believed to have taken place in the 15th century BCE.
“They covered all the ground until it was black. They devoured all that was left after the hail—everything growing in the fields and the fruit on the trees. Nothing green remained on tree or plant in all the land of Egypt,” the Bible describes.
The Quran too mentions a locust plague that caused large scale death in its wake.
Coming to more recent history, as per a report by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, serious invasions of locusts were reported every few years in the 1900s. The five year invasion between 1926 and 1931, is believed to have cost a damage to crops worth Rs 2 crore. Damage was also caused to fodder, leading to widespread death of livestock.
The last major locust outbreak occurred in 1993 when 172 invasions were noted. Following that, locust outbreaks happened in 1997, 2005, 2010 and 2015 as well, but in very mild concentrations.
Coordinated state control
The problem of locusts being a recurrent one in India, each of the Princely states and provinces had set up administrative outfits of their own to put up a fight against it. “As a consequence of the 1926-1932 locust plague, the Government of India, under the British at the time, decided to conduct extensive research into the Desert Locust, starting in 1931,” says the report by FAO of the United Nations. Consequently, with greater understanding of the locust issue, a Locust Warning Organisation (LWO) was established in 1939 with its headquarters in New Delhi, and a substation in Karachi. The main purpose of the LWO was to survey the Desert Locusts and warn the states likely to be attacked.
Notable research in this regard was done by Hem Singh Pruthi — a doctorate from Cambridge University and was an entomologist of international repute — who was put in charge of the LWO in the 1940s. “In 1942, he prepared a concrete scheme for locust control. In 1950 he produced an exhaustive publication, entitled the Desert Locust Cycle of 1940-46 in India,” writes historian M S Randhawa in his exhaustive work, ‘A history of Indian agriculture’. Pruthi wrote extensively about the locust movements, breeding seasons, migration patterns, and meteorological observations. “He also included observations on air reconnaissance, seasonal and annual situations and the locust situation in India from 1939 to 1947,” writes Randhawa.
With the continued prevalence of the problem, in 1963 the FAO of the United Nations recommended the setting up of a regional organisation for the control of Desert Locusts, comprising Afghanistan, India, Iran, and Pakistan. Since then, the four countries have worked closely to control locusts in the area. As per a report by the BBC, between 2017 and 2019 when the recent locust outbreak began, India and Pakistan held 10 border meetings on Locust control.
In February this year, Pakistan declared a national emergency against locusts. India on the other hand is closely monitoring the situation, which is posed to be a severe threat to agriculture at a time when the country is struggling to control a pandemic.
“The real issue here is that this attack is happening before the season. Normally they migrate to India from the Horn of Africa between July to October,” says agriculture expert Devinder Sharma. “In the last few years, the intensity of cyclones on the way have gone up. Secondly, rainfall in India, Pakistan, and Iran have become unpredictable, making it the ideal breeding situation for locusts,” he adds. Speaking about why the locusts had stopped appearing as aggressively between the 1990s and now, Sharma explains that the weather conditions had turned unfavourable for migration.
Speaking about the measures being put in place to control the current outbreak, K L Gujral of the LWO says “there are no preventive measures to control locusts. At present, we are carrying out drone operations to spray insecticides and check their movement”.
On Wednesday, as the locust swarms deviated from its predicted path towards Madhya Pradesh, and saved Delhi from an invasion, Dubey heaved a sigh of relief. At Ramgarh, on the other hand, Singh is losing sleep over what can be done to avoid another spate of crop losses. “You will not find a single car tyre in my village anymore. All of them have been burned in the hope of saving our crops.”
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