The way the locust menace is exacerbating and spreading to newer areas clearly indicates that the country is fighting a losing battle against this winged invasion. Though, unlike Covid-19, this calamity did not strike suddenly or without prior intimation, the infrastructure and wherewithal needed to cope with the catastrophe was not put in place. Locust swarms, big and small, have been raiding the northwestern border areas along Pakistan since December before acquiring perilous dimensions from May onwards. The locust monitoring wing of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which keeps track of the breeding and movement of locusts, had cautioned India way back in April that a major locust assault was likely in May-June. Its latest alert warns that the locust count could swell 20-fold in the monsoon season unless extra effort is put in to restrain them. The damage due to locusts has so far been limited to summer vegetables and pulses, besides trees, because the kharif sowing is yet to begin. The looming bigger threat to the main kharif crops is more worrisome.
Desert locusts, being prolific breeders and voracious eaters, are by far the most destructive of all the known pests. They are good fliers and can cover over 150 km in a day, if aided by winds, to move rapidly across countries and continents. The present locust outbreak, originating in the Horn of Africa, has managed to reach South Asia via the countries along the Red Sea and Southwest Asia. They have been breeding freely in Pakistan, Iran and their neighbourhood for past several months, building up the populations that are now intruding into India. These swarms have already advanced from the border areas of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Punjab to adjoining states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh and further into the interior regions in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. The invasion of southern states is not ruled out. Sadly, the country does not have enough basic locust control equipment like ultra-low volume sprayers, specialised aircraft and drones, sprayer-mounted tractors and other gear needed for large scale locust control operations. This is forcing local administrations at many places to deploy fire brigade vehicles to apply pesticides on trees. Though the farm ministry has set in motion the process of buying more such devices, their delivery would obviously take weeks, if not months. Huge devastation would occur by then.
However, laxity on the part of India is not the only cause for the locust plague getting out of hand. The failure of other countries, particularly Pakistan and Iran, to check locust breeding is also to blame for this. Normally, locust, being migratory in nature, is viewed as an international pest and is subdued through the joint action by the involved countries under the aegis of the FAO. But such cooperation has been missing this time due partly to pre-occupation with Covid-19 but largely to geopolitical tensions. Adverse internal situation in Pakistan and Iran has also hampered anti-locust campaign. Consequently, even India’s offer of free pesticide supply went abegging. Clearly, India would have to fight its own battle against the locusts. A long-term plan and deployment of adequate resources are imperative for this purpose. Otherwise, the agriculture sector, which has managed to withstand the coronavirus crisis, might succumb to this unrelenting scourge.