“This kharif season is a complete washout,” declares Vijay Kishan, a farmer of Kudi village in Jodhpur district of Rajasthan. The continuous onslaught of desert locusts swarms over the past few weeks has ravaged his early-stage bajra crop planted over 25 bighas (about 15 acres). The pesky invaders from Iran and Balochistan have also seriously damaged his moong and guar fields.

Kishan says the cotton crop, which was planted early in May on about 5-6 bighas, is his only hope now as the matured plants have withstood the locust attack to some extent. “I am hoping to get at least half of the anticipated cotton crop if the intensity of the locust attack comes down in the coming days,” says Kishan, who has spent around ₹1.5 lakh in cultivating his 60-bigha plot. His cultivation costs have shot up this year due to the additional expenses incurred on pest control.

Kishan is among the thousands of farmers who have borne the brunt of the locust swarms that have steadily invaded north, central and parts of western India. As if the locusts menace, which is the worst since 1993, is not bad enough, an infestation of fall army worm (FAW) is now wrecking the kharif crop in Rajasthan.

Maize under threat, too

While the locusts pose a threat to crops such as moong bean, pearl millet and cotton during their early stages, FAW is being mainly seen on maize.

In Chittorgarh district of Rajasthan, the FAW has attacked almost a fourth of the 88,000 odd hectares under maize, said an Agriculture Department official.

It is not just Rajasthan. FAW, which first surfaced in kharif 2018 in Karnataka, is a threat in other maize-growing States like Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh as well.

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This year, despite a bearish trend in prices, there is an increase in the cultivation of maize. Farmers had planted maize on about 54 lakh hectares till July 10, a 17 per cent increase over the previous year. States reporting a rise in maize acreage include M.P., Karnataka, Punjab and Chhattisgarh. Although the government machinery has swung into action with drones and helicopters to combat the locust attack, agri experts feel it’s time to declare it a disaster. About 60 teams consisting of 200 personnel have been carrying out locust-control operations on three lakh hectares across affected States, but fears are that the damage will be extensive.

“The government should declare the locust attack as a natural disaster so that farmers get some compensation under the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY),” said Bhagirath Choudhary, Founder-Director, South Asia Biotechnology Centre, an agri-advocacy body.

Extent of impact unclear

He points out that to manage FAW, farmers are forced to incur an additional cultivation cost of ₹1500 per acre, which would hurt their earnings. Already, the bearish maize prices have hit the farmers’ profitability. Meanwhile, due to the Covid lockdown, it’s tough to get a full picture of how badly are the maize crops affected.

“We have been receiving reports of FAW infestation from across major maize-producing States, but due to Covid, an assessment of the impact on the area has not been possible so far,” said A N Shylesha, Principal Scientist at the ICAR - National Bureau of Agricultural Insect Resources (NBAIR). Last year, FAW had hit maize in 7.18 lakh hectares.

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Farmers in key maize producing belt of Karnataka’s Chitradurga and Davangere said that no large-scale infestation has been reported so far. But States like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Punjab are not taking a chance and are creating awareness among farmers to control FAW. “We are taking precautionary steps and have stocked up the chemicals used to control the pest,” said A Srinivas, Director, Karnataka Agriculture Department.

Progressive farmers seem to be heeding these advisories going by the sales of chemicals. “There is an increase in orders from farmers in M.P., Chhattisgarh and UP among others for chemicals and bio-control agents — mainly neem and fungal formulations. We have also received orders from farmers in Rajasathan for locust-control chemicals,” said Sateesh Nukala, CEO and Co-Founder, BigHaat, an online agri-input vendor.

They will need all the chemical weapons they can muster in their armoury as another invasion is forecast. Swarms of locusts breeding in the Horn of Africa are likely to reach India and Pakistan in the next few weeks.