After nearly three decades, India is faced with a serious locust invasion. While early swarms have already reached Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra, a massive surge is expected in July as swarms are expected from West Asia and as far as the Horn of Africa. Locusts, the scourge of farmers since time immemorial, have begun to thrive in a time of climate change. The warming of the seas has induced more cyclones all over the world, lashing out with surprising frequency in regions where these were rarely experienced. In the Arabian desert, a surprising combination of humidity and hot weather owing to these gusts of wind and rain have created ideal conditions for the breeding of locusts, which also prefer areas with sandy soil. The UN Environment Programme has observed recently: “Studies have linked hotter climate to damaging locust swarms, leaving Africa disproportionately affected...Wet weather also favours multiplication of locusts. Widespread, above average rain that pounded the Horn of Africa from October to December 2019...These abnormal rains were caused by the Indian Ocean Dipole, a phenomenon accentuated by climate change.” Prolonged periods of unseasonal rain and hot weather in India, as well as cyclonic disturbances, have increased India’s vulnerability to locust attacks. Locusts damaged crop over an estimated 50,000 ha in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab between May 2019 and February 2020, being active even in cold weather. If locusts are to be a greater menace to Indian farmers than in the past, the problem calls for a holistic policy response.
While dealing with an ongoing invasion, the government should, however, desist from using organophosphates right at the outset, as these could have serious health and ecological consequences, particularly as they would have to be sprayed aerially for maximum impact and would be carried by wind over long distances. The alleged health effects of aerial spraying of endosulfan on cashew plantations in northern Kerala (Kasargod district) in the 1980s should be kept in mind. The rise of cancer cases in Punjab has been linked to contamination of food and water owing to indiscriminate use of chemicals and fertiliser. To deal with the locusts, noted farm scientists have advocated aerial sprays of neem oil decoction in the first stage, ramping up the pesticide use gradually. FAO guidelines on aerial spraying should be adhered to. The rising locust population has also been linked to a decline in the population of bird species that feed on its eggs. This decline is considered to be a fallout of both changes in climate as well as the pollution of air and water owing to chemical-pesticide-oriented farming.
The Centre’s boost to organic agriculture is encouraging in this regard. Its proposal to ban 27 pesticides, which includes organophosphates, should however be accompanied by efforts to find sustainable alternatives for farmers, who are battling uncertainties on all fronts.