Amid the impact of Covid-19 pandemic, various parts of the world are facing another severe crisis currently. Swarms of locusts — short-horned grasshoppers — have invaded vast swathes from African nations to Iran and Pakistan, and now in India. Locusts are grasshoppers, different from their peers in their ability to change behaviour, habits and migrate over large distances. These are Gregarious hoppers which start coordinating their movements and form swarms to hunt or eat together. The world is presently witnessing mega groups, called plagues, of locusts that are separated by breeding locations but gather together in swarms.
Having arrived in India, the locusts have registered their presence in the border states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, and in the interiors of Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh as well. The swarms that have been attacking India in the recent past are unique in their strength and nature, but India frequently battles desert locust onslaughts in the months of July-October. The swarm that is currently attacking India and other nations has its roots in heavy cyclones and rainfall over the past two years, a trend that has been attributed to climate change.
Among the various threats, a locust infestation means a serious threat to food security. Locusts have destroyed over 2 lakh hectares of crops in India since the beginning of May, and threaten another 6 lakh hectares of the crop, according to agricultural ministry. Experts attribute the current deep invasion of locusts to the fact that while rabi crops have been harvested, Kharif sowing is yet to begin. The low availability of crops is leading the swarms to devour leaves on trees, and vegetable, fruit, and cotton crops, and move deeper into India in search of fodder.
It is increasingly going to be a grave prospect for farmers, who are already struggling against the impact of the nationwide lockdown. The reduction in crop and food supply will lead to food inflation and hit the fragile economy further. The economic importance of locusts is not merely limited to direct crop and pasture damage. During outbreaks, a tremendous and costly effort is applied to control these pests. Locust damage can be compared to that from a natural disaster like a hurricane or a tornado. For an entire national economy, the total crop losses from locusts may seem negligible. For a given farmer or a cooperative, even a brief passage of a locust swarm may result in a complete destruction of the whole season’s work. There is a growing concern over the environmental impacts of locust control programs. Since many locusts inhabit desert and semi-desert areas in developing countries, management of these pests is largely dependent on donors’ geopolitical interests, availability of funds, stakeholder inputs, and numerous other socioeconomic aspects. The United Nations has said that there is a severe risk to the Indian agriculture sector this year because of such attacks. According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the locust infestation is likely to get severe by next month. This means that the country that is already dealing with a drastic economic and health crisis due to COVID-19 is on the verge of facing the worst agricultural crisis as well. The crop failure and the upcoming financial losses can impact the lives of farmers and potentially make farmers more vulnerable to mental health problems along with a range of other problems. Along with farmers, there is perplexing anxiety among the common people on whether these locusts can cause harm to humans and spread infectious diseases?
The combined crisis of Covid-19 and locust is a big threat and could lead to further disasters such as famine, disease, and increased poverty. The loss of agriculture produces, discontinuity of supply chains, labor losses, and the disruption of wholesale markets and transportation due to the lock-down have had a disastrous impact on the economy. The close-down of borders as part of quarantine measures have posed limitations on the movement of possible aid to tackle the locust problem.
This calls for an integrated approach with improved monitoring, surveillance, and investment in a preparedness plan to make vulnerable nations more resistant to locust threats. Monitoring for locust breeding is essential as it is much easier to destroy eggs than fully grown locusts. At present, the primary method of controlling desert locust swarms is through spraying various chemicals. In rural areas of India, farmers have been known to beat steel utensils during late afternoons and evenings, and play loud music at night and create wood-fire, to ward off locust swarms from farms, albeit temporarily. There is a need to provide social protection like insurance to farmers and producers through effective governance.
Ramesh, S., Pandey, S., Philip, S. A., & Misra, S. (2020, May 29). Why the worst locust attack in decades has invaded north India. Retrieved from here
Tribune.com.pk. (2020, May 29). Amid Covid-19, locust attack risks famine in Pakistan, India. Retrieved from here
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