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Blown By The Wind: Worst Locust Attack On Farms, No Alternate For Insecticide Poison

With advanced knowledge and data tracking mechanism, researches with practical and scalable solutions must be referred and innovative methods employed by indigenous farmers in different parts must be aggregated for scientific testing and replicability.

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Even if we fail to remind ourselves often that the farmers are lifeline of Indian economy and nature’s guardians, disasters will never let us forget that worst crisis for any country could be food scarcity. We all grappled with fear in Covid lockdown if daily food will be in our reach or not? Most urban dwellers did panic buying despite emotional appeal from government to show ‘share and care’. If Indian farmers had shown similar anxiety, we would have seen them hoarding their harvests and unaffordable vegetables and fruits for our pockets. Farmer’s unrest has the potential to disturb economic and peace equilibrium in the country as they are more than 118 millions in number, about 24% of total workforce but missing in the conscience of the nation. This community could exert their power by making us all feel miserable amid survival crisis, but apparently, because of their strong bond with soil, they never see opportunity in distress rather stand in solidarity with the spirit of a soldier.

All climatic stresses are dreaded by farmers as they directly affect their livelihood. Weather uncertainties, extremities or natural calamities makes farming most challenging vocation as risk chases them at every step, from seed selection to crop protection, from safety of standing crops to finally getting good market value of harvests. Crop damage from pest infestation, heat-strokes, hailstorms, cold-waves, cyclones and climatic unpredictability is constant consternation for this class as most of them have single source of income. Instability is a way of life for the same reason. Larger global worry is about climatic changes disrupting the entire ecological cycle and severe losses of bio-treasure on planet earth, which is key cause of eruption in nature’s fury in different forms, of different degrees with increasing frequencies. Recent one is worst locust attack ever after 1993. Flowing in India in swarms from Afghanistan-Pakistan route, the western part of India is severely affected with crop losses worth several hundred crores spread in several thousand acres of farms. The first wave of locust swarms attacked the border districts of Jaisalmer and Ganganagar in April soon to take 30 districts out of 33 in Rajasthan in its fold.    

It is notable that locusts bred heavily in Africa and Arab peninsula because of favourable conditions created after abnormal weather and two cyclones in 2018 and from there spread in other regions of Central Asia. Recent cyclones ‘Amphan’ in West Bengal and Odisha will create similar situation in Indian sub-continent. The desert locusts will breed, settle and attack with all might and speed. By the end of last year Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) had shared the threat through ‘Locust Environment Booklet’ which could not be spread through popular channels of communication to educate and alarm farmers to deal with impending outbreak and preparedness required. Machinery had advance information, hence, the messages needed to be repeated, responses be measured and urgency be underlined with identified target groups for effective outcomes. Unfortunately, Covid has pushed all other emergencies aside as we fail to envision the stress of farmers and impact of their crop losses on overall food security status, which is no less crucial in this time. Pakistan has attributed 40% of its crop loss to locust swarms lending it into the acute food shortage already. FAO has further warned that infestation is likely to get severe and desert locust invasion is expected to move from East Africa to India and Pakistan and could be accompanied by other swarms. So, how do we deal with this? With questionable efficacy of bio-Insecticides or with proven toxic insecticides poisoning entire food chain or with age old idea of noise or smoke treatment signifying hit and trial method only?

Government officials of the state share their pain that without scientific validation of bio-Insecticide, which many innovative farmers have claimed using at their farms in some parts of Rajasthan and other states to contain the locust strike, we can’t invest in experimenting and scaling up because we deal with emergency situations here and act fast to protect standing crops. Agriculture researcher’s work to tackle this attack on scientific knowledge and experimentation is not in sight, they rue. People are restless as crops need to be protected with lethal chemical weapons to get instant results. Melathion, ULV, Chloro 20 and whole range of chemical Insecticide are being used, but it’s ultimately the wind which decides which way the swarm moves. Experts have already warned that the organophosphates in use to kill the locusts will leech into rich and unique ecosystem of the Thar desert to eventually enter into next crop cycle. Migratory and indigenous birds will also suffer sooner or later. Rajasthan already carry wounds of worst tragedy ever in the wetland of Sambhar lake last year, when lakhs of migratory birds died because of bacterial poison in the lake. Jiyalal, a farmer from Jaisalmer, says that we just used older methods of saucer-beating and smoking which helped locust swarms fly past without touching our farms, but the threat hovers with another big attack predicted in July as the moisture increases.      

Statistics of Union agriculture ministry records the damage of crops since 1926 and subsequently in 40s, 50s and 60s showing downward trend from initial 10 crore of loss to 50 lakhs. The upsurge of swarms was also seen in 1978 and then in 1993 when Jaisalmer, Barmer and Jalore districts of Rajasthan were hit badly with a loss of 3 lakh 10 hectare of crops. From then and later in 1997 and 2005, same districts had these swarms in limited areas without major harm. Localisation of locust swarms to Rajasthan since 1993 has been a trend which is assumed to be broken this time as they are crossing the air borders to enter the neighbouring states of MP and Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh to travel as far as Maharasthtra. This generation of farmers has witnessed such scale of attack for the first time and smoked them out through drum-beating, blaring sounds or chemical spray, none of which appears progressive approach in the world of scientific advancements we exist. Older generation of alert citizens claim to have seen locust control team in Bikaner in charge of helicopters and freedom to act instantly but not impulsively by crossing international borders with priority visa to track origin of swarms and kill the locust eggs in the country of their origin, this way securing our own territories best ways. But international borders are not porous as before and coordinated international efforts certainly diluted.    

Farmers of Jaisalmer, Barmer, Jalore and Jodhpur are under shock as Rabi crops including wheat, mustard, cumin grown in estimated three lakh hectares of land have already been destroyed as these locusts devour the crops and grow exponentially. Rajasthan is the seat of specialised locust warning organisation (LWO) which was set up in British era in 1900 in Jodhpur and Karachi and LWO has claimed to have protected over 95 thousand hectares of land by timely action using drones, tractor mounted sprayers and fire brigade vans in past months. More than 2 thousand officials have been deputed and a fund of 1.45 crore has been sanctioned to district collectors for the purpose of handling the disaster. Some village girls working in their farms saw officials warning the farmers and personally visiting the areas to prompt villagers to beat drums or make loud noise to chase away the locusts.      

The Government of Rajasthan has also announced relief of 31 crore for suffering farmers. Some farmer leaders say that Rs 28-30 thousand for just two hectares of crop loss as against 80 thousand to one lakh of actual cost incurred by individual farmer on cumin crop is not sufficient and there could be serious repercussions of this loss on food availability. Perhaps unaware of the rigours of reaping cumin crop, the policy makers at the centre might keep in mind that in Rajasthan 60% of the cumin crop has been damaged by locust swarms, which is a loss of roughly 300 crores. The state contributes about 44 per cent of India’s cumin and this loss to Rajasthan farmers, if not compensated well, will hike cumin prices. A larger portion of cumin is also exported to Europe, where international protocols demand no chemical residue, and this spray method would ruin this opportunity for the remaining crops laced with Insecticide.  

With advanced knowledge and data tracking mechanism, researches with practical and scalable solutions must be referred and innovative methods employed by indigenous farmers in different parts must be aggregated for scientific testing and replicability. And if organic farming is a serious national target, then bio-Insecticide with proven track must be standardised. International borders must be watched closely for timely action and negotiations to protect the farms blown by the winds carrying locusts in its lap. These matters affecting lives of farmers directly must also become part of national discourse. If farmers’ income will face a jolt, they will fall into debt trap, which is surly a death trap. Let’s not forget, their lives are precious.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Dr Shipra Mathur

The author is an Independent Journalist with 25 years in mainstream media and media teaching, alumni of US State dept Leadership programme on 'Global Strategies for Accountability and Transparency' and alumni of Israel Govt course on 'Media Strategies for Social Change'. Won National Media Award of Election Commission of India and other awards for Public Service Journalism. Brings out a monthly paper MEERA to engage Rural Girls and to promote news literacy and scientific temperament among all. Also associated with IIS University as Advisor with Journalism dept. On board of few Grassroots organisations working on development issues. In her career led many public engagement campaigns for policy interventions and change.

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