The locusts in western parts add a new dimension to other disasters facing India
Just last week, eastern India was battered by one of the most powerful cyclones in decades and now, even as hundreds of lives are lost every day to the coronavirus, another danger lurks on the nation’s west. A burgeoning (expand) locust swarm in Rajasthan, Gujarat and even parts of Madhya Pradesh threatens to amplify into an agrarian disaster. The desert locust, as a species, is the bane of agriculture. Monitoring and tackling periodic outbreaks of the marauding (going about in search of things to steal or people to attack) insects are among the objectives of the Locust Warning Organization (LWO) in Jodhpur. There were 13 locust upsurges from 1964 to 1997, and after 2010 there was “no large scale breeding” reported. Once a significant outbreak starts, it lasts for about two years, and then there is a quietus for about eight years. LWO officials say that the swarm building up is potentially the “worst in decades”.
It is a testimony to its devastating potential that an arcane piece of legislation, The East Punjab Agricultural Pests, Diseases and Noxious Weeds Act, 1949, has a provision whereby a District Collector can “…call upon any male person not below the age of 14 years resident in the district to render all possible assistance …” and there is potential imprisonment for failure to abide by the law. Antiquated (outdated) as it may sound, it is a reminder that humanity’s oldest blights — plague, pestilence — will never truly be eliminated. The breeding locusts which threaten farming are an indirect fallout of the warming Indian Ocean, as some meteorologists suggest. Last year, there were fears that the monsoon may fall short because of an El Niño, or warming of the Equatorial Pacific. However there was an extreme flip. By July it was evident that a positive Indian Ocean Dipole, or relatively higher temperature in the western Indian Ocean, was in the works. This led to record-breaking rainfall in India — then a cause for cheer — as well as in eastern Africa. But moist African deserts precipitated locust breeding (reproduction) and favourable rain-bearing winds aided their transport towards India. On the other hand, coronavirus quarantines meant that routine coordination activities involving India, Pakistan and Afghanistan regarding spraying pesticides were halted. While it is some comfort that there is now limited standing crop in India, forecasts are for good rains in Rajasthan, and, paradoxically, conducive conditions for locust breeding during the sowing season. A less highlighted aspect of global warming is that it may link disparate disasters — floods, pandemics and pestilence — amplifying the potency of each. Improved science and technology is only making it clearer that man’s follies transcend borders. This makes it necessary to abandon any territorial blame game and focus on policies that will ensure an equitable, sustainable future.