New Delhi — Several key agricultural states of India -- the world's largest rice exporter -- are fighting the worst desert locust attack seen in decades at a time when the country is also battling the coronavirus pandemic.
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While the timing of locust attack has favored farmers in the country, and crop damage is seen as limited at present due to a lack of crops in the fields, India may face a grave challenge in the upcoming monsoon planting season if the locust outbreak is not nipped in the bud, according to experts.
India has two major planting seasons: winter (Rabi) and monsoon (Kharif), and at present fields are fallow as winter crops have already been harvested, while the monsoon crops are yet to be planted.
The monsoon planting season, which typically begins in June, is very important as most of the country's staples such as rice, pulses, kharif corn and major oilseeds are grown during this period. The government will need to control the locust attack before sowing starts to protect Indian farmers from a double whammy of locusts and lockdown losses, according to experts.
Locusts are considered to be the most dangerous migratory pest in the world. Six Indian states -- Rajasthan, Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana -- are fighting the outbreak, while several other states are considered to be under threat.
India witnesses smaller swarms of locusts over June-November in some parts, but locusts have uncharacteristically appeared earlier this year due to climate change, experts said.
Uncertain times ahead
India is better prepared than many other countries to control the locust outbreak, said Keith Cressman, senior desert locust officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization, while addressing a webinar hosted by the Centre of Science and Environment last week.
However, he added that the outbreak will cause crop damage, and this will affect food security and livelihoods in India.
Devinder Sharma, an agricultural policy analyst from India, said crop damage from locusts is currently limited, but "we should be worrying about what will happen tomorrow."
"Once the rains start, we are in for trouble," he said.
The Meteorological Department of India said the country's three-month monsoon season started on Monday. With rains, the locust population is also expected to surge, experts said.
"Good rains are predicted during the first half of June along the India-Pakistan border that would allow egg-laying to occur," the Press Information Bureau of India said in a statement last week.
The FAO said last week that several successive waves of locust invasions can be expected until July in Rajasthan, with the chances of them spreading across the northern India towards Bihar and Orissa, followed by westward movements and a return to Rajasthan.
"Now that the locusts are here, they are going to multiply" said Avik Saha, national convener of farmers' body Jai Kisan Andolan, and a farmers' rights activist. "We are looking at an unmanageable problem."
Government in action
The Indian government has established several Locust Circle Offices and temporary camps to control and monitor the attack, the PIB statement said.
The country is procuring pesticide sprayers from the UK and has deployed fire brigades, tractors and other vehicles for spraying, according to the statement.
According to Sharma, most pesticides being sprayed for locust eradication are highly harmful, and spraying of those chemicals in areas with habitation and water bodies is not advisable.
Aerial spraying of fertilizers and pesticides, however, is the most potent method of fighting the locusts, according to the FAO.
The locust outbreak in India has come as a second blow to the country's farmers, who were already facing challenges in harvesting and transporting their agricultural produce due to a nationwide lockdown in place since March 25.
According to a recent survey of 1,400 farmers across 12 states by the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, and Public Health Foundation of India, nearly 10% of surveyed farmers said they had been unable to harvest their crops in the past month mostly because of lockdown-related issues such as low market prices or an inability to access land due to travel restrictions.
"The unharvested crops now stand the risk of damage by locusts," said Saha.
According to the survey conducted during first fortnight of May, nearly 350 of 1,400 farmers said they had stored their crops instead of selling, due to the lockdown.
The survey also showed that the lockdown has affected the ability of farmers to prepare for the upcoming sowing season, due to concerns over affordability of input materials and labor shortages.
"If the loss of income due to inability to sell crops in the winter season is further accompanied by losses due to locusts, it could push Indian farmers into severe debt," said Saha.
Prices of certain agricultural products in India saw a decline after the lockdown.
Prices of wheat in Rajasthan, one of the key markets, fell nearly 10% to Rupees 17,500/mt ($231.67/mt) on May 29 from an average of 19,400/mt in April, while corn prices in the benchmark market of Karnataka fell 13% to Rupees 13,850/mt, data from government's website Agmarknet showed.
Prices of most horticultural products saw a decline during this period, according to the website.
Tomato prices, for example, have fallen more than 92% to nearly Rupees 1,000/mt in the wholesale markets of Delhi, from an average of Rupees 14,000/mt in April.
According to experts, the absence of buyers and a lack of bulk demand are keeping prices of these commodities under pressure, and prices are unlikely to see a recovery until mid June-July.