Context: Recently, swarms of locusts have been sighted in urban areas of Rajasthan, which is unusual. 

More on the news:

  • Swarms have also been reported from parts of Madhya Pradesh and Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. 
  • The first swarms were sighted along the India-Pakistan border in April, by scientists of the Agriculture Ministry’s Locust Warning Organization (LWO), months ahead of the usual time of arrival.

The Locust Warning Organisation(LWO)  is a part of the Union Agriculture Ministry’s directorate of plant protection, quarantine & storage and with its field headquarters at Jodhpur in Rajasthan.

Why are locusts being seen in urban areas?

  • Locusts are being seen in areas not historically associated with such sightings - Jaipur, MP’s Gwalior, Morena and Sheopur, and recently stray swarms in Maharashtra.
  • According to the LWO scientists, as there being no crops in the fields, the locusts have moved across states attracted by green cover. 
  • The swarms were aided by high-speed wind and thus they made their way to urban areas not associated with the sightings. 

Why a new concern?

  • Unlike ordinary hoppers, these were desert locusts(Schistocerca gregaria) - the same destructive migratory pests currently devouring acres of maize, sorghum and wheat crops in East Africa.
  • While locusts are seen in India normally during July-October and mostly as solitary insects or in small isolated groups. 
  • Genesis of the present locust upsurge(particularly in East Africa)
    • It lies in the Mekunu and Luban cyclonic storms of May and October 2018 that struck Oman and Yemen, respectively. 
    • These cyclones turned large desert areas of the southern Arabian Peninsula into lakes, allowing the insects to breed undetected. 
    • Widespread rains in East Africa in late March and April have enabled further breeding.
    • According to the Food and Agricultural Organization(FAO) of the UN, a new generation of swarms forming there in late-June/July may migrate from the Horn of Africa across the Indian Ocean to the desert areas along both sides of the India-Pakistan border. 

The map below, from the UN Food & Agriculture Organization, shows areas of locust presence and projections for their movement.

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About locusts

  • Locusts are a collection of certain species of short-horned grasshoppers in the family Acrididae that have a swarming phase.
  • The desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) is a short-horned grasshopper that is not harmful while it is in a solitary phase and moving about independently. 
  • These winged insects differ from normal hoppers, and become dangerous only when their populations build up rapidly and the close physical contact in crowded conditions triggers behavioural changes. 
  • Then they enter the gregarious phase, by grouping into bands and forming swarms that can travel great distances (up to 150 km daily), while eating up every bit of vegetation on the way. 


The kind of damage they cause:

  • Locusts are polyphagous, i.e. they can feed on a wide variety of crops and have an ability to multiply rapidly. 
  • The damage potential of locusts has been limited in India only because of the country hosting a single breeding season - unlike Pakistan, Iran and East Africa, where they also multiply during January-June.
  • What can it mean to crops in India?
    • At present, chances of crop damage are low given that farmers have already harvested their rabi crop.
    • The bigger problem will come once the present swarms breed. 
    • If not controlled, locust swarms can threaten the food security of a country. 

Legal gaps in controlling locust: 

  • A Famine Inquiry Commission (Woodhead Commission) in 1945 recommended measures for the effective control of the desert locust. 
    • The Woodhead Commission led to the establishment of Directorate of Plant Protection Quarantine and Storage (in 1946). This subsumed the former Locust Warning Organisation, established in 1939.
    • The Directorate administers statutes like the Destructive Insects and Pests Act, 1914 (amended in 1992) and the Insecticides Act (1968), neither of which is specific to locusts. 
    • The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has a Desert Locust bulletin and our Directorate also has a locust bulletin. They failed to give warning for the recent attack of locusts.
  • East Punjab Agricultural Pests, Diseases and Noxious Weeds Act (1949): Introduced through an ordinance was also applicable in Delhi. Section 4(1)(2) of this statute mentions locusts, a section inserted in 1951. 
    • The law empowers the Collector to call upon any male person (not below the age of 14 years) resident in the district to render all possible assistance in carrying out preventive or remedial measures and in the destruction of locusts. 
    • A proclamation by beat of drum or other customary modes in the village or locality shall be deemed sufficient notice to all affected persons residing in that village or locality.
    • The ordinance has been lapsed.
  • Other states have similar legislation - Assam, Andhra, Telangana, Tamil Nadu. However, these legislations don't define an “insect pest” in the body of the legislation but leaves it to the notification. 

What can be done?

  • If the monsoon is good, and in the absence of control operations, the magnitude of attack could be worse than in the 2019-20 rabi season. 
  • Local authorities in Rajasthan and Gujarat had to treat infested areas with sprayers mounted on tractors and other vehicles. 
  • Even old generation organophosphate insecticides such as Malathion are effective against locusts. 
  • Control operations also require procurement of equipment, training of field teams, prepositioning of supplies in key breeding areas and updating contingency plans.

A law outlining measures to control locusts attack is the need of the hour. Such law should clearly define what constitutes a locusts attack, designated authority taking control measures in case of locust attack, compensation to farmers in case of crop losses. There is also the need to create a mechanism for giving early warnings of possible locusts attack.