Rajasthan Locust Attack: Pests plus lockdown leave farmers in a soup

Destruction of the cotton crop, unsold rabi crops like wheat and barley and lack of help from the government making things worse for farmers

By Ishan Kukreti
Published: Friday 05 June 2020
Locusts have wrought havoc in 24 of Rajasthan's 33 districts this year. Photo: Vikas Choudhary
Locusts have wrought havoc in 24 of Rajasthan's 33 districts this year. Photo: Vikas Choudhary Locusts have wrought havoc in 24 of Rajasthan's 33 districts this year. Photo: Vikas Choudhary

The recent attacks by locusts have caused heavy losses to farmers in Rajasthan already suffering from the effects of the countrywide lockdown imposed in the wake of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) epidemic.

So far, of Rajasthan’s 33 districts, 24 have been affected, according to Suwa Lal Jat, joint director of the Rajasthan agriculture department’s plant protection division. “These are eye estimates. The actual estimation is underway by the revenue department,” he said.

Locusts destroyed cotton crops in Sri Ganganagar (4,500 hectares), Hanumangarh (9,000 ha), Nagaur (70 ha) and Bikaner (830 ha) districts in April and May 2020. On an average, every hectare of land produces around 20 quintals of cotton that is sold for around Rs 6,000-Rs 7,000 per quintal.

An extraordinary invasion

Mahaveer Saran is a middle-aged farmer, who has a 5-ha farm in Beenjhbaila village of Sri Ganganagar district. The village falls within Rajasthan’s cotton- growing belt, irrigated by the Bhakra, Indira Gandhi and Ganga canals.

Cotton is a major cash crop in districts like Sri Ganganagar, Hanumangarh and parts of Bikaner. The crop is sown by May 10 and by the end of May, short cotton plants dot the fields.

Saran was at home on May 27, when a 5x8 km big swarm of locusts covered the sky over the village like a dust storm. “The day turned into night as the locusts came. At first, I couldn’t understand what was happening. Then, the locusts started settling on my cotton farm,” he said.

He ran to his farm, as did his neighbours. Another farmer, Jasveer Ram Jhakhad, ran to the market to buy firecrackers. The regional agriculture department was called.

“I remember such an invasion some two-three decades ago. At that time too, we burst crackers to chase the locusts away,” Jhakhad said.

The villagers tried to chase the locusts using firecrackers and banging utensils, but to no avail. By the time the swarm left Saran’s farm around 12 pm next day, his entire crop was gone. The agriculture officers failed to show up, according to Saran.

A similar incident took place in the neighbouring Bikaner district on May 10, when the locusts destroyed cotton crops in Lalawali village of Chattargarh block in two hours.

Farmers in the village have taken additional loans to sow cotton again. But the crop isn’t growing due to high temperatures. “It’s too hot now. The seeds aren’t germinating. The few which are, have been burnt by the sun,” Babulal Shaswat, a farmer, said.

Locusts amid lockdown

Since April 2020, around 25 swarms of locusts have entered India from Pakistan and have wrought havoc on cotton cultivation in Rajasthan.

“The number of locusts is huge this time as they have bred in conducive ecological conditions,” KL Gujar, deputy director of Locust Watch Organisation, a central government body responsible for monitoring and controlling the pests, told Down To Earth (DTE).

“We are seeing an increase in swarms from Pakistan because the locust spring breeding has happened there. Usually spring breeding is restricted to Iran and Balochistan,” he added.

With officials predicting that the pests will stay in India till year-end, uncertainty looms large over the coming kharif crop cycle too.

The locust attacks happened as the Union government imposed a countrywide lockdown on March 24 due to COVID-19. On the one hand, farmers like Saran have lost his entire cotton crop. On the other, the harvested rabi crop remains unsold.

“Because the government is not procuring, the prices of crops have collapsed. The minimum support price (MSP) of wheat is Rs 1,925. But traders are buying it for Rs 1,800. Barley’s MSP is Rs 1,525. But, it is being sold for Rs 1,300,” Naresh Tiwari from Beenjhbaila said.

Waiting for a better price, he has only sold 100 quintals of wheat and around 80 quintals still remain unsold. Because the breweries are shut under the lockdown, the rate of barley has dropped and he hasn’t sold any of his 70 quintals of barley.

“My son’s wedding was scheduled for December this year. I was hopeful that the sale of cotton would be enough for the expenses. But now, all the cotton is gone,” he said. 

The sales register of traders from the nearby Krishi Upaj Mandi Samiti (a wholesale market), Ridmalsar, shows that crops like barley, mustard and gram are being sold below the MSP.

Under these circumstances, the only thing growing is the farmer’s debt and uncertainty about the future, especially as locusts have destroyed two previous crops in the region too.

The insects had made their entry into India in May 2019, after two months of good rains on both coasts of the Red Sea — Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia on the African side and Saudi Arabia and Yemen on the Asian, helped their breeding.

Once in India, record rains in parts of Rajasthan in June last year led to further breeding. The insects were supposed to leave India by November. But nine days of rain in November made the conditions suitable for them to stay.

“Last year in September, my wheat harvest was destroyed. Then, in February this year, my entire chana crop was eaten up. I had hoped that a good cotton crop would help reduce the loans. But even that is gone now,” Shaswat said.

“I have a Rs 4.5 lakh loan. But I won’t be able to pay the instalment this year. I haven’t paid the school fees for my children since last year. There’s no money. We survive on the money that my two brothers make working in Bikaner,” he added.

Ironically, the cropping cycle didn’t start on such a bad note. There were untimely showers in the third week of April that gave the soil much needed moisture for cultivation. The lockdown also meant that the mandatory cleaning and closure of canals could not take place from March to April.

“Because of the rain and the availability of water from canals, farmers cultivated cotton around 10-15 days early. Moreover, as labour was hard to get, they grew American cotton, which is less labour-intensive and fetches a better price,” Giridhari Lal Mahiya, a farmer leader who represents Dungargarh constituency in Bikaner district in the Rajasthan Assembly told DTE.

It were these American cotton crops — the most commercially lucrative crop of the year — that the farmers lost. 

Help awaited

As farmers bear the brunt of repeated locust attacks, the government has failed to support them. The gains from the government’s flagship scheme of Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojna (PMFBY) are yet to trickle down to farmers.

Under the scheme, farmers are eligible for insurance claims for crops lost due to pest attacks. However, farmers have not received the claims for the crops lost in January-February this year.

On February 11, the Rajasthan government told the state Assembly that the locust attack had affected an area of 5,31,670 ha. About 3,02,686 litres of Malathion pesticide had been used over this area since the attack started from May 21, 2019.

The locusts had affected areas in Jaisalmer (2,11,640 ha), Barmer (76,704 ha), Jodhpur (42,050 ha), Bikaner (1,49,915 ha), Nagaur (526 ha), Churu (500 ha), Hanumangarh (3,972 ha), Sri Ganganagar (22,437 ha), Jalore (15,930 ha), Sirohi (930 ha), Pali (6,816 ha) and Udaipur (250 ha).

However, in March this year, the state government notified only eight districts — Barmer, Bikaner, Jaislamer, Jalore, Jodhpur, Sri Ganganagar, Pali and Sirohi — as being eligible under the PMFBY’s Operation Guidelines’ clause 21.2 for the Rabi 2019 crop cycle. The clause deals with the payment of claims due to mid-season adversity.

Even that amount has not been paid yet. The deputy director of agriculture, Sri Ganganagar district, GR Matoria, said that the process was underway.

Shashwat, who has seen the third cycle of his crop destroyed by locusts, is still waiting for the insurance claim.

“The agriculture officials had done the survey of my field after my chana crop was destroyed in February, but I haven't received any money,” he said. “I have regularly paid the premium, but now, when I need money, the claim money is nowhere to be seen,” he added.

In terms of compensation, an answer from the Rajasthan Assembly from February 12, 2020, said that out of 77,676 farmers affected by locust attack in the Rabi crop season 2019, an agricultural grant of Rs 89.93 crore had been distributed among 53,915.

*Watch this space for the second instalment of the series

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