Climate Change

Locust attack: Govt caught completely unawares, minister admits

Instead of taking accountability, Rajasthan, Centre, blame each other, Pakistan

By Jitendra
Published: Friday 24 January 2020

The Union and Rajasthan governments were caught completely off-guard by the locust attacks that started late 2019, Rajasthan revenue minister Harish Chaudhary admitted to the media while visiting the house of a farmer who died of a heart attack after his crop was devoured by locusts.

“Our machinery has collapsed and whatever crops have been saved, have been solely due to farmers’ efforts,” Chaudhary said while visiting the house of 38-year-old Bhagaram from Kitnod village of Barmer, whose 5-hectare cumin crop was eaten up by locusts.

Sixty per cent of Rajasthan’s cumin crops has been lost to locusts, costing farmers more than Rs 300 crore. The state contributes 44 per cent of India’s total cumin and losses will push up cumin price in the coming days. Crops like anise, mustard and castor have also been severely damaged.

Many agreed that the administration had done next-to-nothing to control the locusts.

“A small group of locusts were sighted on May 21, 2019, by farmers, who complained to the local Locust Watch Centre (LWC) in Jaisalmer district,” Chandrashekhar Sharma, a Jodhpur-based scientist trained in controlling locusts, said.

Officials have been instructed to:

  • Visit sandy areas where green vegetation is present or desert areas that have received rainfall recently or regularly during the monsoon.
  • Visit the previous attack site or the one that locals have reported.
  • Visit areas where day temperatures have been reported between 20 degrees Celsius and 38 degrees Celsius, shortly after sunrise to about mid-day.

While the state as well as Union governments knew of the May sighting, they didn’t do anything.

Next, a big attack by locusts was reported from Gudamalani village of Barmer district on June 30, 2019. Jugta Ram, a farmer from Tardo Ka Taal village in Barmer, recalled his relative in Jaisalmer district talking about it.

“My relative in Giraf village on the Jaisalmer-Barmer border noticed the insects. He informed government officials but none of them acted,” he said.

‘Pakistan responsible’

Instead of taking accountability, one minister made a weird statement about Pakistan being responsible for the locust menace.

This was Union Minister of State for Agriculture Kailash Choudhary, who represents the Barmer constituency in Parliament. He also visited the constituency where he accused the Rajasthan government of not cooperating with central agencies to control locusts.

On its part, the state government too accused the Centre of not providing any help to it.

Union Minister for Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare Narendra Singh Tomar denied any crop damage due to locust attacks in Parliament in July 2019. However, he accepted that desert locusts had been sighted in Barmer and Jalore districts of Rajasthan and Banaskantha district of Gujarat.

JP Singh, joint director of Locust Watch, an organisation under the Directorate of Plant Protection, Quarantine and Storage (PPQS), also supported Choudhary’s statement.

“The attack by locusts on our side is because it has not been handed properly on the other,” Singh said. However, he failed to provide details about whether his department had followed the standard operating procedure.

There was a lot of breeding by locusts in the Thar desert, a scientist said. “But we are blaming Pakistan in order to hide our faults,” he said.

Part of the reason as to why the state machinery completely failed in its duty is because of lack of finances and manpower.

India has established 10 locust circle offices at Barmer, Jaisalmer, Bikaner, Suratgarh, Churu, Nagaur, Phalodi and Jalore in Rajasthan and Palanpur and Bhuj in Gujarat.

However, three-fourths of the posts in these centers are vacant and lack basic facilities like sprayers and vehicles to track locust movements. For instance, at the Barmer-based LWC, but only eight staff are currently working, even though the sanctioned staff strength is 35. There are no vehicles even for these eight staff members.

“We have 45 sprayer-mounted vehicles. It is just not enough,” KL Jat, deputy director, LWC of PPQS department, said. According to Jat, the LCW normally requires at least 110 vehicles.

“In the absence of vehicles, we are encouraging farmers to hire and support government agencies,” Jat said.

There are only two 25 year-old sprayers at Barmer LWC which are ineffective in spraying at higher positions. “We cannot even spray at height of 10 feet. The machines are also not much effective when we need to spray at longer distances,” a scientist had conducted such operations, said.

In the absence of proper spraying machines, the state government pressed fire brigade vehicles into service.

“But the problem is that a fire engine cannot traverse village roads that are narrow. It also cannot go deep inside remote areas where locust sit,” Madan Mohan, associate professor of Entomology, Agriculture University Jodhpur, said.

This is the second of a multi-part series

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