This post is part of the Climate Action Fellowship, a 10-week integrated bootcamp to work on stories that highlight the impact of climate change on India’s most marginalized. Click here to find out more and apply.
In December 2019, Western Rajasthan was hit by a severe locust attack It caused huge crop losses and caught the administration and the farmers unaware. Bikaner was one of the worst affected districts in the state.
I had just started working with a non-profit at that time and was based out of their field office in the Bikaner district, when I happened to witness the attack.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the desert locust is the most destructive migratory pest in the world. It targets food crops and forage, and imperils the food and fodder security of the communities of the affected regions. In arid and semi-arid regions, the unprecedented increase in rainfall, soil moisture and annual green vegetation can favour breeding conditions for locusts. The Thar desert witnessed a desert locust outbreak in December due to increased rainfall it had received in the previous months.
I, along with my team, was visiting the houses of some locals to conduct an extensive baseline survey for a programme. After an early start to the morning, we were driving back to the office for lunch. We were reflecting on the responses of the households we interviewed when I saw an ominous swarm of desert locusts whizz past us. I immediately recalled a scene featuring the desert locusts from the 1999 movie The Mummy.
Confusedly, I asked Makkaram, the farmer who was accompanying us, “Are those desert locusts?”
He replied, “Yes, those are desert locusts.”
He stopped the car to call one of his labourers on the farm and nervously shared the news with him, “Tiddiya aa rahi hai gaon ki taraf, dhyaan rakho humari fasal ka (Locusts are moving in the direction of our village. Please take care of the crops).”
Makkaram told his labourers to get rid of the locusts by banging utensils and bursting firecrackers. He assured them that he would be back on the farm in the next 10 minutes to assist them. While he was instructing them, I was trying to mentally calculate how two labourers could effectively keep the pests away from Mukarram’s one-hectare land. Personally, I also found the banging of utensils and bursting firecrackers a bit archaic and inadequate, but I obviously didn’t tell Makkaram this. It wasn’t the time to.
I hesitantly ask him though whether the measures would be enough. He told me, “It is archaic, yes. But I do not know what else can be done.”
As soon as we reached the farm, Makkaram dashed to help the labourers. But the damage had been done. The two men started filling him in on the destruction of his wheat crop and Makkaram started estimating the financial loss.
According to experts, desert locusts can pose a threat to countries’ food security. The UNFAO has observed that a desert locust adult can consume roughly its own weight in fresh food per day, i.e. about two grams every day. A swarm that is a square kilometer long contains about 40 million locusts, which eat the same amount of food in one day as about 35,000 people, 20 camels or six elephants.
On hearing about the damage, Makkaram sat down on the ground disappointed. I asked him whether there was anything we could do about these attacks.
He wryly answered, “The desert ecology is rapidly changing. I do not know how you or I could control the temperature, vegetation and soil moisture.”
I sat next to him and tred to figure out the words that would make him feel better.
“The crop losses due to locust attacks have previously increased the incidence of famines,” he told me. “The memory of the attack in 1993 is still fresh in our minds. I hope the government responds effectively. Ye locusts to humare jeevan mai kasht he hai (These locusts are a pain in our lives).”
The arid region of Thar desert has stressed resources and this frequent crisis of desert locusts posed by the onslaught of climate change could expose people to new vulnerabilities.