India’s Farmers Plagued Not Just by Locusts

The story of farm distress in India is as old as the occupation itself. What makes the story of Om Prakash and other farmers of Khajuwala in the western Indian state of Rajasthan heartbreaking, is that even nature seems to have abandoned them. Its recent vicious attack on their crops has left their lives and livelihoods in tatters.

Om Prakash now spends his entire day sitting and gazing at his fields. He took a loan of Rs 50,000 to sow mustard in his six bighas (a variable unit of measurement of land). He bought expensive seeds and enriching fertilisers. He took good care of his crop and it all seemed to work until the night of January 21, 2020. 

Swarms of locusts invaded his land and destroyed the entire yield in a matter of minutes. It was as if his gold was stolen from right under his nose and there was nothing he could do. A debt-ridden Om Prakash stood there looking at his crop. The details of the attack make the episode even more tragic. The locust attack was no surprise. But the government neither provided pesticides nor gave compensation to the farmers.

Many days after the attack, three scientists from Jodhpur are visiting his village to study how locusts destroyed entire farmlands within minutes. One of the farmers, also the head of the village, is holding out a dead locust in his hand. The scientists examine the anatomy of the insect, which belongs to the grasshopper family.

Khajuwala is about 120 kilometres from the western district of Bikaner in Rajasthan. It is an intermediate panchayat, or a village council, located near the Indo-Pakistan border with several canal-irrigated villages under its administration.

For a century now, a network of canals built over Punjab’s Sutlej river has been used to irrigate the region. This encouraged people from the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana to buy land and move to this part of Rajasthan. Agriculture became the primary occupation of many. For a long time, the region had large swathes of lush green fields where grainless mustard, wheat, gram and taramira were cultivated. But what was once a sign of prosperity now lies stripped off the greens and remains a symbol of the farmers’ grief.

Every time an unknown vehicle enters the village, Avatar Singh, another farmer whose land was attacked by locusts, comes running, hoping against hope that help from the government has finally arrived. Since the locust attack, they have been waiting for pesticides and relief funds but there has been no luck. Their desperation is clear from how eager they were to show the state of their farms to this reporter. Almost every land was damaged by the locusts. Pointing towards the Indo-Pakistan border in the west, farmer Gurdeep Singh says, “As the wind across the border changes its direction, the locust army approaches our fields. Any farmland attacked by the locust is considered to be completely destroyed. These insects attack the fruits, leaving them dead. The Department of Agriculture usually has a small amount of pesticides to combat locust attacks, which they distribute to their ‘favourite’ farmers. The officials don’t even have machines to spray pesticides in the farms. Farmers have to use their tractors to spray the small amount of available pesticides which are never enough to ward off the pest-invasion.”

Every farmer in the area is disappointed with inadequate government efforts to thwart the attack and tackle the aftermath. Multiple such attacks have adversely affected Rabi crops in all western districts of Rajasthan including Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jalore, Barmer and Sirohi.

Explaining their disappointment, Sambhu Singh, who represents the Khajuwala’s Farmers Union says, “It is common to find farmers who own about 25 bighas of land in Khajuwala. Five bighas make a hectare and the government usually provides compensation against at least two hectares of land. Which means that even if we get the compensation, it is going to be about Rs 27,000 for 10 bighas of land. What about the remaining 15 bighas? We have spent more than three times the amount on crop production. So even if the government gives us the declared compensation, it hardly brings us any relief.”

Official figures show that a relief fund of Rs 772.4 million has been given to 46,400 farmers by the state’s disaster management and relief department. This still covers only six out of the 11 affected districts. The state government claims that officials are assessing the damage and compensation will be deposited in the accounts of the farmers within three days of the report being submitted. 

Avatar Singh lost 15 bighas of mustard, 10 bighas of gram and 20 bighas of taramira in the attack. Plucking one of the mustard roots out of the land, Singh says, “I am left with the useless green stems of mustard. The grains and leaves of the crop have been eaten away by locusts. The same has happened to my gram and taramira crop. I am not saying that the government did not spray preventive chemicals. But it was only for farmers who bribed the officials. Neither the pesticides nor the compensation made their way to us.”

Avatar Singh’s father, Hari Singh, with a saffron turban around his head and tears in his eyes, says, “What are we supposed to do now? Taking care of these farmlands has been our whole life. We feel lost now.”

He fails to fight back his tears and wipes them away with the corner of his turban. 

Rajasthan has a history of locust attacks and farmers have been affected by them periodically. Chetanram Godara, the farmers’ representative of Bikaner district, recalls one such incident. “The last such locust attack took place in 1993. It was massive but not as harmful as this one. That was because the Locust Warning and Control Organisation of the government was prepared. Unlike today, in 1993 the department had employees who kept us well-informed. 

The locust attack started last year during the summer season for Kharif crops and affected the India-Pakistan border areas of Rajasthan and Gujarat states.

There were signs of a locust attack in this area since the Kharif crop was sown. The government should have been prepared. Clearly, they did nothing and now agriculture in the two states has taken a hit. Farmers have resorted to desperate measures such as running tractors in their fields to spray pesticides, beating steel utensils and playing loud music in order to scare away the locusts but that has been of very little help.”

The farmlands of Rajasthan were attacked by the desert species of locusts which are considered the most dangerous pest in India. Chetanram Godara says, “These locusts lay their eggs wherever they attack and those eggs mature into hoppers in just 15 days. The situation is not completely under control because these eggs can lead to more attacks. The Desert Locust is still active in parts of Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and will affect the Kharif crops.”

In fact, in 2019, countries like Pakistan and Somalia declared locust attacks a national emergency because of the damage done to their natural and cultivated vegetation. Locust attacks led to a food and fodder emergency.

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Calling climate change a major factor, environment expert Jitendra says, “Locust attacks are directly related to an increase in the frequency of cyclones in the Arabian Sea. Usually, the southwest monsoon reaches the western parts of Rajasthan in July. But in 2019, the monsoon was not just early but also at a record high in Barmer district and other regions near the Thar desert. This led to favourable conditions for Desert locusts to lay eggs. The moisture provided the right conditions for intense locust reproduction in both June and July instead of just the latter. This species of locusts is capable of reproducing in dry deserts as well but the eggs do not hatch because of high temperatures. The increase in rainfall led to growth in desert flora and provided a good diet for the pests. Usually, the swarms of locusts leave India by November. But in 2019, it rained for nine consecutive days, making the locusts stay till January 2020.”

For the first time since the 1950s, India is facing an intensified locust plague. Widespread breeding for more than two consecutive years, swarm production and damaging of crops is called a plague period.

In May 2019, these pests were seen in Jaisalmer for the first time. Farmers alerted the government of the situation. But their appeals not only seem to have fallen on deaf ears but the neglect has also led to a locust upsurge. An agricultural scientist, who wished to remain anonymous, says, “This is the third generation of the locusts that came to India in May 2019. Locusts have a tendency of reproducing rapidly. In the first cycle of reproduction their numbers increase by 20 times. In the second and third cycle, the numbers increase by 400 and 16,000 times respectively.”

He further explains, “In order to stop locusts from attacking the crops, the administration uses Organophosphate (OP), the most dangerous pesticide of all. It not only affects the flora adversely but is also toxic for future crops. OP is the amalgamation of chemicals which were used for chemical attacks on enemies during World War II. However, we have made sure the chemicals are used sparingly.”

But government officials have a different version. Dinesh Kumar, the agriculture officer of Khajuwala block, says, “Desert locusts usually settle down on barren lands. Even if they attack farmland, we physically get there as soon as possible. We have successfully killed the locusts in this area. Even if there was a loss of 2-3 percent, the revenue department has made sure compensation was provided to affected farmers within three days.”

If that is to be believed, there has been no tragedy at all. And even if there was, relief and compensation has been provided.

Brijlal Godara, a farmer, is furious. “On one hand, the insects have sucked our hard work out of the crop. On the other hand, government officials are sucking our blood and hope. Farmers are forced to give bribes to government employees just for a review of the farms.”

As the sun sets, Brijlaal Godara walks slowly towards his house, his eyes filled with tears. Bidding goodbye, he says, “These officers are not here to help us. All they do is add to our misery. They are here to kill what is already dead.”

StoriesAsia, a collective of independent journalists from 16 South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, seeks to replace the present-day parade of faceless numbers with humanising narrative nonfiction – a largely ignored journalistic genre in the region.

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