They come in hordes of millions, flying in robot-like formations some 3km long and shearing all forms of greenery off a landscape in a matter of hours. Like an apocalyptic science fiction movie—the buzzing crepitations from their wings harmonious with the sci-fi parable. They are locusts—tiddi in Hindi. And India, in the middle of a pandemic, is bracing for a biblical plague, probably the biggest locust outbreak since 1993. The alarms are out, amateur videos of swarms engulfing cropland, villages and cities are aplenty. The latest was from Jaipur, where millenials captured an hour-long flypast on their cellphones. People beat utensils, burst firecrackers. The locusts, for the din they make, hate noise.
The insects flew out of the city to greener pasture. Wherever the wind took them, for they fly with the air current—covering up to 150 km a day at 20 kmph. This is summer and the wind is flowing easterly from the hot desert, as we all know blowing high to low pressure areas and carrying with it the migrating pestilence into the interiors from its point of entry, the Thar along the India-Pakistan border.
The government says the locusts are active in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The forecast is grim. Why? The attack is “escalating the danger to food security”. A small swarm eats as much in one day as about 35,000 people. And the UN warns that a new wave is expected this June. A bigger wave—a single swarm covering 1 sq km can contain up to 80 million of the voracious insects—could reach India from Africa. Billions of the young desert locusts are winging in from breeding grounds in Somalia in search of fresh vegetation springing up with seasonal rains. That could be a double whammy as India is already battling waves from spring breeding in Iran and Pakistan.
India has proposed a coordinated approach to both nations, but experts accuse Pakistan of inaction despite knowing that its border with Afghanistan is a breeding hotspot. Earlier, locusts came from Africa, taking ample time to reach India. Not anymore. India is ring-fencing its locust defence system with drones and crop-duster planes, while villages have their own warning system—loudspeakers. “Tiddi aa rahi hai, apney khet bachao (locusts are coming, save your fields).”