British sprayers to help tackle India's worst locust invasion in decades

India is deploying revolutionary British-made spraying machinery as a weapon against the massive swarms of locusts decimating crops and risking famine in the north of the country.

In recent weeks the plague of locusts has swept through agricultural regions of the north - ravaging crops and darkening the skies in what is said to be the worst invasion of the pests in 30 years.

Some swarms can contain up to 80 million locusts covering an area of one square kilometre.

In one of the worst hit states, Rajasthan, farmers reported the impacted area to be double that size, with 50 per cent of its land under attack - leaving crops devastated.

The Micron Sprayers use spinning discs and rotator arms to break up the swarms. Credit: AP

Desperate farmers have resorted to standing in the fields beating drums and playing loud music at night to scare off the locusts.

Others have mounted big sprays on tractors to fire pesticides at the swarms, which can travel 80 miles a day and swoop mainly on open fields.

Now the Indian government is to buy in 60 specialised sprayers from Britain which will be stationed throughout the country and directed by special locust-control rooms manned by agricultural officials monitoring the movements of the locusts.

The Micron Sprayers, made in Herefordshire in the West of England, have pioneered Controlled Droplet Application (CDA) equipment that uses spinning discs and rotator arms to spray droplets, breaking them up evenly, to attack the swarms.

With the locusts this week reaching Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and now threatening the outskirts of the capital Delhi - the first 15 sprayers are being rushed to the country to be deployed next week.

India's Federal Agricultural Minister Narendra Singh Tomar told ITV News: "British made sprayers will be deployed in different parts of India depending on the extent of swarms' presence where locust control exercise is currently being done."

He added: "These specialised sprayers may be quite effective to control the locust invasion. We can step up our operations further by deploying additional sprayers from UK from next month."

In addition, the government is also arranging for drones to sprinkle pesticides on trees and inaccessible places conventional equipment can't reach to kill the insects. There are plans to deploy helicopters for aerial spraying, according to the farm ministry.

The worst locust attack in nearly three decades in India has already destroyed over 50,000 hectares of agricultural fields, endangering the food supply in India just as the authorities battle to contain the coronavirus. India is facing its worst food shortages since 1993.

India is still dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. Credit: AP

Ajay Vir Jakhar, chairman of Bharat Krishak Samaj, an Indian farmers' advocacy group says: "The problem is clearly going to continue for the next four months at least but there may not be a food security crisis, but there is likelihood of livelihood crisis on those farms which would be invaded by locusts."

The insects pose a serious threat to farmers, especially when India is gearing up for the sowing of kharif crops.

These are monsoon crops or autumn crops, including domesticated plants, like rice that are cultivated and harvested in India during the subcontinent's monsoon season, which lasts from June to November.

Desert locusts typically attack the western part of India and some parts of the state of Gujarat from June to November, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). However, they were spotted in India as early as March having spread into the northern plains from Pakistan this year.

Indians cool off in River Yamuna in New Delhi, India as the country grapples with scorching temperatures and the worst locust invasion in decades. Credit: AP

Experts fear that the locust swarms could swell by June if more action is not taken urgently to control their infestation and mitigate damage.

"We need to be alert and anticipate where this is going next. The situation is all the more alarming as it comes at a time when the affected states are already reeling under Covid-19 and the ongoing heatwave," says Anshu Sharma of Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society - a non-profit disaster management organisation.

However, it is not just agricultural farms that are affected, swarms of locusts even took over urban areas, and have covered trees and grass patches in golf courses.

Experts warn that an agrarian crisis and subsequent food inflation will severely impede India's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Some summer pulses, early-sown cotton, vegetables and fruit plantations run the risk of destruction from the winged invaders. The swarm originated in East Africa where it devastated crops in northern Kenya and Somali before travelling through southern Iran in to Pakistan.