NAGAON, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An infestation of jute hairy caterpillar in parts of India’s Assam state has ruined the crops of several thousand farmers, leaving many facing a bleak future.
According to local farmers, the caterpillars were first noticed on Aug. 13 in jute plantations in the northeastern districts of Nagaon and Barpeta. They quickly multiplied, and the pests went on to destroy large tracts of jute, a natural fibre used in cloth, as well as vegetables.
“It was the first time in our life that we saw so many caterpillars - they numbered in the several thousands and maybe in lakh (hundreds of thousands) as well,” said Nur Islam Fakir, a 45-year-old farmer from Juria in Nagaon district. “I myself have suffered losses of over 100,000 rupees ($1,615).”
Fakir had planted jute on 90 percent of his one hectare plot, and was growing vegetables on the rest, but now almost nothing remains, and he faces economic ruin.
“We were literally attacked,” said Aminul Ahmed, a 48-year-old farmer also from Juria. “Overnight thousands of these caterpillars swarmed into our village, and besides our crops, also destroyed our small home gardens and came into our houses, schools, mosques and temples.”
Ahmed said several families had fled in fear to nearby towns, and have yet to return.
Experts link the infestation with drier-than-usual conditions, and are concerned that erratic weather and longer-term climate change could usher in new pest problems for subsistence farmers, threatening their incomes and food supplies.
The local agriculture department said it had never encountered such an invasion before, adding that farmers have suffered massive losses amounting to more than several hundred thousand rupees.
“In the area in Nagaon district where the caterpillar infestation took place, almost 1,200 hectares of land is under jute cultivation, and of this, almost 100 hectares has been affected,” said DB Buragohain, a senior agriculture officer posted in Nagaon.
He blamed the appearance of the caterpillars largely on this year’s sparse rainfall in the state.
“Immediately after it rained, the infestation by these caterpillars almost disappeared, and the situation came under control,” said Buragohain.
“There has been scanty rainfall this year, and until August 12-13 when the infestation by these caterpillars began, the rainfall was very minimal, but interestingly it rained after August 17 and then these pests started disappearing,” he added.
Buragohain offered more evidence that a lack of water was the cause of the caterpillar epidemic.
“When some of the farmers who have land near the Brahmaputra River tried to wash some of the jute containing the caterpillars, most of them disappeared. This points to one thing: that scanty rainfall is the reason behind this pest infestation,” said Buragohain.
The situation in Barpeta district, which has suffered a similar caterpillar infestation, is no better. According to local officials, jute and vegetable crops were munched on more than 1,000 hectares of land, affecting several thousand farmers.
Senior agriculture officials and scientists have been asked to monitor the situation closely and to stay in touch with farmers as the situation improves, according to Siddharth Singh, deputy commissioner of Barpeta district.
Assam’s agriculture minister, Nilomoni Sen Deka, said his department had directed the Krishi Vikash Kendra (KVK), a government farm research organisation, to send a team to the affected areas.
Scientists fear shifting rainfall patterns could bring further climate-linked pest infestations.
“We have never come across such rainless periods during this time of the year, and if this trend continues in the future, then such attacks might occur again,” said Biswajit Guha, a senior agricultural scientist posted in Nagaon, who is part of the KVK team working on the problem.
Guha said low rainfall and warm temperatures in August had enabled the caterpillars to multiply rapidly.
“It is important to take immediate steps to destroy the eggs laid by these caterpillars, and also to provide farmers with the required pesticides and so on. Otherwise there could be similar attacks again by caterpillars when farmers cultivate their next crops,” Guha warned.
Assam’s agriculture minister said his department was awaiting further feedback from district agriculture officials and researchers before taking preventive action.
“Once we get the final report from the agriculture scientists we will be able to arrive at a conclusion, and the department will also be able to work out remedies to tackle such a situation in the future,” Deka said.
Amarjyoti Borah is a freelance writer based in northeast India.