Armyworm attack adds to COVID-19 woes of Assam farmers

Entomologists say the caterpillar feeds on more than 80 species of plants

April 08, 2020 03:34 pm | Updated April 09, 2020 12:20 am IST - Guwahati

Photo for representational purpose.

Photo for representational purpose.

A pest attack, albeit confined to a district, has added to the COVID-19-related woes of Assam’s farmers.

Officials of the Directorate of Agriculture said farmers in northeastern Dhemaji district reported armyworm attack on the standing crops.

“Fortunately, the summer paddy crop had been more or less harvested across the State when the lockdown started on March 25. The armyworm attack has been on patches where harvesting was not completed,” said Mowsam Hazarika, Deputy Director of Agriculture (Planning and Evaluation).

The armyworm caterpillar, the larval stage of several species of moths, has a voracious appetite. Entomologists say it feeds on more than 80 species of plants.

Agriculture officials said they were trying to find out if more districts, particularly Lakhimpur which adjoins Dhemaji, have been affected. They did not rule out the possibility of the pest attacking other crops as many farmers have been unable to harvest due to the lockdown despite the Centre’s notification to ease restrictions on the farm sector.

The weather has been a factor, too.

The pre-monsoon rains have eluded Assam so far. “The temperature is quite high now, and the armyworm can cause more damage if there is no rain,” Mr. Hazarika told The Hindu .

A major issue agriculture officials have been facing is reaching out to farmers. Fear of contracting the virus has made villagers block access roads and all other gaps, not letting outsiders — even buyers of their produce — to come in and residents to go out.

Lack of workers

This has led to landed farmers getting few or no farmhands at all.

“How can we be sure the buyers are not infected? So the Anti-Virus Committee we formed has decided to rather use the excess paddy and vegetables among ourselves rather than sell and risk being infected, which can cost us more than we could have earned by selling our produce,” said Padmeswar Deka of Kumarbori village in central Assam’s Morigaon district that recorded three of the first six COVID-19 positive cases reported in the State. While the disconnect is a cause for concern, officials fear the winter crop cycle could be affected if the lockdown continues beyond April 14.

April-May is the time when paddy farmers in Assam clear weeds and manure the fields for transplanting the seedlings of the winter crop from the nursery. The process takes 35-40 days.

Farm experts said the cycle, if pushed back by more than a month due to the lockdown, could impact yield as the sowing and maintenance phase would be perilously close to the time when Assam experiences floods.

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