Collaborative action for controlling Red Hairy Caterpillar attack in Chittoor, A.P

Jayesh Ranjan


Introduction: Chittoor district and its agriculture profile


Chittoor is one of the 4 districts in the south of Andhra Pradesh which together comprise the Rayalaseema region. The region falls in the rain-shadow area and is perpetually drought prone. Rainfed agriculture is the main source of livelihood for the predominant rural population of the district. There are 480 thousand cultivators in the district of which the small and marginal farmers are 393 thousands. Besides, there are 490 thousands  agricultural labourers whose livelihood is also dependent upon the fluctuating agriculture scenario of the district. The average rainfall of the district is 908.1 mm.

Groundnut is the main commercial oilseed crop grown in both Kharif and Rabi seasons in the district. 256 thousand hectares out of 350 thousand hectares of cropped area in Kharif and 32 thousands hectares out of  100 thousand hectares in Rabi season is the coverage of Groundnut.

(’000 Hects.) (’000 Hects.) (’000 Hects.)
Series-1 Series-2 Series-3
RABI 100 32 68

Rainfed Groundnut with Red gram as a mixed crop is the usual cropping practice in the district. The yields are dependent totally on the success or failure of the monsoon. Irrigated Rabi Groundnut and summer Groundnut are practiced in some parts of the district, though in very limited areas. It will not be an exaggeration to state that Groundnut is the lifeline of the people in this district.

Incidence of pests and diseases have been common to the Groundnut crop in the district. Over the years, farmers too have gained sufficient understanding of these pests and diseases, and are able to take timely and appropriate action to minimise the losses. Some of these pests and diseases are Root Grub, Leaf Folder, Leaf Spot, Rust, Collar Rot, Bud Necrosis and Kalahasti Melody. The cultivators, through a mix of traditional practises and pesticides usage, have been able to prevent the severity of these infestations.

Occurrence of red hairy caterpillar

Among the pests and diseases, a new pest ___ the Red Hairy Caterpillar (RHC)____ emerged for the first time in recent history in the district  in the light sandy soils areas  of western parts of  the district 4 years ago. RHC (Amsecta albistriga) is a lepidopterist insect which is polyphagous in nature.  It  feeds up on the leaves, buds, and flowers of many plants. In case of severe infestation millions of these caterpillars occur  in definite broods and march from field to field leaving a trail of destruction behind. Heavy infestation generally occur between July to  September.   The full grown caterpillars seek shady and convenient spots, burrow down to a depth of 6” and pupate there. They remain in quiescent till the next summer rains by July; on receipt of rains, the moths begin to develop. The adults emerge actually on the 3rd day after the sharp shower and lay their creamy white eggs in small groups the same night anywhere on the nearest vegetation. Maximum laying capacity of individuals is up to 1300. Tiny dark coloured caterpillars hatch out in 3-4 days, scrape and feed gregariously on the green matter. They begin to disperse when they are about 10-13 days old and march in numbers in definite directions, devastating every kind of vegetation before them. They attain full growth in about a month when they turn reddish in colour.  They go down in the soil after the next shower and the life cycle is repeated next year. Though the pest occurs in the dry red soil tracts, the severity of its incidence appears to be controlled to a large extent by success or otherwise of periodical showers.

Initially, during 1996, the RHC occurred in stray patches in some pockets in about 1000 hectares in the district, and caused extensive damage wherever it was present. The pattern was repeated in 1997.  Alarmingly, in 1998,  the infestation was found  to be spread in an extent of 15,000 hectares  of which 755 hectares was severely affected. The Department of Agriculture (DoA) officials  positioned light traps in the affected villages for its control. However, due to high intensity of rainfall during 3rd week of August 1998, there was increase in the population of parasites and predators which reduced the pest population.  The incidence too occurred in early vegetative phase of the crop and as the insect had gone into hibernation, the loss to crop was negligible. But the efficacy of the control measure ____ usage of light traps ____ could not be tested satisfactorily due to early withdrawal of the pest.

The experience of kharif 1999

For the cropping season of Kharif 1999, the DoA decided not to take any chance with the pest, and to launch a massive attack on it. A collaborative, community based multi-pronged strategy emphasising primarily on non-pesticidal management has been the core of the DoA efforts. The strategy was made operational from May 1999 with the identification of animators from the villages affected in the past.  A specially designed pre-monsoon training were given to animators, and NGOs of those areas. Awareness was also created among farmers through literature, posters, wall paintings, press and AIR. Light traps and gas lights were distributed to farmers through the animators for installing in the fields. Despite these efforts, with the rainfall received in the last week of August, the pest outbreak occurred in many parts of the district to an extent of 1450 hectares in  124 villages.  82 DoA officials were drafted and formed into 82 teams for implementing the eradication campaign using chemical measures, as a last resort.  Baiting material ___ 3455 litres of Nuvan, 34 MT of jaggery and 140 MT of bran was positioned in all the 124 villages; baiting was taken up in an extent of  7,372 hectares  and the pest was controlled to the maximum extent in the  fields.

Preparing for long term action

The experience of 1999 showed the possibilities of success in this endeavour through further intensified collaborative community action. Basing on the learning of the earlier years, some major departures were made in the strategy adopted for the 2000 season.

  • Expected areas of incidence were minutely identified through joint transect walks.
  • Instead of 1 animator per village, 1 animator for every 80-100 hectare was identified.  This way, 284 animators are identified for the endemic areas.
  • Pre-seasonal training were conducted to animators at district level once and then in very small batches very intensively at their clusters.
  • The campaign was commenced in March itself.
  • To create awareness among farmers the following items were taken up.
  • Posters, leaflets, special booklets were printed and distributed to the farmers.
  • Pest lifecycle photographs were got enlarged, laminated and fitted in three vehicles and were sent to tour in the villages for propaganda.
  • Vehicles with AV equipment have been engaged for village meetings, in which specially prepared cassettes were used.
  • Messages on non-pesticidal management of RHC are conveyed in village meetings through the animators and  DoA officials,  emphasising the activities like importance of deep ploughing, organisation of bonfires between 7-11 pm, importance of trap crop and alternate crops, etc.
  • Local NGOs active in those areas have also co-ordinated with DoA in the training and awareness building campaign.
  • Seven Kalajatha troupes with 48 artists were also engaged to explain  about the RHC, its life cycle, mode of damage and the need for controlling the pest.
  • Wall Paintings showing the control measures in 5’ X 3’ size were also taken up in 923 villages, as a ready reckoner for the farmers.
  • 250 Qtls. of Cowpea seed was distributed to farmers on 75% subsidy as trap crop.
  • 172 Qtls. of Jowar,  97 Qtls. of Redgram and  65 Qtls. of castor seed is distributed to farmers on 50% subsidy as alternate crops.
  • 1300 Anantapur model light traps were also locally fabricated and distributed to the farmers.
  • 324 Gas lights of 200 watts (PKL Model) were also distributed to the farmers in the areas without reliable power supply.
  • 850 old lorry tyres were also distributed to be used for bonfires in the fields.
  • Research work has been entrusted to post graduate students of Entomology Department of local Agriculture College to study the habitat of the pest.

Because of all the above non-pesticidal management practices, the pest incidence was reduced completely where there is mass group action by the farmers.  It is proved that any pest incidence or calamity can be successfully managed with joint contribution of farmers and DoA.

** The author belongs to the AP cadre of the Indian Administrative Service, and has been working in Chittoor district for over 2 years.




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