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Santiniketan itches for Mexico munch

- South American beetles that eat up parthenium to be let loose in Birbhum

Santiniketan, Oct. 5: If the irrepressible firefly had prompted Tagore to wonder what made it so happy, another winged insect will be allowed to spread its wings to rid his land of a prickly “guest”.

The help has come from faraway Mexico, a country that had promised financial support to Tagore’s Santiniketan.

The Birbhum administration and Visva-Bharati’s agriculture department will launch a drive to rid the district of the parthenium using an insect that feeds on the shrub known to trigger asthma and itching.

The varsity’s agriculture wing will supply larvae of the Mexican beetle to each block in the district under a project that will be funded by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research. The council provides Rs 34 lakh annually to Visva-Bharati’s agriculture department for weed control.

Officials said the department had started breeding the insect. They said the drive to weed out the parthenium would begin after Puja. A varsity official said the larvae were first procured from Mexico by the Centre in the 1980s.

“The Indian government had brought Mexican beetles to eradicate the parthenium from some parts of the country, including Bengal, in the eighties,” the official said.

“A part of the consignment was sent to the centre for weed control in Santiniketan. The insects initially found it difficult to survive in the weather but they got acclimatised following prolonged experiments.”

Buddhadeb Duary, the principal investigator at the centre and associate professor of agriculture at Visva-Bharati, said: “In our laboratory, we found that the Mexican beetle eats shrubs. Then we tested it on parthenium bushes in and around Santiniketan. We saw the beetles eating up the parthenium leaves fast.”

He added: “We will now provide the insects and their larvae to each block in Birbhum. The insects will be released on the parthenium plants. This will help control the spread of the shrub. A map of parthenium-affected areas has been drawn up.”

The parthenium is known to cause skin problems and trigger asthma. Dr Hiranmoy Ghosh, a local general physician, said: “It is difficult to say if the patients I am treating are suffering from asthma because of the parthenium bushes. But most of them have told me there are parthenium plants near their homes.”

A survey by the varsity has found that Santiniketan, Sriniketan and Goalpara are covered by parthenium bushes.

Officials said the drive would be launched in other parts of Bengal if it was successful in Birbhum. “We welcome the initiative,” said Pradip Mondal, deputy director of agriculture in Birbhum.

Earlier studies too had demonstrated that the beetle eats up parthenium. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s directorate of weed science research has described the use of the Mexican beetle in Madhya Pradesh as a “success story”.

“The attack of the beetle was so severe that the parthenium was defoliated over a huge area,” the directorate said in a report.