Bitter truth

Published : Sep 08, 2006 00:00 IST

In western Maharashtra, the crisis in sugarcane has hit small and medium farmers the most.

LYLA BAVADAM in Kolhapur and Ahmednagar Districts

MANY cultures of the world tell the story of the greedy child who ate so much that he was eventually crushed by his own weight. This could well be the story of western Maharashtra.

Sugarcane cultivation in western Maharashtra is a good idea gone bad: A water intensive crop in an area of water scarcity, a farmers' cooperative that does not benefit farmers, an idea that was based on equity and now promotes inequity, an idea initiated by peasants who have grown to be sugar barons and are now intent on profiting from other peasants.

The highest concentration of sugarcane is in the rain shadow areas of the State and the sugar industry is spread over 108 drought-prone taluks in western Maharashtra.

"It is one of the ironies of sugarcane that the crop requires about 2,500 mm of water a hectare but it is grown on a vast scale in a region that has an average annual rainfall of 300 to 500 mm. Sugarcane requires five to ten times the water available. What else will we have if not a hydrological drought?" asks Professor H.M. Desarda, a former member of the State Planning Commission who is involved with water harvesting projects in the State.

However, pockets in the region have understood the socio-economic and environmental unsuitability of cane and have banned its cultivation. In fact, the `anti-sugarcane movement' is well entrenched in Ahmednagar, the birthplace of the sugar cooperative movement. Ralegan Siddhi and Hirwe Bazaar villages banned cane cultivation and opted to grow rain-fed traditional crops of the coarse grain variety.

The decision was initially difficult but local leaders such as Anna Hazare managed to convince the people. When the rest of western Maharashtra staggers under a drought, both the villages see it through with ease.

In Pune district, where the water table is dropping fast, villages that are part of the Pani Panchayat scheme are barred from planting sugarcane. The underlying idea of Pani Panchayat is that there should be equitable distribution of water in water-scarce areas. In a region where sugar barons persecute those who refuse to grow cane, this idea was truly revolutionary, and successful.

On the flip side is Kolhapur. Farmers here profited from growing sugarcane but are now apprehensive about its future. Members of almost all the water cooperative societies agree that the soil has lost its vitality because of extensive irrigation. To compensate for this farmers use more fertilizers and pesticides, which also means giving the crop more water. The worry is that the soil may soon become unsuitable for cultivation.

Statistics over the decades show that sugarcane cultivation has increased dramatically over the last 50 years. For farmers who have had access to water, sugarcane has been very profitable; the average yield a hectare is 80 tonnes. Since it is not labour-intensive, it does not generate great employment. Yet, the crop is replete with subsidies that cushion the intensive use of water, power and fertilizers for it. The profits from it go to only 2 per cent of landowners in the State.

Of the approximately 12 lakh cane-growers in the State, about five lakh (45 per cent) have holdings of less than half an acre each under sugarcane, about six lakh (50 per cent) have holdings of 0.5 to 2.5 acres (1 acre is 0.4 hectares) each, and about 60,000 growers (5 per cent) own more than 2.5 acres, including sugar barons who own hundreds of acres. Thus, 95 per cent of the cultivators are small and medium farmers. They contribute hugely to the sugar industry but receive minimal returns. In fact, their incomes have been falling steadily as cane yields have dropped from 40 to 25 tonnes a hectare.

The crisis has affected sugar factories too. Only 165 of the 212 registered factories are functional. Mismanagement of the system has led to the present situation where, it is believed, the accumulated losses of sugar factories is close to Rs.2,000 crores. As many as 120 factories have opted to take the Centre's bailout package of Rs.1,850 crores. The exalted position of sugarcane as a major cash crop is now shaky, but the sugarcane industry is unlikely to go under because it funds western Maharashtra's politicians.

The crop's importance is seen in the preferential treatment it received last year compared with the onion farmers of Nashik. Last season when onion prices fell to 10 paise a quintal, farmers incurred losses of Rs.500 a quintal. Union Minister for Agriculture Sharad Pawar responded by offering a so-called relief package of Rs.3 crores. Even without comparing it to the Rs.1,850 crores given to the sugar industry, the onion farmers' package amounts to providing relief at the rate of 50 paise a kilo.

Alternatives to improve the farmers' lot are largely ignored. Intercropping, for instance, would help farmers sustain themselves and encourage soil regeneration, but the idea is taboo in western Maharashtra where the demands of sugar factories are paramount.

K.R. Datye, a civil engineer with vast experience in the irrigation sector, founded the Society for People's Participation in Ecosystem Management. He encapsulates the problem and the solution: "There is a good prospect of overcoming the agrarian crisis if there is diversification and dispersal of irrigation. If irrigation covers a larger area, then farmers would be willing to grow more food grains and pulses. This would be good for farmers and good for the ecology. There will be problems of transition and this is where the state should step in and help minimise risks for farmers. Unfortunately the biggest hurdle is the state itself. If it implements this then it will lose control."

Citing the example of "innovative farmers" in western Maharashtra, Datye says they diversified to other crops. Noora Sheikh, who cultivates about five acres near Kolhapur, used to grow only sugarcane, but decided to try soya when he heard of the profits from it. "Sugarcane became uneconomical for me and everyone says it is not the crop of the future," he says. Like many others, Sheikh is apprehensive of ditching cane cultivation altogether. He has approached diversification by increasing the space between cane rows to 12 feet and planting pulses there.

Though the idea produced results, it was not without problems. The process called for additional labour and this meant additional costs for farmers, which was difficult to meet because of the credit squeeze. The rumour that Sheikh heard about the future of sugarcane may come true. Horticulture and related activities might be the future; over Rs.200,000 crores are expected in investment from private and public funders.

While this may give the soil a breather, there are no plans about how farmers will be integrated into the new system, which will undoubtedly involve corporate farming. What the dominant crop of the future will be is unclear. It is perhaps unimportant. Western Maharashtra is a cash cow, especially for the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), and prosperity will be assured to the agricultural elite. The small and medium farmers and agricultural labourers will continue to bear the brunt of resource-destructive policies.

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