A bitter harvest

Print edition : November 05, 2004

LIKE the proverbial snake that ate itself, mismanagement of the sugar industry is catching up in Western Maharashtra. From making people's fortunes and being the flagship of the cooperative movement, the sugar industry is becoming a white elephant. The problem is largely an outcome of negligence, continuing drought and neo-liberal policies.

A sugar factory in Western Maharashtra.-

The sugar industry is spread over 108 drought-prone taluks in Western Maharashtra. A persistent pattern of insufficient rainfall has been ignored and cane cultivation continues to be the mainstay of most farmers. "It is one of the ironies of sugar that the crop requires about 2,500 mm of water per hectare but it is grown on a vast scale in a region that has an average annual rainfall of 300 to 500 mm. Cane 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 Planning Commission who is involved with water harvesting projects in the State.

Drought, which was barely alleviated this year by a reasonable monsoon, has seriously hit the cooperative sugar factories. Sugar production has been affected severely by the simple economics of poor production (owing to low rainfall) and falling prices (owing to government decisions on the minimum support price). The area under cane has dropped drastically from 6,86,000 hecatres in 1999-2000 to 3,00,000 hectares at present. The consequent effects on sugar production have been as dramatic, with a decline from 62.21 lakh tonnes in 2002-2003 to 32.01 lakh tonnes in 2003-2004.

The terms `sugar culture' and `sugar baron' sum up the wealth, power, and arrogance that sugarcane has come to represent. Sugarcane is no longer a crop, it is a tool to dominate the lives of small and medium farmers. The growth of the sugar industry and the demands of sugar factories perpetuate a cycle of destructive agronomics that largely affect small and medium farmers and daily wage labourers.

Alternatives to reducing the pressures on the industry are ignored. Intercropping, for instance, would help farmers sustain themselves through the dry years and permit a regeneration of the soil, but the idea is taboo in Western Maharashtra where the demands of sugar factories are paramount. Perhaps the only long-term venture that can reverse the downward slide of the agronomics of the region is a stronger initiative by people to move away from cane cultivation.

In the present context, this is no more than a dream. A small farmer said he disliked planting sugarcane because of the extra labour it involved while harvesting. Asked why he did not shift to another crop, he pointed to the nearby river and said: "The only reason I am allowed to draw water from that river is because I grow cane for sahib's [the local MLA and sugar baron] factory. That is the way it is for all farmers here."

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