Big risks, big gains

Published : Apr 01, 2015 12:30 IST

IN the dry landscape outside Aurangabad, farmers wait out the pulsating heat of the afternoon in the shade. Their faces tell their story: withered, exhausted. Yet they cling to hope—they continue to plant sugarcane in an area that nature never intended for it. Year after year, season after season, the story remains the same. This year is no different. The sugarcane industry continues to be in a Catch-22 situation. The elite who control the industry are opposed to change although continued cultivation is not in their long-term interest. The farmers, whom even some level of reform could benefit, are in no position to institute change. It is because of these two opposing points of view that the Marathwada region (comprising the districts of Jalna, Aurangabad, Beed, Osmanabad, Nanded, Latur, Hingoli and Parbhani) suffers the double burden of natural aridity and sugarcane-imposed water scarcity.

According to the Maharashtra government, full support should be extended to sugarcane cultivation and crushing. It believes that since sugar cooperatives are going through a rough financial patch they are unable to pay farmers the legally required fair and remunerative price. Ever ready to assist the sugar industry, the government waived the purchase tax on sugarcane for 2014-15. The proposal came straight from the office of Sudhir Mungantiwar, Minister of Finance and Planning. Justifying what many saw as a sop to the already pampered industry, the government said it was done in the interest of farmers because if the factories could not afford to buy the sugarcane then farmers would suffer losses. Given the desperate situation facing farmers, it is an argument that is difficult to dispute. Yet, those who oppose the sops reason that they could actually give new life to farming in the region.

Two facts are well known about sugarcane cultivation in Maharashtra: sugacane is a water-intensive crop cultivated in drought-prone regions, and it is a highly political crop. Farmers and agricultural economists have offered sustainable alternatives to put the region’s meagre water resources to better use.

Pulses, oilseeds and millets used to be the traditional crops of this region. Unlike sugarcane, these have a quicker turnaround harvesting cycle, offer higher nutrition and use far less water. Over the decades, several experts have advised the return to crops that had formed a natural evolutionary affinity to the region.

Regardless of the minus points, sugarcane cultivation flourishes. So entrenched is the crop that in Aurangabad district, for example, the graph of kharif sugarcane production has been soaring for more than a decade. In 1999, the production was 333,000 tonnes and in 2011 it was 19,59,500 tonnes. Sugarcane is grown on two lakh hectares in Marathwada and there are 61 sugar factories in the region. Last year, there was a 40 per cent deficit in rainfall. This agricultural year has been particularly bad with a failure of the kharif crop—the yields were less than 50 per cent in the 8,139 kharif villages of the region. An appraisal of 396 villages that sowed rabi showed similar depressing results. And yet, sugarcane reigns in the region.

According to Parineeta Dandekar of the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People, “to grow 2,30,530 hectares of sugarcane, Marathwada used 4,322.4 mcm [million cubic metres] or 4,322,400,000,000 litres of water. This is nearly double the live storage of the biggest dam in Marathwada: Jayakwadi [live storage 2,171 mcm]. This is assuming 187.5 lakh litres of water a hectare of sugarcane as per the Price Policy for Sugarcane Report of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, Ministry of Agriculture [CACP 2014-15]. In addition, crushing, which takes place at the height of the drought, will use 23.1 mcm of water.” Her research has also shown that the “total water used for growing sugarcane in Marathwada this year on 2,30,530 hectares has been 4,322.4 mcm. All of this sugarcane is irrigated either by canals or dam backwaters or wells in command or groundwater. Although area under sugarcane forms only 9.4 per cent of the gross cultivated area of the State, it appropriates 71.4 per cent of all irrigation water. (CACP, 2014-15).”

From a farmer’s point of view, sugarcane has big risks and big gains. Shankarao Bhalerao Gaikwad says “it is a gamble”. This 20-something farmer completed school and wanted to study agriculture but the family’s financial situation forced him to plunge into farming. He says the biggest pull of sugarcane is the assured purchase by the factories. The risk is the long period of wait from planting to harvest. Take the case of the current crop that is being crushed. It was planted after the 2013 monsoon and harvested after the 2014 rains. While the 2013 monsoon was good, the 2014 one was not, but the farmer had no choice—he was locked in to the crop. Even if he wished to rid himself of the crop, he would face a loss as clearing the field of the sugarcane stubble would bleed him financially. Drip irrigation is one way to get around sugarcane’s water-guzzling problem. The CACP’s 2015-16 report on sugar price policy said sugarcane cultivation in Maharashtra was less than 4 per cent of the total cropped area of the State but consumed 70 per cent of irrigation water. The report was pessimistic about the sustainability of sugarcane in the State. Maharashtra, inspired by Karnataka, announced in February that drip irrigation would be made mandatory for sugarcane cultivation.

Baban Ghogate, a farmer, said drip irrigation would reduce water wastage as “drip water percolates into the soil”. He was, however, sceptical about installation costs, saying they could go up to Rs.30,000 an acre and pointed out that drip irrigation was dependent on regular power supply as it was an everyday affair. Most farmers in the region have already opted for the furrow system for more efficient use of water instead of flooding the field with water.

Planting traditional region-specific crops is another solution to the problem thrown up by sugarcane cultivation. Parineeta Dandekar offers some convincing statistics in support of cultivating oilseeds and pulses. Oilseeds use just 1.3 per cent of the State’s irrigation water. They “occupy 15.2 per cent of gross cropped area, but only 4 per cent of this area is irrigated”. Groundnut used to be a staple crop of the region, suited as it was to the natural ecology, but its cultivation has dropped. “In 1960-61, 10.01 lakh hectares in Maharashtra was under groundnut cultivation, mostly in Solapur and Marathwada region. In 2011-12, it declined to 3.02 lakh hectares, a near 70 per cent decline (Economic Survey Report Maharashtra, 2012-13)”

Same is the case with pulses. Apart from their nutritional and agricultural benefits, pulses “claim only 3.4 per cent of irrigation water”. Despite this obvious advantage, especially in arid areas, pulses “occupy only 16.8 per cent of the gross cropped area in the State” of which “barely 9.4 per cent area… is irrigated”.

Agencies such as the CACP and the Kelkar Committee (High Level Committee on Balanced Regional Development Issues in Maharashtra, October 2013) have studied the viability of growing other food crops in the region. Parineeta Dandekar uses the example of pigeon pea to show why traditional food crops have more socio-economic-environmental validity in Marathwada than sugarcane. The Kelkar Committee says pigeon pea requires 10 lakh litres of irrigation water a hectare to reach its full potential of production at 1,500 kilogram a hectare. Parineta Dandekar says “irrigating one hectare of sugarcane is akin to irrigating 25 hectares of pigeon pea, or more of groundnut.” The advantages are obvious and a theoretical ramp-up estimates that giving priority to such crops will support over 20 lakh farmers in a more sustainable way (as opposed to the 1.15 lakh farmers who are growing sugarcane currently), reduce the import of pulses, and improve food security.

Sugarcane will continue to be a money spinner for the industry elite and an economic and ecological burden for the farmer unless agricultural practices change.

Lyla Bavadam

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