Though the state is reeling under a severe drought, Maharashtra’s sugarcane fields and factories continue to use water in excess, aggravating an already acute crisis. Experts blame the inequitable distribution of water on failed government policies and political pressure. Marathwada is home to 61 of the state’s 202 sugarcane factories but produces just 20% of its sugar. Despite the water shortage, most of these factories remain in operation.
“Though as many as nine laws, including Maharashtra Irrigation Act, 1976, have provisions to regulate the water supply and take action against misusers, the state has failed to act in time. As much as 70% of the water from the command area of Manjara dam, which supplies water to Latur district, is used in sugarcane fields and factories, when it should actually be only 3%. The government should have acted when it realised water stocks were depleting in October-November last year,” said Pradeep Purandare, retired associate professor, Water and Land Management Institute, and a whistleblower in irrigation scams.
An officer from the state’s relief and rehabilitation department said district administrations in Marathwada should have restricted the use of water by sugarcane factories soon after the last monsoon, when it was clear that the region had received 24% less than average rainfall. “Most of the five factories are controlled by politicians, and the administration doesn’t dare act against them,” said the officer, who did not wish to be named.
But Sanjeev Babar, managing director of the Maharashtra Rajya Sahakari Sakhar Karkhana Sangh, said it was wrong to blame sugarcane growers and factories alone. “If a famer decides to switch to another crop, is there an alternative that can guarantee him money like sugarcane does? Sugarcane gives farmers an assured income of Rs 65,000 an acre. It is cursed for guzzling water but one should understand that it is a perennial crop, so on average it consumes as much water per day as crops such jowar, cotton or tumeric, which are grown over 180 days.”
Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis had said in the state legislature two days ago that though there are a disproportionate number of sugar factories in Marathwada, farmers will need an alternative crop before the amount of land under sugarcane cultivation can be reduced.