Last year, Sudhakar Borwankar’s two-acre sugarcane field in Bhada village of Ausa taluka in Latur, failed him after all his six borewells dried up, yielding him one third of the normal output of cane at around 10 tonnes off one acre.
This is, however, not going to deter him from opting for sugarcane next year as long as he can somehow manage the one year water intensive cycle for this crop — 15 million litres for one hectare — even at the cost of digging a new borewell. “Sugarcane fetches an assured price from factories and output is guaranteed, even if it requires more water. It’s the only crop that gives farmers some additional cash in hand, “ said Borwankar.
Even as Marathwada faced it’s third consecutive drought last year, farmers like Borwankar hedged their bets on this water-intensive crop and cultivated it on 2.2 lakh hectares. Just as taps dried up in Latur, in February, 46 sugar factories in this drought-hit region, a majority of them controlled by politicians, crushed 1.2 lakh metric tonnes of sugar cane.
In a good year, when the rainfall is more than 50% , Marathwada has 61 functioning sugar factories. In 2013-14 and 2014-15, both drought years, the land under this cash crop was around 2.3 lakh hectares and 2.37 lakh hectares, respectively, just 10,000 hectares less than in a normal year. This is just a fraction of the total cultivable area in Marathwada, around 50 lakh hectares, but the crop takes up half of the total irrigated area at 4.45 lakh hectares.
In the command area of the Jayakwadi dam, the region’s biggest irrigation project, sugarcane designed to be cultivated over just 5,500 hectares or 3% of the command area can take up nearly 25% of this area in a good monsoon year and averages at 7.84% of the command area (from 1983 to 2006). This cultivation is at the cost of cotton and wheat, originally designed to get share of 25% of the irrigated area, but have been relegated to an average of 2.17% and 5.84% of the irrigated land in the same period.
There can be a split in opinion over efficacy of sugarcane as a crop and how much water sugar factories use to crush cane, but there is little doubt that this cash crop has pocketed most of the irrigated waters in the region.
Experts say that Marathwada’s sugar story is a testimony to the lack of foresight and leadership of its political class. “In 1999, a water commission led by expert Madhav Chitale recommended that sugarcane be moved out of Marathwada and further permissions for factories be stopped. Not only did the government sit on this recommendation, it went ahead to clear several factories in the region, “ said Pradeep Purandare, retired professor at Water and Land Management Institute (WALMI), Aurangabad. Among those who control co-operative sugar mills or own private factories in the region include kin of former chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and senior BJP leader Gopinath Munde, state Congress president Ashok Chavan, state BJP president Raosaheb Danve, BJP leader Subhash Deshmukh, senior NCP leaders among others.
“The sugarcane story in Marathwada is around a decade old and started with the proliferation of sugar mills with political leaders adopting the tried and tested Western Maharashtra model. I don’t see it as being responsible for drought as sugarcane is a minor crop here. The end result is what we see today where all wells have dried up, “ said Sanjeev Unhale of the Dilasa Janvikas Pratishthan.