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Dry Marathwada favours water-guzzling sugarcane

As the drought intensifies over the 2019 summer months and tankers pile up in Marathwada, an old debate will yet again get replayed in the state. Does sugarcane, a crop not compatible in a rain-deficit area like Marathwada aggravate drought?

mumbai Updated: Nov 06, 2018 16:16 IST
Ketaki Ghoge
Ketaki Ghoge
Hindustan Times
Marathwada,Beed,Aurangabad city
On the whole, Marathwada region — made up of eight districts including Beed — has 3.41 lakh hectares of sugarcane under cultivation this year.(Anshuman Poyrekar/HT PHOTO)

Amol Tipale, a farmer from Hirapur village in Beed district of Marathwada, 113 km from Aurangabad city, placed his hopes on sugarcane this year. Encouraged by the more than average rainfall last year, he sowed two acres of the crop this January.

But, a 50% deficit in rainfall meant that by October, Tipale was left with yellowed cane and dried-up water sources, including his well. With no water now to complete the crop’s 14- month cycle, instead of the average 68-70 tonnes on two acres, Tipale said he will end up with only 20 tonnes, only if he is lucky.

On an average, sugarcane in Maharashtra requires 2,063-2,468mm of rainfall on one hectare to complete the crop’s 12-to-18 month cycle, according to a 2018 study for the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development by Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. The average rainfall in Beed is only 666.36mm.

Despite the mismatch, thousands of farmers like Tipale sowed sugarcane on approximately 49,690 hectares in arid Beed district in 2018.

On the whole, Marathwada region — made up of eight districts including Beed — has 3.41 lakh hectares of sugarcane under cultivation this year, nearly 1.27 lakh hectares more than last year. The average annual rainfall in Marathwada is around 880 mm; this year the region faced a 50% deficit in rainfall.

More than half of this region — 47 of 76 tehsils — is now facing drought so severe that ensuring drinking water for the next eighth months will be a challenge for the administration.

The groundwater table in the region has also depleted in the range of 1 to 3m such that even 300-feet deep wells are not striking water. This is the third-such drought in the region in the past five years.

As the drought intensifies over the 2019 summer months and tankers pile up in Marathwada, an old debate will yet again get replayed in the state. Does sugarcane, a crop not compatible in a rain-deficit area like Marathwada aggravate drought?

Why do farmers stand by sugarcane?

“Sugarcane does require four times more water than any other crop, but it also gives us an assured price unlike any other crop. After planting cane, I can reap dividends for another three years and input costs do not increase every year like for say cotton,’’ said Tipale, also the sarpanch of Hirapur. He pointed out even the 20 tonnes of cane planted on his two acres in a drought year would fetch him more money than the damaged cotton planted on his four acres.

“I understand that cane is not compatible with our region. But, with every year agriculture is more unviable, why should a Marathwada farmer be blamed for trying to protect himself by cultivating cane if water is accessible to him,’’ Tipale questioned.

Hirapur is likely to run out of water within a month, with only one well now supplying water to the entire village. The Sindhphana river close-by has already dried up.

The reason cane fetched an assured price goes back to Maharashtra’s sugar co-operation movement patronised by the state’s politicians that has spawned more than 194 sugar factories (largely owned by politicians) in the state today. The factories provide a ready market to cane growers. Of the total 194 factories that have applied for crushing licenses this year, 50 are from Marathwada.

It is calculations like these that pushed Balasaheb Chavan, a farmer from scarcity-prone Gangapur taluka of Aurangabad district to invest ₹4 lakh in a farm pond to cultivate sugarcane.

When HT visited Chavan’s Wadali village in October, it was already dependent on tankers for drinking water. Several relatively well-to-do farmers like Chavan had invested in farm ponds in their arid fields to offer protective irrigation to crops where nature afforded none.

Chavan’s farm pond that was energised by a well had sunk to its last two feet, with pumping out water for irrigation no longer a possibility. The well had run out of water like another six borewells he had dug on his farm.

“I planted cane on five acres because last year we had good rains. My farm pond was still half full. If we had even got average rains as predicted by our experts, I would have got a yield of 120 tonnes that would have fetched me Rs2.5 lakh,’’ said Chavan. He added, “It would have been enough to survive until next sowing, even if my other crops failed.’’

District-level officials who have now seen and tackled drought in their jurisdiction are wary of the growing sugarcane cultivation. “Beyond climate change, I think rabid sugarcane cultivation in Marathwada is one of the reasons for drought,’’ said a senior district collectorate official from Beed.

He pointed out that in 2014-15, when the state saw back-to-back droughts, the average rainfall in Beed was just 700 mm. “For the past two years (2017-2018), we have had an average rainfall of 1,038mm. Despite this, we are facing a drought-like situation because our groundwater table is plundered and depleted by more than 2m owing to unsustainable cane cultivation” he said.

Not all officials agree. “The rise in cultivation this year is because of the increase from areas like Marathwada and not from a traditional cane bowl like Western Maharashtra. But that is because farmers saw an opportunity because of rains last year,” said Sambhaji Kadu Patil, state’s sugar commissioner.

Old debate, but no new answers

Way back in 1999, water expert and former chairperson of Central Water Commission, Madhav Chitale, in the state’s Water and Irrigation Commission report had recommended that sugarcane should be banned in rain-deficit areas (below 700 mm). The state has sat on this recommendation that has been repeated by several water experts.

Meanwhile, even as the debate continued intermittently as the state faced cyclical droughts, the politicians kept on bolstering sugar infrastructure to make cane cultivation conducive. The state is the second-largest producer of sugar in the state.

“The reason farmers prefer cane is because they get an assured price. The state has failed to provide similar protection to other crucial and less water dependent crops like pulses and oilseeds even as it continued to give licences to more factories, distilleries in rain-deficit areas,” said Pradeep Purandare, water expert and a former professor with Water and Land Management Institute.

“If the cost of the sugarcane industry is desertification of certain parts of the state such as Marathwada, then we need to question where we are heading,” he added.

Another environmentalist and journalist from Latur, Atul Deulgaokar, also blamed the state for the current scenario.

“The government has no holistic design for water management, usage or cropping in the state in the time of climate change. Sugarcane cultivation in a deficit area is only one aspect of a larger problem.’’ He said there was no point in apportioning blame to farmers or a specific crop for the scarcity.

While the state government has cleared a policy to make drip irrigation mandatory for sugarcane cultivation to save water, the push for it will start only post 2019.

“How can we tell farmers not to take up a particular crop especially when it is remunerative? Why should we ban a crop? Last year, the rains were good and lot of water-holding structures in Marathwada were full, so farmers increased area under cane” said Pankaja Munde, rural development minister, who controls one sugar co-operative factory. Her family owns two other sugar factories. She said the only solution to save water was to make drip irrigation mandatory and the government had already taken a step towards that. “But, even for drip, we need some water for starters. If rains fail, then all calculations go for a toss,” she added.

“Our incomplete irrigation systems, absence of water management are the main reasons for scarcity and not cane cultivation. I do agree drip irrigation must be made mandatory for all water intensive crops, but the state needs to bring in this reform aggressively. The state has promised 80% subsidy for drip, but so far it is only on paper,” said Amit Deshmukh, Congress legislator and son of former chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, who runs at least two sugar co-operatives in Latur.

First Published: Nov 05, 2018 01:17 IST