Sugarcane in Marathwada: A syrupy debate amidst lowest June-August rainfall in the century

Photographer Ashok Pawar cruised his motorbike right inside his dry field, even after recent showers in Marathwada

By Parineeta Dandekar*

After a heartbreaking gap, retreating monsoon is now blessing Marathwada with some showers. Small water harvesting structures and those built under the Jal Yukta Shivar Abhiyan, a flagship project of chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, are clocking an increase in water levels. 96.3% of average September rains in just the first 10 days of September is indeed a respite for a region that stands at the doorstep of an epic drought. What is lost in June-July-August in terms of crops failures, water scarcity, dismal dam storages etc., cannot be compensated by September rains, which are a fraction of total monsoon (June-July-August-September) rainfall.  But if the rains continue, they can help drinking water situation and possibly Rabi crops. It is heartening to see the farmers celebrating this downpour.

The 1972 drought changed water management in Maharashtra in the most fundamental ways. This is the kind of paradigm shift that is required now.

Last year in 2014, too, the JJAS (June, July, August, and September) rainfall for Marathwada was 46% below average. Districts like Beed, Latur and Parbhani received less than 50% rainfall last year and have received much less this year (JJA Rrins for Latur are 35% of normal). Even if these districts receive 100% September average rainfall, they will still need a detailed and well-thought of drought mitigation plan as soon as possible.

There are reasons why failed monsoon in Marathwada hits harder than most other parts of the state. Farming in nearly all of the region depends entirely on the moody monsoon. Dismal development of irrigation facilities has meant that of the 50.3 lakh hectares (ha) of culturable area, irrigation potential has been created for barely 10.5 lakh ha, i.e. 20.9% of the culturable area. But in the absence of canal distributary systems including minors, sub minors & field channels, all this potential remains only inside the dams, either to be evaporated, or to be used by a “select” few.

If we look at the official data about the area which actually receives irrigation (irrigation potential utilised), it is only 4.4 lakh ha, just 8.7% of the culturable (cultivable) area. And of this 4.4 lakh ha, half is taken up by sugarcane, which is 100% irrigated for all 12 months!

This means all of the irrigation development that has happened so far in Marathwada has actually irrigated barely about 2 lakh ha of the 50.3 lakh ha for crops other than sugarcane!

In this terrible drought, which has been in place since 2014, hugely water-intensive sugarcane stands on 2,37,014 ha of Marathwada which was mostly planted in October–Nov 2014. Shockingly, the current area under sugarcane is higher than last year, in 2013-14, which was 2,30,530 ha!

Growing and crushing water-guzzling sugarcane may not have seemed so objectionable in 2013-2014 as 2013 was a good monsoon year, though any sugarcane in Marathwada in any year is questionable considering the water situation in the region. But planting sugarcane in 2014 which was a drought year indicates multiple follies.

The current government is considering not undertaking crushing of sugarcane by sugar factories in areas which are suffering severe drought and also limiting the area under sugarcane planting (which will start in October-November 2015). Sugarcane crushing too is a very water intensive activity needing about 1000 ltrs water to crush and process one ton of cane. This has caused bitter conflict between political parties and sugar factories. The final decision is yet to be taken. Sugarcane crushing and processing is also classified at “Highly Polluting Industry” by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) for its water pollution potential. Let us look at a few relevant numbers in this context.

How much water did this cane, now on 2,37,014 ha, need? The June official figure of area under sugarcane in Marathwada was much higher than current 2,37,104 ha. It was 2,85,895 ha. But for reasons unknown, the Nanded division has reduced its estimates. This was told to me on September 4, 2015 by the Nanded Sugar Commissioner. While calculating the water that has been taken by this sugarcane, although we should consider the June figure as the cane had grown till then for the eight months, we are assuming the scaled down September figures, to be conservative in our assessment.

Most of the cane planted in September-October-November 2014 will be harvested in October-November-December-January 2015-16, at the height of water scarcity and will go for crushing. So in addition to crushing, it will need water until it is harvested for the next 2-3 months.

According to the Report of Commission on Agricultural Cost and Prices, each hectare sugarcane needs 187.5 lakh liters of water for its complete growth cycle. We have assumed these conservative figures, rather than Maharashtra’s Kelkar Committee report which assumes 250 lakh liters water/hectare for sugarcane cycle.  So, considering 187.5 lakh liters water for 2,37,014 ha, this sugarcane in Marathwada (which is still on the field) has locked up  4444 million cubic meters (MCM) of water between October 2014 and December 2015.

This is 86.4% of the design live Ssorage capacity (not actual water stored) of all the 11 large dams in Marathwada (design live storage capacity 5142 MCM), and more than double the design live storage capacity of the biggest dam in the region Jayakwadi (design live storage capacity 2171 MCM)! What makes the entire equation even more riveting is the fact that last year, by the end of 2014 monsoon, the dams were not full, they had water filled to just half of their live storage capacity.

This means that sugarcane has not only appropriated almost all dam waters, it has majorly over exploited used the groundwater. It is no wonder that groundwater levels in Marathwada are plummeting at a record rate and are at lowest of their 5 years averages, severely affecting drinking water security of a much larger region.

Crushing this sugarcane in October 2015–March 2016: Where is the water going to come from?

Sugar factories require massive volumes of water to crush sugarcane, at the most critical times (apart from releasing critically polluting by products). Most of this water can be derived from the sugarcane itself, but only a few factories have adopted best practices in this regard and their success stories are exceptions, not standards. The available data of water required to crush one ton cane is varying. According to the Rules of the Water Pollution and Control Act (1978), one ton cane requires 2000 liters water for crushing.

Some factories claim that their figure is as low as 200 liters, but they also agree that amount of water for crushing changes with agro-climatic conditions, efficiency of the factory and the best practices used. All agree that 200 liters per ton is not a rational figure. In addition, distilleries which are associated with most sugar factories in Maharashtra need additional water. For our calculations, we are assuming 1000 liters of water/ton cane for crushing and distillery use, which is a conservative figure.

This year’s sugarcane may have received less water and harsh weather. Some of it may even be burnt or will be diverted for cattle camps. All these issues mean that harvest will be hit. We are considering harvest of about 32 tons/acre. At this rate, there will be 189.6 lakh tons sugarcane for crushing. Crushing this cane will require 18.96 MCM water. 1896 crores liters of water in the stressed months of October-March.

sugarcaneTo reiterate, water saving and efficient factories in Marathwada are an exception and not a rule. The pollution of water bodies due to sugar factories is so immense that Gangakhed Sugar Factory of Parbhani, Marathwada was fined for Rs 50 lakh for polluting a lake and killing its fish.

Where will water for sugarcane crushing and further processing come from? Where are the water sources? If this is snatched from already depleting groundwater or dams which are at dead storage, will it be justified, sustainable or just? Will this not lead to conflicts in villages and the region and state in general? Who will be the losers in the game? And what about the majority of farmers who neither grow sugarcane, nor have any irrigation benefits? That is majority of Marathwada. What about this region?

Controlling the amount of water used by factories will be extremely difficult. The Water Resources Department has shown that it is incapable of either enforcing cropping pattern on the command or even irrigating the full command. They will have very little say. MWRRA (Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority), which is also supposed to be the Groundwater Authority for Maharashtra under the Groundwater Protection Act of 2009 has a huge responsibility. But it seems utterly unequipped. The MWRRA Act (2005) had a section about controlling flow irrigation to perennial crops like sugarcane, but that section has not been used yet, 10 years after promulgating the Act.

In conclusion, undertaking crushing in business as usual style is practically impossible for Marathwada this year. A plan for utilizing the cane of 2,37,000 hectares needs to be chalked out. Opposition should not think of this time as an opportunity to corner the ruling government. Only the farmers and residents of Marathwada will be losers in such a game.

While here we are thinking of the roughly 3-4 lakh sugarcane farmers and harvesters, we also need to think of a much, much larger number of farmers, women and children who have been left out of this discussion, who are also facing the acute scarcity of water!

Why do some farmers in Marathwada continue cultivating sugarcane, if it is such a water guzzler & when water is in such short supply?

Sugarcane cultivation in Marathwada is not simply a farmers’ folly. It is not a folly to cultivate a crop which gives you assured return. In times when agriculture is becoming a loss making proposition, blaming farmers for cultivating a crop that gives them some remuneration misses the mark.

It needs to be appreciated that in Marathwada, farmers seem to see very few options to sugarcane. All other crops like millets, pulses, cereals and oilseeds, even cotton and soybean are proving to be such loss making propositions that even small farmers who can appropriate some water, dig a little deeper or can sink one more borewell are opting for sugarcane. This is a failure of the state machinery in providing reliable irrigation, crop protection, weather forecasts, assured markets, transparent procurement systems, incentives or safety nets for Marathwada farmers to take up options to sugarcane. This chaos is exploited and milked by the politician-controlled sugar factories and the administration at large which cannot irrigate pulses and oilseeds or give them assured returns equal to or better than sugarcane.

While India spends a significant amount of foreign exchange in importing pulses and oilseeds, we are still unable to give assured, fair price and irrigation support to these very crops if a farmer from Marathwada cultivates them. Arun Deshpande, a progressive farmer and scientist from nearby Solapur, told me, “I have excellent millets on my field. I invite thieves to come and steal all of it. They will not be able to recover even the transport costs. That’s how unprofitable food crops have become.”

Ashok Pawar, a progressive farmer, writer and teacher from Omarga, Osmanabad who cultivates sugarcane as well as pulses like Moong, Udid and Toor tells me of the dismal market rates, crop destruction in the absence of irrigation, the chains in marketing where farmer loses money at each step and all other agents are immune from losses, except the farmer. When I tell him about a recent report which says that farmers are getting Rs 2,000-2,500/ton for sugarcane as fodder, he rubbishes those claims. “We get Rs 700-800/ton maximum as fodder. All these figures are Sarkari figures and like Sarkari Grass (Congress grass) and Sarkari Jhaad (Prosopis juliflora), these Sarkari Numbers are also useless”, he quips.

The problems he sees include government federations which procure pulses from farmers like him, but do not pay immediately but take as many as six months to make payments. “It is impossible for small farmers to wait for so long. We have immediate debts to pay. In case of sugarcane, we are given some money at least when we give cane to factories, it may not be full, but it is important. In the absence of prompt payment from government federations, we sell pulses to middle men and again are losers.”

But it needs to be understood why farmers are driven to opt for these means. “One of the main reasons is because the government procurement has failed and is a loss-making proposition” In addition, no irrigation facilities for pulses has meant that his production has been sharply hit. In place of 20 quintal per acre of toor, he has produced barely 5 quintals this year, which will not cover even the production costs. He firmly believes that dams have not done any good for the farmers in Marathwada as the water hardly reaches them.

Farmer Shrimant Bhange from Aurangabad tells me how his pulses dried up when the rains failed, in the absence of any irrigation, which went to sugarcane near his field.

All in all, Sugarcane in Marathwada is a symptom of a much deeper agrarian crisis in the state which has failed the farmer, if he chooses to opt for water saving crops.

However, the sugarcane impasse has to be addressed now, for the severe implications it poses on water security of a vast and vulnerable region. There is also the issue of not allowing planting of sugarcane for next year. For all its pitfalls, the current government has had the gumption to talk of limiting area under sugarcane or restrictions on crushing. The earlier NCP-Congress-led government was so embroiled in sugar factory nexus that it did not even respond to the then-Collector of Osmanabad Nagargoze, when he had written about stopping crushing in Osmanabad.

We and others have been highlighting water used by sugarcane and sugar factories since the 2012 drought and earlier. No systemic and concrete steps have been taken till date.  Even Fadnavis’ otherwise remarkable speech in the Maharashtra Assembly on July 21, 2015 talked of sugarcane only from the FRP angle, not even touching the issue of water!

Water supply options for Marathwada? Coming to the current situation, there are some short term measures which can be used to secure some water for Marathwada now. These include

  • Release water from dams like Bhandardara (current live storage 217 MCM, 71% Live Storage) into Jayakwadi Dam at least to secure drinking water of towns and villages around Aurangabad.
  • Stop west ward water diversions from Tata Dams. The 5 Tata Dams in Upper Bhima Basin have already diverted 227.1 MCM of water from deficit Upper Bhima Basin to water surplus Konkan region for hydropower generation, between July 1 and September 1, 2015. These dams now have about 653 MCM water at 58% live storage. Release from here will be tremendously helpful for drinking water needs of Solapur and surrounding Marathwada regions like Latur and Osmanabad.
  • Similar releases should be made from Bhama Askhed dam on Bhama River in Khed Taluk of Pune. This dam has 87% live storage and 189 MCM water and no canals! Rather than losing water to evaporation losses, it will be worthwhile if that water is released immediately for Ujani which is directly in the downstream.
  • Areas in upstream of Jayakwadi in Nagar and Nashik districts should not be irrigating sugarcane or other want intensive crops with dam waters as this will directly affect the yield at Jayakwadi. Strict restrictions on wine companies and beer distilleries need to be in place. They need to share the deficit too.

Sugarcane crushing

  • One possible option is to harvest the standing cane and use it for fodder, compensating the farmers with FRP. There are over 50 lakh cattle in Marathwada right now, most of them have turbulent times ahead.
  • Sending some part of cane to factories in regions with satisfactory rainfall like Kolhapur or parts of Sangli or Vidarbha
  • Sending the cane to Karnataka, if there are factories ready to crush it.
  • Increasing the crushing in factories which do not consume water for cane crushing like Babasaheb Ambedkar Sugar Factory in Osmanabad.

These are some of the short term measures to ameliorate the drought this year. Long term measures will need to be put in place soon.  One of the immediate steps needed is decision not to allow any sugarcane planting in Marathwada in current water year. Marathwada and Maharashtra cannot cope with one more debilitating drought worsened by man made reasons.

*, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP). Source: Slightly abridged.


One thought on “Sugarcane in Marathwada: A syrupy debate amidst lowest June-August rainfall in the century

  1. excellent article and thanks for that. But adding some more information would help giving an idea about how to transition from this stage to a desirable one.

    Questions from this article

    It is said that growing millets and pulses is not remunerative. How we define remunerative? What is the remuneration for the farmer from growing sugar cane in one hectare compared to growing tur or moong or bajra in the same one hectare?

    What is the chart for water consumption per hectare in growing sugar cane, tur, moon or a millet?

    Following from above how many hectares of alternatives can be cultivated with the amount of water used for sugar cane.

    Would pricing of water create parity between sugar cane and alternatives? If sugar cane cultivation and processing had to procure water at commercial rates accounting for social, humanitarian and environmental impact then would it still remain remunerative? What is the price of the humanitarian crisis as a result of such large amount of water being diverted for sugar cane?


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