Sugarcane sucks Maharashtra's lifeline

Agriculturalists, water experts and state government�s task force blame sugarcane cultivation for agrarian distress in Marathwada

Sugarcane sucks Maharashtra

The much-awaited report of the Farm Distress Management Task Force has been submitted to the Maharashtra government. This task force, headed by Kishor Tiwari, a prominent farm activist and the president of Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, was appointed by the state government to reduce agrarian distress and arrest the growing number of farmer suicides in 14 districts of Marathwada and Vidarbha.

In its report, submitted on April 25, Tiwari has recommended banning of sugarcane and Bt cotton in Marathwada and Vidarbha, and replacing them with traditional food crops that include the pulses, oil seeds, jowar (sorgum) and maize. The report also stresses on the need for various incentives for food crops and minimum support price protection by the government.

This isn’t the first time that a state government-backed body has lashed out at sugarcane cultivation in semi-arid zone of Marathwada.

Way back in 1999, the Maharashtra Water and Irrigation Commission’s report had recommended no sugarcane cultivation in drought-prone areas of Marathwada. It had suggested relocation of sugar factories from water-scarce regions of the state to the water-rich regions, informs Pradeep Purandare, ex-associate professor at Water and Land Management Institute.


The same year, in 1999, Godbole committee that was constituted to investigate sick sugar cooperatives, had made similar recommendations to control sugarcane-induced water scarcity problems. “... none of the successive state governments made any effective effort to implement their recommendations,” reads a 2013 paper, ‘Diagnosing Maharashtra’s Water Crisis’, published in Economic & Political Weekly.

In sharp contrast to the expert recommendations, the state government has been promoting sugar mills in Marathwada. Of the total 205 sugar factories in Maharashtra, 70 are located in Marathwada. In 2012, when the drought was building up, the state government sanctioned 20 new private sugar factories in Marathwada.

It is estimated that sugarcane crop accounts for barely 3.5 per cent of the total cropped area in Maharashtra, but consumes close to 60 per cent of irrigation water in the state.

It is only now, when the state is facing an unprecedented drought, that the state chief minister has declared a five-year ban on new sugar mills in Marathwada.

Sugarcane vs traditional food crops

Marathwada is semi-arid and receives an annual (average) rainfall of 882 mm. Traditionally, its farmers used to grow crops like jowar, chana and sunflower for the rabi crop, and urad, moong and kardi (safflower) for the kharif crop. All these crops require little water and are suitable for less-rainfall regions. Jowar, for example, requires 250-450mm of rainfall, while bajra (pearl millet) needs 200-350mm, rice 1,200mm and wheat 450mm.

“Before 1970s, farmers in Marathwada used to practice sustainable farming and intercropping in both kharif and rabi seasons,” says Sandipan Badgire, a farmer from Sonwati village in Latur taluka of Latur district. Badgire, who has been practising organic farming since 1993, explains: “If a farmer had 10 acre land, he would use only five acre land for kharif crop and leave the rest vacant for rabi crop. For kharif, he would sow 10 lines of groundnut crop followed by two lines of jowar. For rabi season, it was six lines of rabi jowar and two lines of kardi and chana mixed.”

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Traditional crops also met the nutritional needs of the farmer’s family. “Earlier farmers never used to buy any food stuff from the market. Everything was grown on their fields. But with the introduction of cash crops like sugarcane, nutrition of farmers’ families has also been affected,” says Anil Paulkar, bureau chief, Dainik Divya Marathi, Latur.

The benefits of growing traditional crops in Marathwada extend beyond saving water: jowar was consumed in the form of jowar roti, while the waste from jowar crop (as for maize) made excellent cattle fodder.


In sharp contrast to the traditional food crops, sugarcane is a perennial cash-crop that consumes large quantities of water. Once sown, the same plantation gives crop three times. The first crop is ready in 15-16 months. It cannot meet nutritional needs of the farmers, but fetches them good money.

“Sugarcane is easy to manage and has lowest risk from natural calamity, such as untimely rains or hailstorm. It is not affected by pests or diseases. There are processing units [sugar factories] in the vicinity and farmers earn Rs 2,200 per tonne of sugarcane” informs Mohan Bhise, agriculture officer, Latur. “Sugarcane has brought revolution in Marathwada, but at the cost of its water security,” he adds.

According to Uday Deolankar, agriculture officer, Aurangabad, the crop of moong needs 35 lakh litres per hectare of water, toor needs 55 lakh litres per hectare, maize 65 lakh litres per hectare, cotton at 70 lakh litres per hectare and vegetables requires 60 to 70 lakh litres per hectare of water. “Contrast this with sugarcane that needs 2.5 crore litres of water per hectare,” he informs.

In terms of rainfall, sugarcane needs 2,000-2,500mm average annual rainfall. But, Marathwada’s average annual rainfall is 882mm. This basic fact hasn’t stopped sugarcane area from expanding in the semi-arid zone.

Sugarcane shows no signs of drought

Analysis of crop statistics by Department of Agriculture, Government of Maharashtra shows that in spite of drought conditions for the last five years, sugarcane cultivation is on the rise in both Maharashtra and Marathwada (see graph 1 and 2). Prevailing drought-conditions have reduced sugarcane area in Marathwada from 2.19 lakh hectare in 2014-15 to 1.9 lakh hectare in 2015-16, but this is still higher than 1.02 lakh hectare area under sugarcane cultivation in Marathwada in 2005-06.


Latur, epicentre of Maharashtra’s drought where water is being transported through water trains, too, has registered an increase in sugarcane cultivation (see graph 3). Traditional food crops, such as kharif jowar have registered a decline between 2009-10 and 2014-15 (see graph 4). As per Purandare’s calculation, water consumed by one hectare of sugarcane can irrigate 8.25 hectare of rabi jowar.

“Sugarcane cultivation is one of the reasons for present water scarcity in Latur. About 45,000-50,000 hectare area is under sugarcane crop in the district,” admits Pandurang Pole, district collector of Latur. “On paper, we have built 1.18 lakh hectare of irrigation capacity. But in reality, barely 50-60 percent is active irrigation. Of the total water available for irrigation, almost 90 per cent is used for sugarcane cultivation,” he adds. Latur has 13 sugar factories. Some two or three mills are non-functional, but, even this drought year, seven to eight sugar factories crushed sugarcane till February.

Interestingly, the sugarcane crop data of Godavari Marathwada Irrigation Development Corporation (GMIDC) does match with the data of Department of Agriculture. For instance, agriculture department’s data shows 2.19 lakh hectare area under sugarcane cultivation in Latur district in 2014-15. The corresponding figure of Godavari Marathwada Irrigation Development Corporation is 1.99 lakh hectare, or 3.3 per cent of the total cultivable area of the district. The figure of 3.3 per cent has remained constant for the preceding years of 2013-14 and 2012-13.

Purandare throws light on this data difference. “Officially, Manjara dam provides irrigation water to only three per cent sugarcane area in Latur district. But, the actual area under sugarcane cultivation is much higher.”

Graph 1: Sugarcane area in Maharashtra (2009-10 to 2014-15)


Graph 2: Sugarcane area in Marathwada (2009-10 to 2014-15)


Graph 3: Sugarcane area in Latur (2009-10 to 2014-15)


Graph 4: Kharif jowar area in Latur (2009-10 to 2014-15)


Water mismanagement

“It is criminal that during a drought year, sugar factories in Marathwada have crushed sugarcane. Why did the state government not reserve water for drinking purposes?” questions H M Desarda, visiting professor at Gokhale Institute of Politics & Economics, and former member of the Maharashtra State Planning Commission.

According to Purandare, the state has enough powers under the Maharashtra Irrigation Act, 1976 to restrict water-intensive sugarcane crop during scarcity years. “As per section 47 of the 1976 Act, if there is water shortage, the state government can issue a notification restricting water supply to sugarcane and encouraging farmers to grow less water intensive crops,” he says. Similarly, section 48 of the Act allows government to regulate crops in the command area, which are dependent on the open wells and borewells. In extreme situation, under section 49, the government can also stop electricity supply to the sugar factories.

“It is true that Marathwada has received below normal rainfall for three consecutive years. But, the state government is equally responsible for mismanaging the available water stocks,” complains Purandare.

“Sugar factories are flourishing in dry Marathwada because most of these are owned by politicians who see these mills as their political prowess,” says Vijay Diwan, president of Aurangabad-based Nisarga Mitra Mandal and former member of the Marathwada Development Board.

Bhise claims that Marathwada farmers understand the problems with sugarcane cultivation and lack of water availability. But they cannot be expected to grow traditional crops of jowar, pulses and oil seeds till they are assured an attractive fair and remunerative price (FRP). The present rate does not even cover the cost of cultivation of these crops.