Maharashtra drought: Keeping throats parched to water sugarcane fields

MUMBAI: Despite the fact that an experts panel had recommended in its report in 1999 that the setting up of more sugar factories in Marathwada should be disallowed, the state government gave permission for 20 private sugar factories in the region in 2012 — a drought year — and it is the excessive use of water for sugarcane that has added a crippling man-made element to the drought in the region at present.

While the government has now decided to disallow the setting up of further sugar factories in the Marathwada region, which has been worst hit by a successive drought year, the damage is already visible.
Sugarcane factories, in order to maximise gains from the cash crop, use an inordinate amount of water to increase production.

Pradeep Purandare, a water expert from Aurangabad who has served as a member on the Marathwada Statutory Development Board, told dna that the Chitale committee had recommended in 1999 that the government should not give permission to any new sugar factory in the Marathwada region. But not only did the government in 2012 give permission to the 20 private sugar factories, 15 more proposals are pending, according to information given by a local MLA, Purandare added.
He said that the time has come to ban sugarcane sowing in the region and the entire crisis at present is because of the unequal distribution of resources. He said that for the equitable distribution of water to be made possible, the use of water from the Godavari basis in Nashik and Ahmednagar should be extended to the Marathwada region and the government must ensure this as early as possible.

The state government has vowed to introduce the drip irrigation method for sugarcane farming. But despite it being during the tenure of former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan that an announcement was made about drip irrigation for sugarcane being introduced in the next three years, nothing much has happened. Shivajirao Nagawade, the chairman of the federation of the cooperative sugar factories in Maharashtra, told dna that only 10% of the sugarcane in the state, at the most, is being cultivated with drip irrigation.
After it was clear that the monsoon wasn’t as likely to be reliable as it was in earlier years, farmers from Solapur, Indapur in Pune district and Sangamner in Ahmednagar, for instance, have shifted to horticulture from sugarcane. Sajjan Deshmukh, who, along with his two brothers, has 110 acres of land in Barshi taluka of Solapur district, told dna that it’s only lazy farmers who shift to the water-intensive crop of sugarcane. He added that his family left sugarcane aside and went in for horticulture instead, since pomegranate fetches a good price in the market.
Deshmukh also said that there are various reasons for farmers to opt for sugarcane cultivation. For instance, sugarcane is a crop which, in addition to being a cash crop, can withstand the vagaries of nature and a few other obstacles. He said that ever since manpower to work in the fields has become difficult to attain, sugarcane — being less labour-intensive — is often opted for over other crops. Plus, farmers also opt for sugarcane, the cycle for which is of 18 months, since it can match the monetary benefits of other crops due to the advantage of a ready market in sugar factories, Deshmukh added.
Deshmukh also said that the water used by a farmer for growing sugarcane on one acre of land in his village is almost equivalent to the water used by a farmer to grow pomegranates on 5 to 7 acres. He also said that it is for the cooperative sugar factories to ensure that farmers use drip irrigation for sugarcane cultivation by offering incentives for the same.