Can Marathwada ever be free from sugarcane & water woes?

Prajakta Joshi
Sunday, 2 June 2019

The eight districts in the region in Maharashtra are facing one of the worst water crisis 

The sugar factories in Marathwada are not selling sugar. They are selling water in Marathwada, the last remaining and severely depleting bits of it’, that go into the production of sugarcane and sugar.

The region has been hit by the perennial water crisis and a state of helplessness that keeps it away from all the development, a water-rich region could enjoy. And yet, while the views of almost all water and agricultural experts, researchers and activists echo the need of relieving the Marathwada farmers of the burden of sugarcane that they have been carrying inevitably, a discussion on all fronts and a policy-level change in cropping pattern refuses to follow.

Predicting a harsh desertification of Marathwada region, experts and activists have staunchly demanded a ‘water renaissance’ at the state’s policy level as well as in the public domain. In 2018, the Maharashtra government declared drought in 151 of the State’s 358 talukas. These comprised 47 of the 76 talukas across eight districts in the Marathwada region. And while the region failed to involve interests of the election campaigns in the last two months, despite the drought, the sugarcane yielding area has increased by around 1.5 lakh hectares in last year.

“Everyone knows that the extensive sugarcane production in the State is an outcome of the State’s sugar lobby that has flourished thanks to the vested interests of Maharashtra’s political leaders. The sugar industry and the chain of cooperatives that the Congress leaders started, was later taken ahead by the politicians of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), followed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as well. “In short, with involvement of all parties and politicians in the State, the sugar industry is now almost undefeatable,” said Amit Narkar of National Centre for Advocacy Studies (NCAS). “On average, around 25 hectares of jowar could be grown in the amount of water that one hectare of sugarcane crop requires,” said activist Sarang Pande of Lokpanchayat in Ahmednagar.

“While sugarcane consumes such huge amounts of water, the input cost required by the crop is very low as compared to any other crop, so is the effort needed to yield it. Further, while the other crops come with the uncertainty surrounding their harvest, market price, storage, etc., sugarcane is quite hassle-free, and the number of sugar factories assure most of the farmers that the crop is sure to be sold,” Pande said.

Lack of discussion and awareness
“Why has no intellectual, party of organisation has ever taken a stance regarding sugarcane and water, neither has a discussion been started by any of the farmers associations?” asked water expert and former associate professor at Water And Land Management Institute (WLMI) Pradeep Purandare. While only hardly 10 per cent of the farmers in the State grow sugarcane, it gulps down around 60 to 70 per cent of Maharashtra’s irrigated water. Researchers and policy makers argue that they have been insisting the use of drip irrigation for sugarcane, so that the water consumption by the crop could be reduced and that saved water could be diverted to other crops and farmers. However, reports have shown that the use of drip irrigation has further increased sugarcane plantation itself,” he said.

Hinting at the dire necessity of spreading awareness, he said, “It is not like the sugar industry in the State is making huge profits. The factory owners are not very happy. The farmers are not happy as the market price too is not very satisfactory. The sugarcane cutting labourers have their own set of issues and are exploited. Then why be adamant about growing this crop that is making no one happy?”

Policy change is essential
“Only awareness is not enough. Blaming the sugar factories alone is not sufficient. The farmers also need to be guaranteed that they can sustain without sugarcane. And that can only be done if the government makes changes at policy level to restrain sugarcane and give better prices to the other crops,” Narkar said. Jowar, Bajra and Groundnut have been the traditional crops of Marathwada. The arid region can only be stopped from turning into a desert if these crops, that need much lesser water, are brought back in place of the sugarcane. But would that be allowed? “Take the case of several small farmers in Western Maharashtra. They do not want to grow sugarcane. But the sugar lobby of the factories, politicians and big farmers is so threatening that they don’t really have a choice. Even to get a small amount of loan, they need to get associated with the cooperatives that function under the influence of sugar factories. The scenario is terrible,” Narkar said.

Water woes
It would be safe to say that Marathwada has been facing one of the worst droughts till date. Since 1960, the number of drought-hit talukas in the region has increased from 12 to 47. There have been reports in April this year, that the dams in the region had hardly six per cent water left. Cities like Aurangabad get water supply hardly once a week. The situation in the villages and remote hamlets can only be imagined.

“On his deathbed in Aurangabad, farmers’ leader and politician Sharad Joshi said that all the sugarcane in the State needs to be burnt, only then, we will get sufficient water. Why didn’t he say or do anything when he was holding an important post? The second Maharashtra Water and Irrigation Commission, under former chairman of Central Water Commission Madhav Chitale, recommended the dire need to reduce the production of sugarcane and prohibit giving permissions to any new sugar factories. But all suggestions were conveniently neglected,” said Purandare, who sadly asserted that it’s the sugarcane that has driven Marathwada to be suicidal. In 2018 itself, there were 947 cases of farmers’ suicides in Marathwada’s eight districts.

Former bureaucrat from the State Water Resources Department and water expert Vijay Pandhare said, “There is no escape from sugarcane now. Even implementing drip irrigation is not possible as drip requires continuous flow of water and the Marathwada farmers usually get water through canals once in around eight to 10 days. The projects of water lift have been known to fail big time and even finding mention in Chitale’s Irrigation Commission report. Honestly, the situation looks very bleak to me.”

Could coercive management be a way out?
“While the future seems to be going towards desertification, I think that coercive water management could put a check on water usage for sugarcane. The natural precipitation in the State could only irrigate about 25 per cent of the land under agriculture. It’s insane that despite this, around 60 to 70 per cent of the State’s water is spent only on sugarcane. I think imposition of strict irrigation norms could be a way out,” Narkar said. There have been several celebrated examples in the State where people have refrained themselves from growing sugarcane. 

He continued, “We know that in Hiware Bazar in Ahmednagar district, farmers have unanimously decided that they will not use conserved water to grow crops like sugarcane and bananas, that consume huge amounts of water. Similarly, in the areas irrigated by the Waghad dam, the sugarcane crop is the least favourite amongst the farmers who are determined to use 
water wisely.”

He, however, added that only policy support could bring out the best possible outcome. Market price assurance to other crops and water management can only deter farmers from growing the demon that sugarcane has turned into. Only this could take Marathwada towards freedom from drought.

​ ​

Related News