Ban on sugarcane crushing may solve Maharashtra’s drought problems

The question is whether Devendra Fadnavis will go ahead with the move, which can have huge political and economic implications


The Marathwada region, which has 80 sugar factories across eight districts, is the worst affected as it is facing a drought for the third consecutive year. Photo: Mint
The Marathwada region, which has 80 sugar factories across eight districts, is the worst affected as it is facing a drought for the third consecutive year. Photo: Mint

Mumbai: Last week, Maharashtra’s revenue and agriculture minister Eknath Khadse suggested a temporary ban on sugarcane crushing, with the state reeling under the worst drought in 43 years. The crushing season starts next month.

It takes a little over 2,000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of sugar.

The Marathwada region, which has 80 sugar factories across eight districts, is the worst affected as it is facing a drought for the third consecutive year. Moreover, water levels in the dams of the region has fallen to 7%. Some parts of western and northern Maharashtra are also suffering the same fate.

However, the question is whether chief minister Devendra Fadnavis will go ahead with the move, which can have huge political and economic implications.

Around 2.5 million farmers in the state are engaged in sugarcane farming, which provides employment to an additional 1 million labourers during the harvesting season. The sugar industry also pays around Rs.2,500 crore in taxes.

If the government decides to ban sugarcane crushing, it will not only have to give up the revenue of Rs.2,500 crore, it will also have to find the means to compensate affected farmers.

But it can also solve an important problem as sugarcane can be used as fodder. A major worry of farmers in drought-hit areas is feeding their cattle. Farmers have been demanding government cattle camps to provide fodder and drinking water to their cattle.

Long-term measures

The Marathwada region and the eastern parts of western and northern Maharashtra typically receive deficient rains for two to three years in any block of five years. The situation gets aggravated if deficient monsoon years happen to be consecutive as is currently happening in Marathwada.

Though a ban on sugarcane crushing could help government tide over this year’s crisis, there is a need for long-term measures. One of these is putting controls on sugarcane farming and encourage farmers to grow other crops such as oil seeds and pulses which are best suited for the climatic conditions of Maharashtra.

Farmers like sugarcane mainly because of two reasons. First, it is a sturdy crop which can withstand unseasonal rains, hailstorms, pests and insects, among other things. Second, it provides assured income for the farmers as sugar factories are mandated to pay the farmers as per the fair and remunerative price declared by the government.

Oil seeds and pulses may not be as sturdy as sugarcane, but they can fetch good prices. But in order to encourage farmers to turn to these crops, the government will have to revamp its agricultural extension service and invest in the research and development of new varieties of these crops to increase their productivity. The government will also have to come up with policies which will encourage agro-processing industry in rural areas to encourage establishment of mills in rural areas.

The government can also discourage sugarcane farming in the state by implementing Maharashtra Water Resource Regulatory Authority’s 2011’s recommendation to ensure that the total acreage under sugarcane cultivation doesn’t exceed 10% of the command area of a particular dam. The area irrigated by a particular dam is called command area of that dam.

Each sugar factory, irrespective of whether it belongs to the private or cooperative sector, is given exclusive rights to buy sugarcane in a 15km radius of their factory and this is known as zoning in sugar industry parlance.

The government must make drip irrigation mandatory for sugarcane farming. The government should stop granting crushing licence to sugar factories, unless it ensures that conversion to drip irrigation is 100% in its exclusive zone. Drip irrigation reduces water consumption by around 60% and also increases productivity.

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