Sugar cane vs Marathwada’s drought

A debate rages on the hydrological, financial, social and even moral cost of growing the water-intensive crop in regions with chronic water shortages


Maharashtra is estimated to produce 830,000 tonnes of cane in 2015-16, which represents a 21% drop over the previous season’s output. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Maharashtra is estimated to produce 830,000 tonnes of cane in 2015-16, which represents a 21% drop over the previous season’s output. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Uttam Nikam, a 53-year-old farmer, is a resident of Khandvi, a village located on the Solapur-Barshi-Latur road in south central Maharashtra and part of drought-prone Solapur district.

Solapur has the largest area under water-intensive sugar cane in Maharashtra—around 250,000 hectares (ha)—and accounts for 25% of the total area under sugar cane in the state.

The crop is sustained by water from the Ujani dam. The pipeline carrying water from the dam runs past Khandvi, when the village itself has to depend on tankers.

Asked if he is upset that water from Ujani dam goes to sugar cane farms but not to his village, Nikam nods but poses a counter question: “How can I complain when I work on the same sugar cane farms?”

In the early 1990s, Nikam’s two-and-a-half acre farm was acquired by the government for Rs.1 lakh to make way for a percolation pond. “The government began the work but never completed it. The promised water from the percolation pond never came to us but I had lost my land to the project. I and my elder son work as labourers on sugar cane farms now,” says Nikam.

His predicament provides some insight into the socio-economic contradictions, interdependence and fault lines in Maharashtra’s sugar belt, spread across south and south-central Maharashtra and Marathwada.

Nikam, in a way, is a victim of sugar cane cultivation. Yet, he depends on it for survival. He is part of the larger debate that rages across India on the hydrological, financial, social and even moral cost of growing water-intensive sugar cane in regions where there is a chronic shortage of potable water.

Maharashtra is India’s top state in terms of sugar cane productivity (80-85 tonnes per ha) and sugar production (estimated at 8.6 million tonnes, or mt, in 2015-16), and accounts for 35% of the national sugar output although at 1 million ha, the area under sugar cane cultivation is half that of Uttar Pradesh, at around 2.2 million ha.

According to Pune-based Sugar Commissionerate, Maharashtra now has 238 sugar factories, the highest in the country, including 80 privately owned units.

Low yield in 2015-16 meant only 177 of these factories participated in the crushing season, according to Sanjeev Babar, managing director of Maharashtra State Co-operative Sugar Factories Federation Ltd.

Maharashtra is estimated to produce 830,000 tonnes of cane in 2015-16, which represents a 21% drop over the previous season’s output.

Babar adds that Marathwada accounts for nearly 25% of Maharashtra’s sugar output in a normal season although the yield has dropped this season.

The sugar cane-versus-water debate is not new. In 1999, the Maharashtra Water and Irrigation Commission under Madhav Chitale, former chairman of the Central Water Commission, made several key recommendations. A key one involved putting a stop to sugar cane cultivation in Marathwada.

In December 2014, Chitale again called for “expelling the water-guzzling sugar cane from Maharashtra since it consumes 71% of Maharashtra’s irrigated water”. Only 18% of Maharashtra’s cultivable land—22.5 million ha—is irrigated.

What has revived the debate in 2016 is Marathwada’s worst drought since 1972. It has opened up the sugar constituency to public scrutiny.

“Drought in Marathwada has put this issue back in public domain,” says D.B. Phonde, senior scientist and head of the department of soil science at Pune-based Vasantdada Sugar Institute, an autonomous body set up in 1975 by sugar cane-growing members of cooperative factories.

“There has been some imbalance in some districts including parts of Marathwada between the available irrigation and the area under cultivation. Low rainfall in areas where there is no irrigation has impacted the water table and yields of all crops including sugar cane.”

Phonde says it takes between 2,000 and 2,500 litres of water to produce one kilogram of sugar.

The water requirement for sugar cane in India ranges from 1,400mm in sub-tropical areas to 2,000mm in tropical areas, says Bakshi Ram, director of Coimbatore-based Sugarcane Breeding Institute, an Indian Council of Agriculture Research body dedicated to sugar cane research.

Parineeta Dandekar, a Pune-based ecologist and critic of sugar cane cultivation in Marathwada, wrote in a November 2014 blog on South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers, and People (SANDRP) that a sugar factory uses 1,500 litres of water to crush one tonne of cane by the lowest estimate.

Pradeep Purandare, a water expert and former associate professor at Aurangabad-based Water and Land Management Institute, says a factory with a capacity to crush 2,500 tonnes of cane per day requires 2.5 million litres of water per day.

Babar of Maharashtra Sugar Federation says sugar factories in the state including 49 in Marathwada had crushed nearly 76.8 mt of cane by 18 April.

In her blog on SANDRP, Dandekar wrote that in the 2014-15 season, 70 factories in Marathwada crushed around 15.4 mt of cane using 23.14 million cubic metres of water “by the lowest estimate of 1,500 litres per tonne”.

“Can Marathwada afford sugar cane crushing,” Dandekar asks in this article. She writes that this amount of water would have been sufficient to irrigate 8,000 acres of groundnut. It could have taken care of the drinking water needs of 1.5 million people till the monsoon of 2015.

As the poignant image of people in Latur getting water through a specially commissioned train eloquently defines the 2016 drought, voices like Dandekar’s blaming sugar cane for the crisis have gained traction.

Water expert Purandare is convinced that sugar cane is entirely responsible for drought in Marathwada. “There is a 101% cause-effect connection between sugar cane cultivation and drought in Marathwada,” he says.

“Marathwada’s average rainfall is 826mm and rainy days are 46 per season. Per capita water availability is 438 cubic metres, which is way lower than the international criterion of 1,700 cubic metres for a person. The same international standard says that per capita availability less than 500 cubic metres puts severe constraints on development,” he adds.

Purandare cites the report of the Chitale commission of 1999 to drive home his point. “Since the water availability is less than 1,500 cubic metres per hectare in Marathwada, the Chitale commission called it a deficient basin and made several key recommendations, including no cultivation of sugar cane, no permissions to new sugar mills, and transfer of existing factories from deficit river basins to abundant basins,” he points out.

He adds that the recommendations were completely ignored by Maharashtra’s pro-sugar industry establishment. “It was 1999 and we are debating the same things in 2016 because those recommendations were ignored,” says Purandare. “Worse, the government has given permissions to 20 new sugar mills in Marathwada in the three drought years since 2014.”

Ram of Sugarcane Breeding Institute, however, sees no correlation between sugar cane cultivation in Maharashtra and the drought in Marathwada. “There is no correlation. Sugar cane cultivation has been in practice in Maharashtra since long and the state ranks first in production of sugar and second in area under sugar cane. Depletion of water table is a common phenomenon in all states in the country due to lower rainfall in previous years,” he says.

Latur-based environmental activist and author Atul Deulgaonkar also believes that sugar cane is not responsible for the drought in Marathwada. “People who lack any understanding of the real issue, which is climate change, look for simplistic answers and soft targets. Low rainfall, which is a direct outcome of climate change patterns, has impacted our collective social psyche so much that we have ended up creating the wrong villains,” he says.

Industry hits back

B.B. Thombare, president of the West Indian Sugar Mills Association and chairman-cum-managing director of Natural Sugar and Allied Industries Ltd (NSAI) in Marathwada’s drought-hit Osmanabad district, also questions the “assumption” that sugar cane guzzles more water than other crops.

“Most of these so-called water experts have never been to a sugar cane farm and they have rarely made an attempt to understand the crop. It is a misconception that sugar cane needs more water than other crops. The water experts do not tell you that sugar cane is a 12-18 month crop and the intake of water is spread over this period unlike most other crops,” he says.

To prove that sugar cane is not a water guzzler, NSAI installed flow meters four years ago to measure the consumption of water by sugar cane and other crops. The meters measured release of water through both flood irrigation and drip irrigation methods.

The former, more popular in Maharashtra, involves pumping or flooding the farm with water, while drip irrigation, which the government and critics of sugar cane cultivation recommend, releases water in small quantities through pipes. The flow meters found that if water is released through the flood irrigation method, one ha under sugar cane consumes 15 million litres over a period of 12 months. If drip irrigation is used, the same area under cane consumes 7.5 million litres in a year.

NSAI then used the flow meter to measure water intake by cotton and chickpea through the drip system. “It measured that both these crops consumed 7-8 million litres of water over a shorter period compared to sugar cane. What is the basis of this argument that sugar cane is a guzzler as compared to other crops?,” says Thombare.

Congress party legislator from Latur and director of two cooperative sugar mills in the district, Amit Deshmukh, is also a votary of drip irrigation. “Sugar cane is a water-intensive crop. But so are other crops like banana, turmeric and ginger. Since water is not abundant, we need to strike a balance among priorities and allocation of water...we need to bring in a law that makes drip irrigation mandatory for all,” he says.

Environmentalist Deulgaonkar says the claim that sugar factories lift water directly from dams is not accurate. Babar of Maharashtra Sugar Federation says no sugar factory requires external feed of water after the initial fill.

Thombare says he is amazed by critics’ claims that sugar cane in Marathwada is responsible for drought when it is grown in only 200,000 ha as compared to other major crops in Marathwada.

What happens to sugar cane?

The Chitale commission’s recommendations finally seem to be having some impact in 2016. On 18 April, the Maharashtra cabinet considered banning setting up of new sugar factories in Marathwada for the next five years, though a decision is yet to be taken.

Ecologist Dandekar believes such bans do not work as long as farmers are not given options. “Those who have built up the sugar industry in Maharashtra are visionaries and they have the wherewithal to create options for farmers to move away for sugar cane. Banning the crop won’t help as long as farmers do not get other profitable options,” she maintains.

Thombare of NSAI says those calling for banning sugar cane ignore the contribution the sugar economy has made to Maharashtra. “It is not just a crop but a whole ecosystem catering to nearly 15 million people directly or indirectly,” he says.

Deulgaonkar concurs that it will be a mistake to ban sugar cane. “In India, if critics are pointing to the input cost, they must also look at the output value of sugar cane. It produces power, ethanol, bagasse, and also fodder for cattle. It is a bountiful crop,” he says.

The way forward

The industry agrees that the problem of deficient water has to be addressed. “Having said that sugar cane is not responsible for drought, do we have to be wise? Yes, we do,” says legislator Deshmukh, recommending that drip irrigation be made compulsory.