Mumbai: The Osmanabad collector wants to suspend cane crushing at the district’s 11 sugar factories because of the water shortage in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra. But any such move will be difficult to implement, given the economic and political ramifications.
Out of 30 ministers in the state cabinet, 13 either control sugar cooperatives or own sugar factories. In fact, some of them do both. Senior leaders of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are also sugar barons.
Osmanabad collector K.M. Nagzode has sought the state government’s clearance for the move. He wrote to the state sugar commissioner on 29 November that Osmanabad had received only 50% of average rainfall, and water levels in dams are extremely low while ground water hasn’t been replenished.
His letter, a copy of which has been reviewed by Mint, suggests that since a sugar factory typically uses at least one lakh litres of water a day, it would be advisable to suspend crushing and divert the harvest to neighbouring districts. Nagzode couldn’t be reached for comment.
The Marathwada region, consisting of eight districts, is facing one of its worst droughts in recent times.
According to the state irrigation department, the average water storage in dams in the region on 24 December was 16% of the total capacity.
Jaiprakash Dandegaonkar, a member of the legislative assembly from Basmat in Hingoli district in Marathwada and vice-chairman of the Maharashtra State Co-Operative Sugar Factories Federation Ltd lobby group, said the collector’s demand was based on the misconception that sugar factories use a lot of water.
“Nearly 70-80% of water used for sugar production is recycled and only when a sugar factory is running a distillery and co-generation unit (to produce power), around three to four lakh litres of water will be required in a day,” he said. “But Marathwada has very few factories that are involved in allied businesses.”
Some activists and academics are also calling for a change in the state’s agricultural policy, which promotes sugarcane.
According to agriculture economist Milind Murugkar, the state has developed its irrigation system to feed the sugarcane crop, which is highly inequitable. Sugarcane is not only water-intensive but also creates less employment compared with horticulture or vegetables, which are also cash crops, he said.
Around 9.25 lakh hectares is under sugarcane cultivation in the state and three million farmers are involved in growing the crop. The Marathwada region accounts for about one-third of the production.
The crushing season starts in October and ends in March. During the crushing season of 2011-12, Maharashtra produced 54.5 million tonnes of sugar, around 34% of the nation’s production.
Cooperative minister Harshvardhan Patil, who controls three sugar cooperatives in his native district of Pune, said he had not seen the letter but “as millions of farmers in the state are involved in sugarcane farming and it provides employment to a few lakh labourers, any decision will be taken only after examining the issue in detail”.
Jaydeo Dole, head of the department of mass communication and journalism at Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University, said there needed to be a change in focus.
“The whole sugarcane and sugar cooperative business has become an easy way for the politicians to showcase their work for the farmers but the time has come to rethink about our priorities,” he said.
Former head of the department at Mahatma Phule Agricultural University Budhajirao Mulik said the focus should shift to other crops. “The sugarcane crop gives farmer assured income and that’s why many farmers in Maharashtra have turned to (this) but for Maharshtra, which is drought prone, we should encourage crops such as pulses, soybean, and jowar, which can be grown in rain-fed conditions,” Mulik said. “The government should announce minimum support price for these crops also.”