Mumbai: Maharashtra is India’s largest sugar-producing state but the drought-prone state will need very good reasons to continue favouring the water-guzzling crop, especially when it’s battling its worst drought in 40 years.

Sugarcane, one of the most water-intensive crops grown in the state, requires 10 times more water than jowar or nut and around 80% is ironically grown in regions that have a history of water scarcity.

The area under cultivation for sugarcane is only around 16% of the total cultivable land in the state, according to a 2005 World Bank report, but sugarcane consumes around 70% of the total water available through the irrigation system for farming in the state.

Large parts of Maharashtra, including eastern parts of western and northern Maharashtra and the entire Marathwada region (central Maharashtra), are drought prone in any block of five years—two to three years are years of deficit rain and if these deficit years are successive, the situation only worsens.

And if forecasts of a good monsoon go wrong, the situation will get bad as farmers continue to grow cash crops such as sugarcane and cotton at the expense of food crops.

Sugarcane plays havoc with local communities and destroys the socio-economic fabric of the village, as documented by Marathi author and Indian Administrative Service officer Vishwas Patil in his novel Pangira (a name of imaginary village from southern Maharashtra), that was published nearly two decades back.

Following the 2005 World Bank report, the Maharashtra government created an independent water regulator for the sector called the Maharashtra Water Resource Regulatory Authority (MWRRA), which recommended that area under sugarcane cultivation should not exceed 10% of the total command area (portion irrigated) of any dam.

However, MWRRA remained a paper tiger with no powers to allocate water.

It has taken took two decades and the severe drought of 2012-13 for politicians in Maharashtra to realize that the old methods of sugarcane cultivation are not sustainable. Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan and deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar have started now talking about the need for making drip irrigation mandatory for sugarcane farming, a move that could potentially save up to 60% water while simultaneously increasing productivity.

Prominent politicians, including union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar and chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, have termed the current drought worse than that of the one in 1972 as there is simply no water available in the states river and dams. Even ground water levels have dropped to as low as 800 feet. In 1972, farmers could strike water if if they dug to a level of 100 feet.

Incidentally, a 30 March research paper published by the South Asian Network for Dams, River and People indicates the drought is more of a man-made problem. It reveals that despite receiving more rainfall than in 1972, Maharashtra is more vulnerable in 2013.

The research paper reveals that out of 17 drought-affected districts in the state, 12 received more rainfall in 2012 than in 1972. It blames the proliferation of sugarcane farming for the lack of availability of water in dams and rivers and depleting ground water levels.

Between 1972 and 2012, area under sugarcane grew from 167,000 hectare (ha) to 1.22 million ha.

Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh together account for around 60% of the country’s sugar production. However, geographic and meteorological conditions in both states are a study in contrast.

In Uttar Pradesh, sugarcane fields are irrigated by large rivers such as the Ganga and Yamuna and it has a much higher assured rainfall compared to Maharashtra. In Maharashtra, sugarcane is irrigated mainly through a canal network of dams, which are mostly constructed in the high rainfall areas of Sahyandri mountain range.

Though the recovery rate (sugar produced after crushing 1 tonne of sugarcane) is higher in Maharashtra compared to Uttar Pradesh, productivity of sugarcane in Maharashtra in terms of usage is almost one-third. While Maharashtra produces 0.403 tonnes of sugarcane by consuming 1,000 cu. metre of water per month, the figure for Uttar Pradesh stands at 1.11 tonne per 1,000 cu. metre per month.

Karnataka is third-largest producer of sugar, accounting for around 14% of the country’s produce. It employs a similar system of sugarcane growth to Maharashtra. Hence, large parts of Karnataka, too, are drought prone and the state government has not been able to address the issue successfully till date.

As for Maharashtra, it it is unlikely that politicians in the state will cajole farmers, a very important vote bank (nearly 3 million farmers grow sugarcane), to shift to other remunerative crops such as oilseeds and pulses that are currently imported.

The reason is that sugar cooperatives in Maharashtra have become a tool for politicians to control local politics and economy in the state. Out of the 30 ministers in the Maharashtra cabinet, 11, including Pawar, control one or more sugar cooperatives. Some even own private sugar factories.

Taking inspiration from the famous experiment of setting up a sugar factory in the cooperative sector by Vitthal Vikhe-Patil in 1948 in Ahmednagar district, the then state of Bombay in 1952 identified 12 places where sugar factories could be set up and offered 10 lakh as equity if farmers cooperatives society came forward to set up a sugar factory.

The norms were further relaxed after the state of Maharashtra was created in 1960. If farmers’ cooperative societies manage to collect 10% of the capital required as equity, the rest will be made available through equity by the government (up to 32%) in addition to bank loans guaranteed by the state government.

Thus, sugar cooperatives become a lucrative business for politicians who wanted to create their own political base and they led to the creation of political families such as Vikhe-Patil, Mohite-Patil, Kore, Pawar, Kolhe and Kale among others.

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