Bengaluru: At the policy level, the government is trying to revive growth in India’s farm sector. Finance minister Arun Jaitley underscored it in his Union budget and chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian explained how.

Taking a cue from the Economic Survey 2015-16, he said India needs to change its cropping pattern from input-intensive cereals to pulses and oilseeds that are less water-intensive crops.

At the ground level, however, farmers are not heeding to Subramanian’s policy fix, not at least in the drought-hit Bidar district in North Karnataka.

While the state government is struggling to provide drinking water twice a week in the region, Sumant Gramle, a farmer, is trying to grow a water-intensive crop sugarcane in his 12 acres of land. He has dug three borewells for irrigation and is planning to increase the area of under cultivation further this year.

“Who’ll listen to the finance minister. We have no alternative crop that can assure us a one-time amount yearly," said Gramle. “We don’t have to spend much on transportation, harvest and labour and also the sugarcane rates do not fluctuate all the time. We have invested so much in this crop, we are now dependent on sugarcane," he added.

Gramle is not the only one who wants to grow cane at a time when farmlands across the country are reeling under the effects of two consecutive drought years.

According to the Karnataka farm department’s winter crop estimates, sugarcane is preferred crop of farmers though they are yet to recover from the crop loss due to poor rainfall during the last monsoon, the worst in the last 50 years.

Cane cultivation in fact is expanding. The crop has been planted in over 60,000 hectares in the state, which is 134% more than the usual area in which it is cultivated, according to Karnataka’s farm department.

Every other major crop, however, has showed a decline in cultivation in the December-January period. The sowing area of wheat, one of the two major winter crops, has shrunk by 30% from normal 2.57 to 1.52 lakh hecatres.

A sugarcane crop is a water guzzler. Over 2,000 litres of water is needed to produce a kilogram of sugar. If the water consumption of sugar mills and water losses from the source to the farm is included, then it is even higher, according to water rights group South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

Cane is being cultivated in Karnataka at a time when the state government has said that there isn’t enough water in the state’s rivers to provide drinking water for the 27 drought-hit districts.

In the neighbouring Maharashtra, the country’s largest sugar producer, too, more farmers are opting for cane cultivation. The area under cultivation for the crop often goes up by 30-40% every year, according to state’s economic survey.

Despite the drought in the previous year, sugar production reached a record 104 lakh tonnes in the state in 2015 compared to 34 % more than in 2014, as per the government’s farm department website.

Cane production is increasing this season too, it has reached 54.42 lakh tonnes up to 31 January, from October, as compared to 54.37 lakh tonnes produced till 31 January 2015, according to a Financial Express report.

Growth in cane cultivation over the last decade has taken a toll on production of other crops. In Karnataka, the third largest sugar grower in the country, the crop has replaced paddy, ragi and jowar cultivation, according to a recent study commissioned by the state government’s Agriculture Price Commission. Mint has reviewed a copy of the study.

In the last 10 years, cane cultivation has increased 103%, from 2.21 lakh hectares to 4.5 lakh hectares. The annual increase was roughly 6%, said the study.

“The area of production under crops such as paddy, ragi and jowar have been declining drastically over the years. On the other hand, area under crops such as maize, cotton and sugarcane have increased enormously in the last decade in Karnataka," says Prakash Kammaradi, head of APC.

Farmers are opting for cane cultivation at a time when the state’s groundwater levels are depleting. Fresh groundwater that was available at a depth of 33 ft in the 1990s has now fallen to 132 ft, according to data from the Karnataka Urban Water Supply and Sewerage Board.

More area under cane cultivation however does not mean higher yield and better income for farmers. In Bidar district, 22 farmers have ended their lives since the start of the year. 1,002 farmers have ended their lives from 1 April 2015 to 11 January, according to the farm ministry data. A majority of them are sugarcane farmers.

The distress is stark in Maharashtra, where more than 1,100 farmer suicides were reported in 2015, most of them in its Marathwada region, which has 80 sugar factories across eight districts

Cane farmers often fall into huge debt trap as mills that owe them money delay payments, Mint had reported.

Citing overproduction by growers and glut in the domestic and foreign market, sugar mills in Karnataka owe farmers roughly 4,000 crore as arrears since 2013, according to data from the directorate of sugar in the state.

In Maharashtra, 35 factories continue to have fair and remunerative price (FRP) arrears (Union government-mandated minimum to be paid by mills for procuring cane) of about 250 crore for 2014-15, said a 9 February report in The Financial Express.

In Uttar Pradesh, the country’s second largest sugar grower, the sugar mills have an accumulated arrears of 3,373 crore, according to a report in Business Standard on Wednesday.

Farmers in Karnataka have decided to protest and demand payment. Holding a dharna outside Vidhan Soudha (state assembly) under the banner of State Sugarcane Growers Associaton on Thursday, the growers are urging the government to intervene and help get the arrears from the sugar mills.

So despite all the difficulties, why do farmers opt for cane cultivation?

“It is purely a supply-driven demand. It has the highest procurement and a powerful lobbying power with the government. A statutory price is assured for growers. The yield is in tonnes and the yield gap is almost nil. The yield gap is hardly 20% in most other crops," said Kammaradi of APC.

Even then, the rapid growth in cultivation is shocking, said Himanshu Thakkar, a water rights activist and coordinator at South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. “Though the yield is higher, in terms of water use, sugarcane is an inefficient crop in Maharashtra. But with government promoting sugarcane, all of the state’s 70% irrigated water is right now used by two or three crops such as sugarcane," said Thakkar.

“And if you look at the rainfall pattern, or the drought situation, or water scarcity, Karnataka is not much different from Maharashtra. The government has to regulate sugarcane for the long-term benefits of farmers," he said.

Kammaradi, a farm expert and an economist, agrees that the government needs to put in place some kind of regulation. However, the government seems to be least bothered. In the last one year, the government has cleared six new sugar factories with an investment of 1,552.4 crore in drought-hit areas of the state such as Belagavi, Bagalkot and Gulburga, according to data collated by the state government as part of the recently held global investors’ meet, which Mint has reviewed.

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