Mumbai: In a significant move, the Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra on Tuesday decided to make drip irrigation mandatory for sugar cane cultivation over 3.05 lakh hectares in the state. Farmers who opt for drip irrigation will be given loans at 2% rate of interest with a cap of Rs85,400 per hectare.

The decision follows concerns raised by environmentalists and irrigation experts about over-exploitation of water. Currently, sugar cane is grown over 9.42 lakh hectares in Maharashtra (2017-18) and only 2.25 lakh hectares is covered by drip irrigation. The remaining area under sugar cane cultivation uses flood, canal, and sprinkler irrigation systems that consumer more water as compared to drip irrigation.

The environmental lobby has often argued that one of the major causes of chronic drought in Marathwada is cultivation of sugar cane that disproportionately exploits the limited irrigation potential in Maharashtra.

Only 18% of Maharashtra’s cultivable land—22.5 million hectares—is irrigated. A Maharashtra Water and Irrigation Commission formed under former Central Water Commission chairman Madhav Chitale has pointed out that sugar cane cultivation consumes 71% of Maharashtra’s irrigated water.

The state cabinet on Tuesday approved a pilot project that will be implemented with loan from the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (Nabard), Maharashtra agriculture minister Pandurang Phundkar said. Phundkar added that the pilot project would be implemented on a priority basis in Marathwada districts which accounts for 25% of Maharashtra’s total sugar cane cultivation.

“In the next phase, the government will make drip irrigation mandatory for the remaining 7 lakh hectares under sugar cane cultivation. The pilot project will be implemented in the next two years," Phundkar said. In 2017-18, the pilot project would be implemented over 1.50 lakh hectares and over 1.55 lakh hectares in 2018-19. The pilot project aims at bringing area currently irrigated by rivers, canals, and wells, under drip irrigation.

The area under sugar cane in Maharashtra has shrunk over the last few years due to drought in Marathwada and farmers’ shift towards other crops including pulses. In 2016-17, Maharashtra produced 5 million tonnes of sugar cane, one of its lowest output, as only 6.34 lakh hectares went under sugar cane cultivation. Of the total area that comes under sugar cane cultivation in the state, Marathwada accounts for nearly 2 lakh hectares.

The pilot project would be implemented and monitored by the agriculture and co-operation departments of the state government. Under the scheme, Nabard will provide long-term loans to the Maharashtra State Co-operative (MSC) Bank at 5.5% rate of interest. The MSC Bank will issue this loan to District Central Co-operative Banks at 6% rate of interest and the district banks will provide these loans to farmers at 7.25% rate of interest. However, if farmers repay the loans on schedule, they will be charged only 2% rate of interest and the state government and sugar factories will bear 4% and 1.25% interest cost respectively.

Pradeep Purandare, Aurangabad-based surface irrigation expert and former assistant professor at the state-owned Water and Land Management Institute (WALMI), welcomed the decision. “This was a long-awaited and necessary decision. But it will have to be strictly and meticulously implemented by the government. The government also needs to clear pending proposals of subsidy for drip irrigation and clear difficulties in the implementation of this scheme," Purandare told Mint. Purandare has been one of the strident and articulate voices against water-guzzling sugar cane cultivation and has long argued for drip irrigation. “As compared to canal and sprinkler irrigation, drip irrigation theoretically saves 40% to 50% water. But to realise this scale of saving, the scheme will have to be implemented in letter and spirit and in a scientific manner," Purandare said.

According to an experiment carried out by Osmanabad-based Natural Sugar and Allied Industries Ltd (NSAI), a private sugar factory in Marathwada, drip irrigation uses 7.5 million litres of water to irrigate one hectare under sugar cane over a period of 12 months as compared to 15 million litres through flood irrigation.

Amit Deshmukh, Congress legislator from Latur in Marathwada and director of two co-operative sugar factories in Marathwada, welcomed the decision but added that it must be backed by a number of supportive measures like zero interest loans to farmers, substantial monetary provisions in the budget, and careful identification of the areas to implement the scheme. “Drip irrigation is the need of the hour. I don’t have the details about this project but it is a welcome move. The scheme should be directed at drought-prone areas where drip irrigation makes sense. The scheme will be viable only if farmers get incentives in the form of zero interest loans and substantial budgetary provisions]. It should not just be an announcement or appeal," Deshmukh told Mint.

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