Mumbai: The Maharashtra state government is planning to make it mandatory for sugarcane growers to use drip irrigation systems over the next three years, a move prompted by the drought that has created a severe shortage of drinking water in the Marathwada region and some parts of western and northern Maharashtra.

Around one million hectares is under sugarcane cultivation in the state of which only 100,000 hectares (ha) has drip irrigation systems.

Currently, the state government gives a 50% subsidy to farmers and 60% to so-called marginal farmers—those who own less than 2ha—to buy drip irrigation systems.

Given that a drip irrigation system costs around 90,000 per hectare, the state government will have to shell out around 4,000 crore by way of subsidies to implement drip irrigation on the remaining 900,000ha of land.

“Drip irrigation systems not only save up to 60% water but also improve productivity by 20-30%. Hence, a regulation will make a big difference in the water utilization pattern in the agro sector," chief minister, Prithviraj Chavan said in an interview, adding that the government may implement the same through an executive order or by passing a legislation.

“Sugar factories in the state will be given the responsibility to implement the scheme in their command area, failing which the state may suspend or revoke their licences," said a senior state government official, who did not want to be identified.

The Sugarcane Control Order, 1966, gives exclusive command area of 15 sq. km to every sugar factory.

Maharashtra produces one-third of India’s sugar and nearly three million farmers are engaged in sugarcane farming, making it a politically sensitive issue.

Out of the 30 members of the Maharashtra Cabinet, 11 control one or more sugar cooperatives including deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar. Even senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders from the state are actively involved with the sugar sector.

“Making drip irrigation mandatory is a welcome step but insufficient as Maharashtra needs to rethink its cropping pattern," said H.M. Desarda, an agriculture economist and former member of state planning commission. “Almost all the sugarcane in the state is produced in the rain shadow areas of the state using canal water. This method of sugarcane production is neither economically sustainable nor environmentally sustainable."

The rain shadow areas are places which receive 700mm or less rain annually and sugarcane requires around 2,000mm of rain.

“More than 70% water available through irrigation is used by sugarcane growers and any change in the policy which affects their interest is stubbornly opposed by these sugarcane growers and their leaders," said Ravikiran Deshmukh, political editor of Mid Day and an analyst of rural and cooperative affairs.

Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana (farmers’ organization) president and member of parliament Raju Shetti said, “At many places, farmers use the drip system for two to three years and when it is due for maintenance or repairs, farmers simply throw away the system as they are unable to afford repairs and maintenance. So, the government needs to give him subsidy for repairs and maintenance also."

“Providing support to farmers is not an assistance but an investment into the water future of the country," P. Soman, senior vice-president at Jain Irrigation Systems Ltd, said in an emailed response.

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