Sugarcane and Marathwada’s Drought

With intensifying drought situation in the Maharashtra’s marathwada region, the blame for the drought has been squarely put on the cultivation of sugarcane in that region.

Why cultivation of sugarcane is advantageous and why it cannot be held responsible for the drought in Maharashtra’s Marathwada?

Sugarcane is a long duration crop which typically grows for over 12 months in India and requires 2100-2200 mm/year of water per hectare. In contrast, the data for other crops are- Cotton requires 900mm and grows for 180 days, jowar requires 600mm of water and 110 days of growth, wheat needs 550mm and 130 days of growth, paddy needs more than 1400mm and 130 days, Soyabean and channa needs 500mm and 100-110 days, arhar needs 600mm and 180 days.

Though Sugarcane consumes more water it grows for longer duration as compared to other crops and produces huge amount of biomass. For instance, best produce for a farmer in Punjab can only be 6 tonnes for wheat and 9 tonnes for paddy per hectare. On the other hand, sugarcane’s yield can rarely go below 40 tonnes and has an average yield of 80 tonnes in Maharashtra. Thus, Sugarcane consumes less water on daily basis and consumes even less water if every unit weight of biomass it produce is taken into account.

Sugarcane’s other unique benefits

Supplies fodder

Sugarcane provides an additional 15-16 tonnes of fodder for every 80 tonnes of cane produced per hectare. This fodder (green top leaves) are in addition to the millable cane weight and helps to meet the fodder requirements of the farmers’ cattles. Thus, without any additional water requirement the farmers are able to grow the required fodder for their cattles.

Supplies water and electricity to sugar industry

Since sugarcane is made up of 70% water, 700 litres of water is obtained from one tone of sugarcane. Out of which 250 litres each is used in boilers for generating steam and power and in sugar manufacturing process respectively. The remaining 200 litres of water is treated and reused for irrigation and other purposes.

Bagasse is the fibrous residue which is left behind after the extraction of juice from the sugarcane. The modern high pressure boilers generate electricity by burning the bagasse and use the water from the cane in this process. Every tone of cane produces roughly 130 kilowatt-hours of electricity. After catering to the needs of sugar mills’ which is only 35-36 units of electricity, the rest is exported to the grid.

Thus, sugar industry is a unique industry which generates its own electricity and water.

Less area under sugarcane

The total area under sugarcane was only1.9 lakh hectares (approx.) in 2015-16, whereas the total gross cropped area in the 8 districts of Marathwada was 70 lakh hectares. So, cultivation of sugarcane may not be the reason for the drought in Marathwada as the total cropped area under sugarcane is significantly less.

Whether growing sugarcane is justified in the Marathwada?

Experts suggest that water deficit areas like Marathwada which receives only an average annual rainfall of slightly over 820mm, should not be growing sugarcane as it requires more water than what the region is capable of providing.

Reasons for the drought in Marathwada

Monsoon failure

Rainfall was deficient in the Marathwada region for the past 3-4 years. The shortfall is estimated at around 40%.

Negligence in water management

Although the rainfall was deficient in the region, it cannot be the sole reason for the drought in Mahrashtra. Maharashtra’s average rainfall (1300mm) is well above the national average of 1100 mm. Konkan region especially received more than 3000 mm of rainfall.

The reason for the drought is Maharashtra’s negligence of issues concerning water governance such as water conservation, drip irrigation and rejuvenation of ground water. Although the state has the largest number of large dams numbering 1,845 in the country, its misuse of water and inability to adopt modern irrigation methods has made drought a man-made disaster in Maharashtra.

What are the suggestions put forward?

Drip irrigation along with judicious use of canal water has to be adopted as an alternative to the flood irrigation methods in the drought prone areas. Drip irrigation is known to boost the yields by a third and saves water up to 40-50%.

Maharashtra is one of the largest producers of sugarcane like Uttar Pradesh. Uttar Pradesh uses huge network of rivers such as Ganges to irrigate its sugarcane crops. But Maharashtra primarily grows sugarcane in the drought prone belts such as Marathwada. It is to be noted that the region has added nearly 20 sugar mills in the last 3 years even when the drinking water was supplied to the villages by trains and tankers. According to Pune-based Sugar Commissionerate, 238 sugar factories operate in Maharashtra which is the highest in the country. The state has to encourage cultivation of drought resistant crops in the drought prone regions of the state along with adopting prudent water management techniques. The state should consider putting a ban to sugar factories in the drought prone regions.

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