The bittersweet truth of sugarcane in Maharashtra

Sugarcane farming is the main reason for low coverage of irrigation in Maharashtra though the state has the largest number of irrigation projects

Firstpost print Edition

Maharashtra is in the grip of another drought this year. Agriculture and other livelihoods are at stake for lakhs of households in about 4,920 villages and 10,506 hamlets.

With relatively low irrigation coverage of around 18%, agriculture in Maharashtra is mainly dependent on rain. The farm sector is the biggest user of fresh water, withdrawing more than 80% of the water available to the state. Deficiency in rainfall coupled with its high spatial and temporal variation in the state adversely affects agriculture. A negative growth rate was reported for the sector during 2017-18 and 2018-19. Currently, agriculture contributes just 11.9% to the Gross State Domestic Product but supports around half of the population for their livelihoods. While conventional models of drought mitigation have their importance, it is also essential to search for alternatives in cropping pattern, crop cultivation methods, water use efficiency, water regulation and equitable access. It is important to devise long-term strategies to help the agricultural sector to grow in a more water-efficient manner through policies, technology and institutional mechanisms.

Sugarcane farming is the main reason for low coverage of irrigation in Maharashtra though the state has the largest number of major and medium irrigation projects. While it is true that a water-scarce state like Maharashtra has significant area under sugarcane and also a large number of sugar factories, to understand the crop-water-use linkage, it is important to go beyond knee-jerk reactions and understand the larger changes happening in the farm sector here.

Agricultural growth in the state over the last few decades is mainly driven by increase in the ‘gross cropped area’ and through crop diversification chiefly via high-value crops such as horticulture, vegetables and cash crops. Both these patterns of growth require additional water and it is mainly contributed by groundwater sources. While one can notice a marginal reduction in the net sown area, the gross cropped area has increased by 2.54 million ha during 1961-2017. At the same time, the area under traditional drought-resistant and non-irrigated cereals such bajra, jowar and oilseeds has substantially come down in the state. The place has been taken over by maize, wheat, cotton, sugarcane, horticulture and vegetables. This means that farmers are moving to crops which are more valuable and less labour intensive.

The pertinent question is why people do not shift out of sugarcane though they know that it is a water-intensive crop? During our interaction in some of the worst-affected villages in Jamkhed taluka, Ahmednagar district, which also has a substantial area under sugarcane, farmers have their own reasons for sticking with the crop. One, it has an assured market and price. Two, it has value addition through sugar factories. Three, it is less labour intensive. Four, unlike vegetables and horticulture, for instance, very often sugarcane does not fail completely. Five, the public irrigation systems cannot provide water as per crop-water requirement if they have to shift to other crops, which would require high frequency, but limited irrigation, like vegetables and fruits.

Very often, the public irrigation systems provide water rotation once in two-three weeks and in summers, it goes to once in four weeks or even more. Thus, unless one can address some of these structural issues—remunerative prices and processing facilities for other crops and reforming public irrigation systems to provide water as per crop-water requirements—people may not shift from water-intensive produces like sugarcane.

The state seems to be coming out with soft options such as water-saving technologies—subsidised promotion of drips for sugarcane for example. Saved water does not actually reduce the water footprint; nor does it create access to those who don’t have it. Apart from drips, there are other agronomical practices that can bring down the water use in sugarcane farming substantially. The pit method of sugarcane cultivation, sustainable sugar initiative are all examples of this. Unless these issues are tackled through affirmative policy interventions along with technological and institutional mechanisms (crop-water planning based on community consensus and water budgeting), the shift towards water-efficient cropping would remain a dream even though it is one of the much-needed mechanisms for drought mitigation in a parched state like Maharashtra.

KJ Joy and Abraham Samuel are with the Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management, Pune

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