In Fact: Why sugarcane can’t be blamed for Marathwada drought woes

It is a convenient whipping boy, even though it consumes less water on a per-day basis than other crops, and even less for every unit weight of biomass produced.

Written by Harish Damodaran | Updated: April 15, 2016 6:04 am
sugarcane, sugarcane farming, Maharashtra government, sugarcane cultivation, Maharashtra water crisis, Maharashtra drought zone, sugarcane cultivation ban, sugarcane farming ban, maharashtra sugar industry, sugarcane farming, india news, nation news Simply put, sugarcane consumes less water on a per-day basis, and even less for every unit weight of biomass produced.

Every crisis produces its fall guy. This time, it is sugarcane that’s bearing the brunt of the blame for drought, especially in Maharashtra’s worst-affected Marathwada region.

Sugarcane, no doubt, requires 2,100-2,200 mm of water, more than the 1,400 mm or so for paddy, 900 mm for cotton, 600 mm for jowar (sorghum) and arhar (pigeon-pea), 550 mm for wheat, and under 500 mm for soyabean and chana (chickpea).

But then, sugarcane typically grows over 365 days, as against the 180 days of cotton and arhar, 130 days of paddy and wheat, 110 days of jowar and chana, and 100 days of soyabean. Besides, even the best Punjab farmer can harvest only six tonnes of wheat and nine tonnes of paddy per hectare, whereas cane yields rarely go below 40 tonnes, while averaging 80 tonnes for Maharashtra.

Simply put, sugarcane consumes less water on a per-day basis, and even less for every unit weight of biomass produced.

Moreover, the sugarcane farmer doesn’t merely grow cane stalks. For every 80 tonnes of cane produced from a hectare, an additional 15-16 tonnes of green ‘tops’ also get harvested. These green top leaves — roughly 20 per cent over and above the millable cane weight — meet much of the fodder needs of his buffaloes and cattle during the crushing season from November to April. The water being used for cultivating sugarcane, thus, also goes towards production of fodder, which the farmer would otherwise have had to grow separately.

Share This Article
Share
Related Article

But water used for sugarcane cultivation is only one part. Equally important is the fact that the end-product, or the crop itself, is some 70% water. This water — 700 litres in one tonne — is what mills actually use for production of sugar and much more. Out of the 700 litres, about 250 litres is utilised in boilers for generating steam and power, while an equal quantity gets consumed in the sugar manufacturing process. It still leaves a balance of 200 litres, which, after cooling in spray ponds and primary treatment, can be re-used for irrigation and other purposes.

That makes sugar a unique industry, which doesn’t require water from outside, and even generates its own energy from bagasse — the fibrous residue remaining after extraction of juice from the cane. The high-pressure boilers in most mills today use water from the cane and burn the bagasse to produce electricity. Around 130 kilowatt-hours can be generated from every tonne of cane, of which the mills’ own in-process and auxiliary consumption requirement is only 35-36 units, with the remaining 94-95 units being exportable to the grid.

sugarcane

Bashers of sugarcane will tell us how it takes 2,000-odd litres of water to produce one kg of sugar. But they won’t say that this water is consumed over 12 months, or that it goes towards production of fodder, electricity and alcohol as well. And if one were to also add that the mills themselves consume no additional water or electricity — they are surplus in both — it would virtually give a lie to the perception of sugarcane being a water-guzzler.

Incidentally, even the sugar accumulation in the cane takes place only in last 90-100 days of ripening and maturation. The crop’s 365-day duration also covers germination (40-45 days), tillering (springing of stems from the parent shoot: 90-100 days) and grand growth (development of millable canes from tillers: 110-120 days). Much of the water consumption happens in the tillering and grand growth phases that precede sucrose accumulation. This only reinforces the fact that this is primarily a biomass-cum-energy crop, with sugar only one of its constituents.

But for all this nuanced understanding of a much-maligned yet misunderstood crop, one could still ask whether a region like Marathwada, receiving an average annual rainfall of slightly over 820 mm, should be growing cane at all. The answer, on the face of it, might be no, given that a water requirement of 2,000 mm-plus is too much for any crop in a traditionally drought-prone belt.

However, even the above statement needs qualification in the light of the fact that the total area under sugarcane in the eight districts of Marathwada has ranged between 2.2 and 2.4 lakh hectares (lh) annually; in 2015-16, it fell to less than 1.9 lh. The accompanying table shows this to be way below the corresponding acreages under cereals (mainly jowar, maize and bajra), cotton, pulses (arhar, urad, moong) or oilseeds (soyabean).

It is difficult to see how a crop accounting for just over 2 lh out of Marathwada’s estimated 70 lh gross cropped area be the cause for drought, as many NGOs and drawing room experts are claiming. The drought and the accompanying rural distress in the region is the result of the monsoon’s failure in three out of the last four years. Period.

All this is, of course, not to argue against efforts to promote water use efficiency in sugarcane. Replacement of flood irrigation methods with drip irrigation has been shown to bring about water savings of 40-50 per cent, while simultaneously boosting yields by up to a third. The latter is on account of the water being delivered directly to the plant’s root zone (where it is really required) and the remaining soil area getting enough air to maintain an optimum air-water-nutrient balance. With drip irrigation and judicious use of canal water, it should be possible for even Marathwada’s farmers to realise the enormous food, energy, and fodder potential offered by a most versatile crop.

News playlist:

harish.damodaran@expressindia.com

For all the latest India News, download Indian Express App now

  1. A
    Adrian Akau
    Apr 16, 2016 at 4:28 pm
    Sugar should not be grown in a drought stricken area.
    Reply
    1. A
      Ajay
      Apr 20, 2016 at 1:44 am
      If sugar needs twice the water it rains..means it sucks out water from other areas and crops .
      Reply
      1. A
        amar gupta
        Apr 15, 2016 at 6:56 am
        3% of cropable land-use cornering 70 % of water-use !!! Obviously if water-use is spread out thru the year, water dams are being constructed for them only for storing water and supply during water-lean period. Google the article IPL Will Use Zero Percent Of The Water That Sugarcane Does
        Reply
        1. A
          amar gupta
          Apr 15, 2016 at 6:49 am
          Let Mr Damodaran give point to point rebuttal to this.lt;br/gt;
          Reply
          1. A
            amar gupta
            Apr 15, 2016 at 6:39 am
            Mr Damodaranlt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Is it true that for a cropping area share of around 3%, sugarcane corners over 70% of water uses ?
            Reply
            1. A
              amar gupta
              Apr 15, 2016 at 6:36 am
              Pure obfuscation and very flimsy !! Issue is water consumption per unit of end product,, per day/month/year impact convenient availability but not total requirement.lt;br/gt; Fodder etc are by-product of all crops. IF sugarcane farming produces substantial benefits over other crops, proper supporting comparative-fact-sheets should have been put up considering all aspects like livelihoods, animal husbandry, by-products etc for different contenders.
              Reply
              1. J
                Jay
                Apr 21, 2016 at 6:44 am
                The author is an AH.
                Reply
                1. A
                  Ashok
                  Apr 15, 2016 at 6:50 am
                  If this theory is correct there should be lot of sugarcane farming in Marathawada. Presently only 3% cultivation is of sugarcane crop. If sugarcane requires less water than other crops like cotton, Jowar, pulses, then less rain water region like Marathwada should have maximum sugarcane farming. Why Lakhs of Marathwada farmers not increasing sugarcane farming? Why Marathwada farmers and sugar industry is not booming? The farming income depends on, input cost and income from the crop. In Marathwada input cost and income of crop is distorted by many factors. Sugarcane is not suitable in Marathwada due to less rain region. Three times more water is required than the average rain per hector, as per your views. The Markets tried to correct the farming situations. But the Marathawada farms problems are more complicated, and needs lot of policy solutions from Government, markets and farmers.
                  Reply
                  1. B
                    Bharat
                    Apr 15, 2016 at 9:23 pm
                    Dear Readers , Another Important Factor is that To Produce 1 Kg Sugar Maharashtra consumes 2068 litres Water whereas Uttar Pradesh consumes almost half 1044 litres. ! 25 hectares of land under Pulses can be irrigated with water needed to irrigate 1 hectare of SugarCane! Is it not great irony that Nation is made dependent on imports for our needs of Pulses whereas we are exporting Sugar means we are exporting scarce water after denying irrigation water to over 90% Land Farmers and for drinking needs!
                    Reply
                    1. B
                      Bharat
                      Apr 15, 2016 at 9:01 pm
                      Dear Readers, This clever writer has hidden the most important fact. This Small Area under Sugarcane is 100% irrigated and appropriates almost all dam waters and over exploitation of Groundwater too! Out of 50.3 Lakh hectares of culturable area of Marathwada irrigation is received by only 4.4 Lakh hectares which is 8.7% of total culturable area of Marathwada. Is it justified that only about 4% land under Sugarcane consume almost water of Marathwada? Pl read this link for more details:
                      Reply
                      1. D
                        d s
                        Apr 15, 2016 at 6:17 am
                        Wonder why rice is not grown all year..... Maybe there is not enough sunlight......
                        Reply
                        1. S
                          Sunil
                          Jun 3, 2016 at 4:25 pm
                          Author is trying to promote sugar lobby
                          Reply
                          1. W
                            wahabi
                            Apr 15, 2016 at 12:36 pm
                            What a distorted , false fact article. Disgusting.
                            Reply
                            1. J
                              jagar
                              Apr 15, 2016 at 8:05 am
                              Water needs of sugarcane are highest during overall shortage period.That causes imbalance.Moreover,dry areas are less suitable compared with humid areas.
                              Reply
                              1. S
                                Shrinivasa Kamath
                                Apr 15, 2016 at 4:11 pm
                                Now, those who blame sugar cane crop for drought in Marathwada, should explain why they do it so, with facts and figures. This article gives a lot of information to deny the charges.
                                Reply
                                1. R
                                  Rutuja
                                  Nov 8, 2016 at 10:26 am
                                  In addition to all the interesting comments and excellent statistics, one more thing to be considered is that the sugarcane crop occupies the precious agricultural land for almost one year (sometimes more depending on the variety). This land's opportunity cost (if it is used for other more useful crop like cereals, pulses, oilseeds etc.) will be definitely dearer for India, which faces the shortages of the other useful crops. And these crops are obviously more important for human nourishment than the sugar.
                                  Reply
                                  1. R
                                    Rajesh Raut
                                    Apr 19, 2016 at 9:05 am
                                    Comparing area under Sugarcane with other crops is gross mistake as the crops you mentioned are mostly rain fed crops while sugarcane cultivation is not possible without irrigation facility. And come on producing biom is not what farming is done.
                                    Reply
                                    1. K
                                      Krishnamurthy Lakshminarayan
                                      Apr 15, 2016 at 2:44 pm
                                      Article looks like a planted article. It does not address the basis issue that growing Cane in a water shortage area is neither economical nor good for the soil. The problem is that given the strength of the Sugar Lobby, nobody wants to address the question.
                                      Reply
                                      1. V
                                        Vishwanath Reddy
                                        Apr 17, 2016 at 5:13 pm
                                        Our traditional way of cultivation need to be changed in an informed way. The farmers should be made aware about the water profile of their areas and accordingly crops must be promoted. At a time when the government is promoting e- National Agriculture Market (eNAM), the w nation will become a single market. Based on the soil and water profile, crops produced in an area will also be available for other areas.
                                        Reply
                                        1. M
                                          manoj chaudhari
                                          Apr 17, 2016 at 1:29 am
                                          What about banana it need 50 litre water per plant per day and their are crores of plants in Maharashtra's Jalgaon district
                                          Reply
                                          1. P
                                            pradeep
                                            Apr 15, 2016 at 3:58 am
                                            Though author has given an interesting perspective with "per day" consumption theory..he has conveniently ignored the fact that we get monsoon for just 2-3 months and for rest of the year ground water or canal water is used. and so such low rain fall region is not suitable for a 365 days crop like sugarcane. there is no doubt that sugar industry is unique in producing its own water and power but the problem is that we export this sugar and with that also our water. and even after that when the market price of sugar comes falling....every one including the farmer and the mill owner is at a loss and there is a loss to ecology which is visible in terms of water crisis as we are facing now. its a pity that we see ecology from a mere economic perspective. we should adapt to the environment rather than extracting its every resource and than crying for climate change and drought!
                                            Reply
                                            1. Load More Comments