Few crops, perhaps, capture the intensity of drought better than sugarcane. Given that this is a crop largely grown under irrigated conditions, one wouldn’t expect its production to take a severe knock — except under the most exceptional circumstances when there’s no water available to draw from even reservoirs or underground.
We saw this in Maharashtra. Back-to-back droughts resulted in the total cane crushed by mills in the state plummeting from 930.41 lakh tonnes (lt) in the 2014-15 sugar season (October-September) to 742.94 lt in 2015-16 and a mere 373.13 in 2016-17. Sugar output, too, fell correspondingly from 105.14 lt to 84.15 lt and 42 lt.
A similar thing is happening now in Tamil Nadu (TN), which during the last five years has experienced drought in three of them (2012, 2013 and 2016) and seems headed for yet another, if rainfall trends so far for the current southwest monsoon season are any indication.
The consecutive monsoon failures have led to an almost continuous decline in both sugarcane crushed and sugar produced by Tamil Nadu mills (see graphs). Between 2011-12 and 2016-17, the quantity of cane crushed has plunged from 254.55 lt to 113.88 lt, with sugar output also more than halving from 23.79 lt to 10.25 lt. With lack of water prompting farmers to sharply cut down on plantings, the coming 2017-18 season could register further drop in these numbers.
Being basically a tropical crop that thrives in warm conditions (although requiring more water), cane yields in TN are roughly two-thirds more than the average for sub-tropical states such as Uttar Pradesh, where the winter months act as a dampener for plant growth and sucrose accumulation. Mills in TN, therefore, have enough cane to be able to crush for 250-260 days in a normal year. They start crushing from early-October and run until mid-June.
In the last season, however, the TN mills could run for just 150-160 days. They began crushing operations only towards end-November and had to wind up by April. “In 2017-18, we will have only a 90-day season, with crushing starting sometime in end-December and finishing by March. There’s hardly any cane available for crushing,” said M Manickam, chairman of the Coimbatore-based Sakthi Sugars Ltd.
Moreover, mills are also having to crush immature cane, as farmers have no water to grow the crop for its full duration of about 12 months. “The cane that my mill crushed in April this time should ideally have been crushed in October. So, it was crushed six months early, which also translates into sugar recovery of just 6-6.5 per cent as against the normal of 9-9.5 per cent,” added Manickam.