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Bitter Truth: Early summer heat dries up recovery hopes for sugar in Maharashtra

No strong production rebound seen in 2017-18, even as state concedes No. 1 slot to Uttar Pradesh.

Written by Parthasarathi Biswas | Pune |
Updated: April 27, 2017 1:22:38 am
maharshtra, sugarcane farming, maharshtra sugarcane, sugarcane farmers, sugarcane production, maharashtra sugarcane production, uttar pradesh sugarcane production, UP sugarcane, indian express news, india news Last year’s monsoon recovery raised hopes of a production rebound in the new season, beginning October 2017.

Ravindra Ingle is facing a tough time keeping the three acres of sugarcane crop on his five-acre holding alive. “I just have a single bore well, which can meet the water requirement for 1.5 acres till June when the monsoon rains would arrive. The cane on the balance 1.5 acres will be good enough only for use as fodder for my animals,” says this farmer from Bori village in Tuljapur taluka of Osmanabad district.

Ingle had planted a 15-month ‘pre-seasonal’ variety of cane in September that would be ready for crushing by early December this year. Maharashtra, including the Marathwada region to which he belongs, had good rains during the last monsoon season (June-September, after two back-to-back drought years. It encouraged fresh plantings of pre-seasonal (September-October) and, to some extent, the 12-month ‘suru’ (January-February) cane. The soil moisture recharge wasn’t good enough, though, to enable sowing of the 17-18 month ‘adsali’ crop (June-July), including in the southern districts of Satara, Sangli and Kolhapur, which have better irrigation infrastructure.

But the lack of rains after November through the winter and spring this year, and, moreover, the intense heat since the start of this month, have upset the calculations of farmers like Ingle.

“Nobody thought the summer would come in so early and temperatures will cross 40 degrees Celsius by April. Normally, the irrigation department releases some water from the Sina Kolegaon dam in mid-April and mid-May, just before the monsoon. But this time, they have decided to conserve the water only for drinking and not irrigation purposes,” notes Ingle, who was able to supply cane from only one acre in the 2016-17 sugar season (October-September). “This year, I will be lucky to supply even from 1.5 acres,” he adds.

2016-17 was a disaster for Maharashtra’s sugar industry, with mills crushing a mere 372.45 lakh tonnes (lt) of cane during the season, compared with 742.94 lt in 2015-16 and 930.41 lt in 2014-15. Sugar production, too, plunged to 41.87 lt, from 84.15 lt and 105.14 lt for the preceding two seasons.

Last year’s monsoon recovery raised hopes of a production rebound in the new season, beginning October 2017. Maharashtra’s minister for cooperation Subhash Deshmukh, in early January, had even talked of reviving closed sugar mills and inviting bids from interested parties for running these to deal with the prospect of a bumper cane crop.

However, the unusual heat wave in April, coupled with the absence of any pre-monsoon showers normally seen during March, has now raised worries about the standing cane. High evaporation rates have not only led to the crop experiencing moisture stress, but also curbs on release of water from reservoirs across the state.

Sanjeev Babar, managing director of the Maharashtra State Cooperative Sugar Factories Federation, estimates the state’s total cane area for the upcoming season at 8.63 lakh hectares (lh), which is more than the 6.33 lh reported in the 2016-17 season. “Overall cane availability will be around 700 lt. After accounting for the normal 10 per cent diversion towards jaggery, seed, chewing and other uses, mills should be able to crush 630 lt and produce 70-71 lt of sugar at an average recovery of 11.25 per cent,” he points out.

But the big source of uncertainty at present is the lack of water, forcing cane to be used as fodder. If that additional diversion amounts to 10-15 per cent, it could further crimp supplies to mills. Besides, past data indicates even 70 lt may be a tall order. In previous episodes of production dips — in 2008-09 and 2003-04, for instance — the subsequent recovery happened over a minimum two-year period (see chart). The absence of pre-monsoon rains and the current heat wave makes any sharp rebound all the more difficult this time.

Another reason why a V-shaped recovery looks improbable is that farmers have planted very little of high-yielding ‘adsali’ cane. There will also not be that much of ‘ratoon’ – the crop harvested from the stubble of the harvested plant cane (whether adsali, pre-seasonal or suru) – available for mills to crush in 2017-18.

Since only limited fresh planting was possible in 2015-16, a drought year, an estimated 70 per cent of the crop crushed in the last season comprised the ‘ratoon’ cane. In the coming season, it will be the opposite: Only 30 per cent of the cane to be crushed is expected to be ‘ratoon’ and the balance mostly freshly planted crop that yields less compared to the former. In a normal season, mills crush about 40-45 per cent ‘ratoon’ and 55-60 per cent plant cane. It will take at least one more season for normalcy to be restored in Maharashtra’s sugar industry.

Maharashtra’s loss will, of course, be Uttar Pradesh’s gain. UP has overtaken Maharashtra as India’s leading sugar producer in the current season, with mills still crushing and output projected to touch 87-88 lt. That leadership position it is likely to maintain in 2017-18 as well.

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