This is both election season and peak sugarcane crushing time in Uttar Pradesh (UP). While it is only natural that poll-related developments hog the headlines now, one quiet revolution — which has transformed the fortunes of the state’s biggest and most politically-sensitive industry — has, however, gone largely unnoticed. It is about a cane variety, Co 0238, that has made a huge difference to UP’s 115-odd sugar mills and its 25 lakh-plus cane growers.
Till the 2012-13 season (October-September), UP farmers hardly cultivated this high-yielding cane variety that also gives higher sugar recovery for mills. In 2013-14, an area of 72,623 hectares was covered under it, rising to 1,76,763 hectares and 4,02,719 hectares in the next two seasons. The result: average sugar recovery, which was only 9.18 per cent of cane crushed in 2012-13, went up to 9.26, 9.54 and 10.62 per cent in the seasons that followed.
In the current 2016-17 season, Co 0238 would account for 7,28,604 hectares or 35.5 per cent of UP’s total sugarcane area. “I expect recovery for the whole season (crushing will go on till April-end) to be at par with last year’s. Heavy rains in September, which led to water-logging in the low-lying cane belts of central and eastern UP, may bring down the average to below the originally anticipated 11 per cent,” notes Bakshi Ram, director of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s Sugarcane Breeding Institute at Coimbatore and breeder of the wonder variety.
For an idea of what Co 0238 has done for UP, one could assume a 1.25 percentage point increase in average sugar recovery owing to this variety. In the 2016-17 season, mills in the state are likely to crush about 750 lakh tonnes (lt) of cane. The higher recovery, then, translates into 9.375 lt of extra sugar production, which, at an average ex-factory price of Rs 35 per kg, is worth over Rs 3,280 crore. This is the additional revenue that Bakshi Ram’s variety would be contributing to UP mills in this season alone!
The impact is even more palpable at an individual mill level. Take Dwarikesh Sugar Industries Ltd (DSIL), which was among the early promoters of Co 0238. In the 2012-13 season itself, the company got 1,171 hectares and 323 hectares cane area under its Bundki and Bahadarpur factories in Bijnor district covered under the variety. By 2015-16, these respective acreages had reached 17,503 hectares and 7,649 hectares. This season, Co 0238 has covered 24,509 hectares or nearly 88.5 per cent out of the Bundi mill’s total cane area of 27,714 hectares, with the corresponding figures for Bahadarpur being 13,581 hectares, 51 per cent and 26,672 hectares, respectively.
The end-result: The Bundki plant’s sugar recovery, which averaged 10.32 per cent in 2012-13, increased to 12.12 per cent in 2015-16, while similarly rising from 10 per cent to 11.77 per cent for the Bahadarpur unit. “The average recovery in this season would be 12.4 per cent at Bundki and 12 per cent for Bahadarpur,” projects S.P. Singh, chief general manager, DSIL.
The increased recoveries — amounting to roughly two percentage points for DSIL’s two Bijnor factories — is linked to the cane’s ‘early-maturity’ character. Farmers in UP plant cane during February-April, which is ready for crushing in 11-12 months. Further, there is a 9-11 month ‘ratoon’ crop that grows from the stubble of the previously-harvested plant cane. Early maturity refers not to the crop’s duration, but sucrose accumulation. These, for Co 0238, reach 15-16 per cent levels in the ratoon cane by November and by mid-January for the plant crop. This is not the case with the ‘general’ varieties, where the same sucrose accumulation levels are achieved only after mid-December for the ratoon and from March for the plant cane (not all sucrose in the cane is recovered as sugar; the unrecovered part goes into molasses used by distilleries).
“The advantage with early-maturing varieties is that you get high recovery from November and all through the crushing season. Already 85 per cent of our cane area in Bahadarpur is under early varieties like Co 0238 and CoJ 85, while it is 91 per cent-plus for Bundki. We want to push this to 100 per cent by 2018-19,” adds Singh. The UP government has fixed a state advised price (SAP) of Rs 315 per quintal for early-maturing cane, as against Rs 305 for general varieties.
But mills haven’t been the sole beneficiaries from Co 0238. Farmers have also gained because of the higher yields from this variety. Before Co 0238, the cane varieties cultivated in northern India were all ‘medium-thin’, with the average diameter of each stick at 2-2.25 cm. Co 0238, by contrast, is ‘medium-thick, whose individual cane sticks have a diameter range of 2.5 to 3 cm. While increased thickness confers greater yields, it can, however, also mean reduced sugar recovery. “Breaking this negative correlation was a challenge. What we needed was a medium-thick variety that would give higher yields to growers and simultaneously more sucrose content for mills early in crushing season,” explains Bakshi Ram.
According to Sukhbir Singh Nijjer, a 25-acre farmer from Jogipura village in Bijnor’s Dhampur tehsil, his cane yields from general varieties like CoS 767 and CoS 8432 used to average 40-50 quintals per bigha or 50-62.5 tonnes/hectare (5 bigha=one acre; 12.5 bigha=one hectare). But with Co 0238 and trench planting — making raised beds on fields and sowing the cane seeds (‘setts’) on the furrows at four feet row-to-row distance, which enables better tillering than through conventional flat-bed planting at narrow two-feet spacing — these have gone up to 100-120 quintals a bigha or 125-150 tonnes per hectare.
Some growers like Nijjer and Meghraj Singh Chauhan, who cultivates 13 acres at Alampur Ganvadi village in the same tehsil, are even experimenting with autumn planting of Co 0238. This crop, planted in mid-September and of 15 months duration, gave Nijjer a yield of 175 quintals per bigha (218 tonnes/hectares) when he harvested it early this month on one acre. The wide spacing with trench planting, moreover, allows a short-duration crop of potato, cauliflower, cabbage, chilly or mustard to be planted along with the cane on the raised beds and harvested by February-March. “Last February, I harvested 40 quintals of potato on my one-acre plot under autumn-planted Co 0238. It more than made up for the extra three-month duration for the cane,” says Chauhan. He expects his about-to-be harvested 20-feet tall cane — normal cane grows to 10-12 feet — to easily yield 150 quintals a bigha or 187.5 tonnes per hectare.
Even the average reported yields of 80 tonnes hectare for Co 0238 work out 15-20 tonnes more than that for CoS 767, till recently the most widely cultivated cane variety in UP till recently. At the SAP of Rs 315/quintal, the additional income to farmers from that comes to Rs 47,250-Rs 63,000 per hectare. Mills, too, would gross a revenue of Rs 420 from producing 12 kg of sugar from one quintal of cane at Rs 35/kg, as against Rs 350 from 10 kg earlier. It gives some leeway, then, to pay the SAP, which wasn’t possible with 9.25-9.5 per cent recovery rates.
Co 0238 couldn’t also have come at a better time. India’s sugar production this season may fall to 210-220 lt, compared to 252 lt for 2015-16, on the back of lower output in Maharashtra (from 85 to 50-51 lt), Karnataka (41 lt to 23-24 lt). Uttar Pradesh could, however, see an increase from 68.5 lt to 78-80 lt. That, together with higher ex-factory realisations, sugar recoveries, cane yields and SAP, is something the state’s millers and growers certainly wouldn’t mind — after four torrid years and ahead of Assembly elections.