The Marathwada region hit severely by drought, the Maharashtra government is looking at banning sugarcane cultivation and crushing from mid-September in the worst-affected districts. Both processes demand huge quantities of water but the expected move, if and when introduced, could face opposition from the sugar industry.
The decision could come as early as Tuesday, when Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has convened a meeting with senior ministers and agriculture experts to recommend water-saving measures to be introduced from the middle of the month. Agriculture Minister Eknath Khadse hinted at what is in store.
“Sugar cultivation and crushing require huge amounts of water from dams, rivers and borewells and have to be banned in Marathwada,” Khadse said. “We have to keep people and animals alive. Sugarcane cultivation and crushing can wait for one season.”
The ban could be extended to some districts of North Maharashtra and Western Maharashtra, which too are facing a water crisis. The state government may also recommend a change in crop pattern to promote less water-intensive crops. “The production of 1 kg sugar consumes 2,068 litres water,” said an agriculture official.
Former minister Harshvardhan Patil, who runs sugar mills in western Maharashtra, agreed that in a crisis, “the state government’s first priority will obviously be drinking water for people and animals; agriculture will come later”.
But he stressed the sugar industry’s importance to the economy. “The sugar industry in the state is worth Rs 50,000 crore,” he said. “Some 25 to 27 lakh farmers cultivate sugarcane, 10 lakh more work as labourers during harvesting, and 2.5 lakh others are employed in sugar mills.” The industry contributes revenue of Rs 5,000 crore, half of this to the state and half to the Centre.
Marathwada has 75 to 80 of the state’s 205 sugar mills. Of the five dams in the region, Jayakwadi is 6 per cent full while the rest have sunk to dead reserves.
“In Solapur, Osmanabad, Latur and Beed, sugar mills often find ways to exploit water bodies to overcome losses,” said the officer, calling for a strict ban with penalties.
“Sugarcane should not be allowed in drought-prone districts,” water management expert Madhav Chitale said.
“Today, the average rainfall at the best of times is suitable for crops that can sustain eight months. Cane cultivation and crushing require water for 12 months. The government should seriously go for changes in crop pattern… Sugar is best suited for districts like Kolhapur with surplus rainfall.”