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A bitter sugar story

In Maharashtra, where the sugar industry and politics are twined, drought is a manmade disaster

Written by Girish Kuber |
Updated: April 19, 2016 12:43:48 pm
maharashtra, marathwada, latur, maharashtra drought, latur water crisis, marathwada drought, maharashtra sugarcane, sugarcane farming maharashtra, maharashtra bjp, bjp shiv sena govt, maharashtra water crisis, india drought, india news, maharashtra news Harischandra Sapkal (60), a farmer from Chincholi village of Latur district, breaks down while narrating his tale of woe vis a vis lack of rain that wrecked his sugarcane crop. (Source: Express photo by Pradip Das)

Rains fall from the sky, but drought is “made” on the ground, at least in Maharashtra. The prevailing water crisis in the state is not about the unavailability of water resources. It’s all about criminal mismanagement of available resources.

For the record: Yes, rains were deficient last year. In regions like Marathwada, which is facing an acute water scarcity, the shortfall was as much as 40 per cent. Yes, it is also true that it was the second consecutive year that rains were scanty in some regions, including Marathwada. But that cannot be the sole reason for the situation the state finds itself in. For, if one considers the average rainfall across the state, the blame-it-on-nature argument would get turned upside down.

Last year, Maharashtra’s average rainfall was around 1,300 mm, which was more than the national average of 1,100 mm. Some areas, like the Konkan region, received more than 3,000 mm of rainfall.

Marathwada received 882 mm, while another drought-prone region, Vidarbha, was blessed with 1,034 mm of rain. Compare this with one of India’s most arid regions, the desert state of Rajasthan, where average annual rainfall is never more than 400 mm. So why is Rajasthan not in as dire a state as Maharashtra?

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The answer to this question will make clear the state’s gross and criminal negligence in water management. If there is one point in common with all governments that have ruled the state since its inception in 1960, it is their complete apathy towards water issues. No government of the state — including that of the BJP-Shiv Sena between 1995-99 — has attached importance to issues such as water conservation, drip irrigation or rejuvenating ground water. Why?

Because government after government in the state has been run by those engaged in the gross misuse of water. In Maharashtra, they are called sugar barons, and they are large in number. This has resulted in the state witnessing a seemingly unstoppable increase in the number of sugar cooperatives. As of today, Maharashtra is home to over 205 sugar cooperatives. Add to this around 80 sugar mills that are privately owned. Though, strictly speaking, these mills are private, in many cases, their promoters chair cooperative mills as well. In fact, it is a popular pastime of politicians in Maharashtra to make state-funded sugar cooperatives sick, and then convert them into private ones. Water misuse is just collateral damage.

Sugarcane is a water-guzzler. Maharashtra is the second-largest producer of sugar after Uttar Pradesh. But, unlike the northern state, which has a huge river network, including that of the Ganges, Maharashtra’s sugarcane cultivation is in zones where water is extremely scarce.

Government records tell us that just about 4 per cent of farmed land in the state is under sugarcane cultivation. But what they don’t tell us is the amount of water this tiny percentage of land guzzles. The 4 per cent of land under sugarcane cultivation consumes as much as 71.5 per cent of irrigated water, including that from wells. This is not a revelation. The state always knew this. But it never thought of putting a stop to the mushrooming of sugar mills because they are either owned or controlled by the state’s politicians. Any politician worth his name in Maharashtra has to have at least one sugar mill to support his or her political empire. The rule applies to all parties across all regions, including the most drought-prone, Marathwada.

In the last three years, the region has added 20 sugar factories, taking the total to 70 — even as villages are supplied with drinking water by trains and tankers. No wonder then that the groundwater table in Marathwada has hit rock bottom. Experts warn that if corrective steps are not taken quickly, in the next two decades, the Marathwada region will become Maharashtra’s first desert. Some of the state’s districts like Pune, for example, have as many as 62 sugar mills. So other regions are not far behind.

That’s not all. The water situation is alarming in Maharashtra, even though the state has the largest number of large dams in the country. Maharashtra has built as many as 1,845 large dams. A dam with a height of more than 15 metres or a storage capacity of more than 60 million cubic metres is considered large. The number of dams in the state is substantial by any standard. The whole game plays out like this: Politicians propose irrigation facilities in the areas where they have business interests. Be it sugar cooperatives or dairy. In rural Maharashtra, a politician’s might is measured by his or her ability to get a sugar cooperative along with facilities for the irrigation of sugarcane crop. This has, in many places, rendered agricultural land useless.

But the real shocker is this: In an era where the entire world is anxious and worried about climatic changes, Maharashtra is totally oblivious to the reality. It is yet to bring in concepts like water governance. Though for a while it mulled making drip irrigation mandatory for sugarcane cultivation, it is yet to enforce it. Till then, it continues to use a rudimentary technique for supplying water — flood irrigation — where an entire farm is flooded with water. One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to be able to see that this results in extreme wastage of water. Currently, the state government allots 70-75 per cent of water in reservoirs for agricultural use, 10-15 per cent for industry, and 10 per cent for domestic use. No coincidence that water wastage follows the same pattern, with maximum waste in the agricultural sector.

This explains why the current drought in the state is more a manmade catastrophe than a natural one. Droughts don’t hit us like tsunamis. They give enough warnings. Maharashtra is paying the price for ignoring those.


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