In what can only be called a knee-jerk reaction, the Maharashtra government has decided to ban the setting up of new sugar mills in the drought-hit Marathwada region.
The underlying logic behind the move is to discourage cultivation of an ostensibly water-guzzling crop. Now, there is no doubt that sugarcane requires over 2,000 mm of water through conventional flood irrigation methods. This is much more than the Marathwada region’s normal average annual rainfall of 821.6 mm, leave alone the 532.2 mm received in 2015 and 548.9 mm the year before. But it raises the question: How does a ban in sanctioning new mills, that too for five years, help?
If, indeed, sugarcane is the main cause of Marathwada’s troubles, as some contend, why limit the ban to just five years? And what about the existing mills: Why allow them to crush at all?
If the Devendra Fadnavis government’s latest decision is aimed at making Marathwada’s farmers grow crops that consume less water, the right way to do so is by ending the regime of subsidies on canal irrigation as well as electricity for pumpsets. It is these subsidies, besides payment of an assured price for their crop supplied to mills, that has led farmers to cultivate more sugarcane by overdrawing both canal and underground water. If water is properly metered and priced to reflect its scarcity value, they may well choose to reduce the area under cane and plant more pulses, oilseeds or cotton instead. Alternatively, they may continue to grow sugarcane, but by employing drip irrigation that will reduce the water requirement for sugarcane to below 1,000 mm.
Those gunning for sugarcane fail to see that this is a crop that also produces green fodder, which farmers would otherwise have had to grow separately. Moreover, unlike other industries, sugar mills neither require water nor electricity from outside; these are present either directly in the cane or generated as a byproduct. Clearly, there is an element of exaggeration to the view that blames Marathwada’s water woes entirely on sugarcane, while ignoring the impact of monsoon failure itself in three out of the last four years. This view, perhaps, also underestimates the benefits sugar may have brought to the region’s farmers, including generating employment opportunities.
While not permitting new mills may help the Fadnavis government to score political brownie points — the earlier Congress-NCP dispensation was, after all, synonymous with the state’s powerful “sugar lobby” — it does not address the core issue of rational water use. If canal water is made available to all crops on a uniform per-hectare basis sans any subsidies, farmers can be trusted to make the right planting decisions based on market signals. They don’t have to be told what to grow — and what not to grow.