Also read: Drought-hit Solapur grows water-guzzler cane
Since a South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) study showed largest amount of water-intensive sugarcane is grown in the most chronic drought-hit Solapur region which also receives the maximum central drought aid, DNA has found how sugarcane irrigation is drying drought-affected Krishna and Godavari basins too. So much so, it now commands maximum irrigation water in the state! (See tables)
Though leading agronomic experts, organisations and reports by institutions like World Bank have often highlighted the unjustifiably high share of sugarcane in Maharashtra’s irrigation, in a cruel irony, a memorandum for drought relief sent to the Centre from Maharashtra in 2003-04 justifies this calling the water-sapping cane “the state’s agro-economic lifeline.”
Parineeta Dandekar of the SANDRP told DNA, “More than agro-economy, sugarcane is currently the lifeline of political economy. Sugar barons who treat constituencies like personal fiefs don’t want to think beyond personal short term profits.”
Scoffing at official claims of three million farmers plus labourers are involved in sugarcane farming, Dandekar asks, “Even if a million ha were under sugarcane, how can three million be involved in sugarcane farming when average farm size in Maharashtra is 1.45 ha?”
“Instead of hiding behind dubious statistics, politicians should ensure farmers don’t suffer the same fate repeatedly. Climate change means droughts are more frequent. The only way out is to improve resilience of agro-economic and water management systems. Encouraging sugarcane in chronically drought affected areas is poor adaptation and pushes dependent farmers further into the vicious cycle of uncertainty, drought, crop failures, and hardships.”
Others point out how sugar-baron politicians obstruct district collectors from exercising their power to reserve water for drinking in any project.
For instance Osmanabad collector KM Nagzode wrote to the state sugar commissioner on 29 November 2012 that his district had received only 50% of average rainfall, and water levels in dams were extremely low while ground water hadn’t been replenished. “Since a sugar factory uses at least a lakh litres of water daily, it’d be advisable to suspend crushing and divert harvest to neighbouring districts.” However such orders were never given and cane crushing went on.
With over 25,100 hectares under it, the arid Osmanabad is a major sugarcane producer thanks to it getting all the irrigation.
This year Maharashtra had sought Rs2,500 crores for drought relief. The Centre has agreed to less than half the amount (Rs1,207 crore) on March 12. “Yet, one can imagine politicians and ministers salivating over siphoning money under EGS, tankers and cattle camps or still fancier ones like water trains. With the first rain, they’ll be back to aggressively plugging sugarcane,” laments a senior state water resources bureaucrat. “It took very long for Anna Hazare and Popatrao Pawar to eradicate the sugarcane scourge from their own villages of Ralegan Sidhi and Hiware Bazar. Wonder who will do this for the remaining state?”
Explaining why sugarcane is attractive he added, “Unlike other crops, cane merely requires switching on the pump to flood fields. Also given how politicians bend over backwards in increasing procurement price every year makes it more and more attractive.”
According to him it will need a tall leader who the farmers trust and believe in to take them away from sugarcane. “The only one who can do it is busy managing cricket. As for the others, I wouldn’t be surprised if they think sugar directly grows in fields,” he lamented with a smile.