Sugarcane, the most water-intensive crop grown in Maharashtra, requires 10 times more water than jowar or groundnut. Yet the regions it is grown in most are chronically drought-hit, and receive highest central aid for drought relief. What’s worse a dismally low amount of sugarcane area under drip irrigation. These findings of a latest study by South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) come at a juncture when CM Prithviraj Chauhan has officially admitted “11,801 villages are in the grip of a drought worse than 1972.” More than 50% of these are in Solapur district alone.
“The drought hasn’t exactly crept in by stealth. It’s building since August 2012, when over 400 villages were officially declared drought-hit,” observed Parineeta Dandekar of SANDRP who has conducted the study. ““The sugarcane farmers’ protest over fair price was boiling for past few years and the government kept ignoring warnings about the irrigation scam, despite its unprecedented scale in the same period.”
According to the study all these factors have not come together in a mere unfortunate coincidence. ““It makes reasons behind Maharashtra’s drought starker than poor rainfall. Unless addressed, no amount of state and central assistance can reduce the misery of the people struggling with drought.”
The study points out how In 2009-10, of the approximate 25 lakh hectares (ha) of irrigated area in Maharashtra 3,97,000 ha was under sugarcane. Area under sugarcane grew to 9,70,000 ha in 2010-11 and then to 10,02, 000 ha by 2011-12. “When grown on 16% irrigated area, sugarcane used 76% of all water available for irrigation. With increasing area under sugarcane, its hegemony has increased exponentially. Not only does it capture maximum water, it results in water logging, salinity and severe water pollution by sugar factories,” it says. Incidentally, at 209 Maharashtra has the largest number of sugar factories in India.
The study uses Solapur district in Bhima basin to connect drought with sugarcane. Here drinking water supply is already a severe problem. Despite over a 1,000 tankers being pressed into service, an exodus of stricken communities to urban areas has begun. Though chronically drought-hit, this worst drought-hit district in the country has the largest areas in any single district growing sugarcane (vis-a-vis size) according to the new study.
With an average rainfall of 550 mm Solapur is the largest sugarcane producer in the state and has densest concentration of both area under sugarcane (see pie chart above) and sugar factories. The district includes Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar’s parliamentary constituency too. “That such water-intensive cropping should flourish in an arid region in Pawar’s own constituency talks a lot about both political power of sugarcane and the attitude of the ministry,” remarks the study.
The study shows how several sugar factories upstream of Ujani, take water through unauthorised lifts from the backwaters and places total water going to sugarcane from the dam to be over 80%. “This causes severe water scarcity downstream, and Solapur faces the brunt of drought,” it observes and adds, “This diversion can’t happen without political support. Of the 30 cabinet ministers in the state, 13 either own sugar factories, or substantial shares in them.”
Pointing out the irony of the state’s recent white paper on irrigation projects which boasts that Ujani irrigates 92,000 ha of sugarcane, the study asks how such shocking usage can be justified in a drought-prone, acutely low rainfall region.
When approached for comment Solapur Collector Pravin Gedam told DNA that he had already communicated the concerns of district administration to state authorities. “We have already exhausted 17% of the dead water so obviously we are concerned. We are rationing out whatever if left so that we can go on till the monsoon,” he said and added, “We raid and confiscate pumps whenever we hear of illegal lifting of water upstream.”