Ever since the Green Revolution, many geographical belts in parts of North India changed their cropping/farming patterns to produce lucrative cash crops like wheat, rice and sugarcane. These crops are surprisingly huge water guzzlers.
The spillover effects of this change have permeated everywhere else in India. Farmers have totally abandoned native crops that were more drought/flood resilient and required less water for cultivation. The main reasons for this shift were accessibility to irrigation facilities, availability of High Yielding Variety (HYV) seeds, affordable financing, high crop cash returns and assured market price of the State/Central government-promoted crops.
Wheat and rice has been the predominant cropping pattern in Punjab. Sugarcane is mostly grown in drier areas of Maharashtra and all over Uttar Pradesh, even though none of these crops are staples to these specific regions. There has been a considerable increase in the growth of cereal crops and sugarcane farming at the cost of pulses that were staple to these regions. The government has made efforts to provide uninterrupted and subsidized supply of water to irrigate wheat, rice and sugarcane farms in these three states. In doing so, they have outright neglected other crops.
This begs the question: what is the role of state=specific water management and governance practices?
Sugarcane cultivation in Maharashtra
In Maharashtra, sugarcane covers 4% of the total cropped area with an estimated produce of 830,000 tonnes cane in 2015-16. It is the highest sugar producing state of India (32%) followed by Uttar Pradesh. This particular crop-growing pattern is policy-induced and industry-driven. Its repercussions can be seen every now and then. The process follows this course of incidents:
Policy-induced cropping pattern change to sugarcane cultivation has lead to growth in water-guzzling cane crops and an increase in the demand for irrigation amidst severe water crisis in Maharashtra. This has been a result of unfavorable monsoon pattern due to climate change, thereby leading to recurring incidents of droughts. This directly leads to crop failure, followed by a market crash and ultimately raised the incidents of famer suicide that were engulfed in the vicious circle of non-institutional debt trap.
Debates on water governance and inappropriate sugarcane cultivation have been hovering around the drought issue, specifically in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra. It has been engulfed by the recent 2016 drought, faced four rain deficit years in the last five years and witnessed continual decline in the groundwater levels.
Due to crop failure, this region has also seen burgeoning numbers of farmer suicides. Around 1,200 farmers killed themselves in 2015 and 273 farmers ended their lives in early 2016. Sadly, this region has seen more than 250 farmer suicides every year since the drought of 2012.
Many water experts and agriculture scientists have blamed poor water governance coupled with growth of sugarcane cultivation in the region for the farmer suicide issues and increasing crop failure. I totally agree with these experts and second their position.
Politics, specifically the power of the “sugar lobby”, has dictated the growth of sugarcane cropping in Maharashtra and has overlooked other crops. Furthermore, the sugar industry has benefited tremendously from the biased allocation of surface water for irrigation and unregulated groundwater extraction in the state. Even though the cane cropped area is just 4 percent in Maharashtra, due to strong sugar lobbying, it receives atleast 70 percent of the total irrigated water, with other unofficial estimates stating it to be around 89 percent.
Prioritizing Sugarcane while neglecting other issues
The Maharashtra government has stimulated sugarcane production even in the middle of drought conditions. As per the Economic Survey of Maharashtra 2015-16, in the previous year, deficit monsoon and unseasonal rains lead to a decline in the production of foodgrains by 24.9 percent, cereals by 18.7 percent, pulses by 47 percent and fruits and vegetables by 15 percent. However, the state has recorded a 19 per cent increase in sugarcane production.
Paradoxically, most of this sugar comes from the drought-hit Marathwada region. In Marathwada, the sugarcane area has gone up by 19% in the last five years. However, the production of Kharif sorgum, for the same period, has reduced by nearly half. 80 of the state’s 205 sugar factories are located in Marathwada.
Also, other evidence points out the government has biased water governance practices and an apathy towards providing drinking water to other drought hit areas of Maharashtra. A 2013 report claims that the state government diverted 1983.43 million cubic meters of water from 51 irrigation dam projects for non-irrigation purposes, while another report claims diversion of about 30-90 percent of dam water to big cites and industries. These stats and studies clearly point out the institutional inefficiency and pro politico-industrial agenda in Maharashtra to promote the growth of sugarcane.
Policy level steps that can be taken to prevent such droughts in future
It is a clarion call for the Maharashtra government to wake up. It needs to keep its vested sugarcane interests aside and think about the welfare and protection of the agrarian community. Maharashtra, along with other parts of India, is highly vulnerable to climate change and it is evident that incidents like droughts will occur frequently in this State. The following national and state level policy recommendations can be looked into:
- Government should stop promoting sugarcane cultivation in the drought-affected areas of Maharashtra and other water guzzling crops in other drought affected states of India.
- The sugar producing industries should be de-incentivized in the drought hit regions for some years by rejecting the licenses to operate the units.
- Region specific cropping pattern should be diversified to include more less-water intensive and climate resilient staple crops. For example, Marathwada is a dry, climate change vulnerable area with falling groundwater levels and less developed surface irrigation infrastructure. Therefore, sugarcane cultivation is not a feasible option for this region. Instead the farmers should cultivate its staple, drought-resistant crops such as jowar (sorghum), chana (chickpea), moong and maize.
- Irrigation water should be adequately allocated to various other crops, including fruits and vegetables and not just cash crops.
- Government should also keep a check on unauthorized use of water from reservoirs of irrigation projects for industrial or urban use.
- Government should monitor the groundwater levels and enact stringent laws to keep the aquifer water content at a certain level.
- More impetus should be given to complete minor and major surface irrigation projects along with promotion of traditional means of watershed management like ridge to valley projects.
- Central government needs to lay a pragmatic roadmap for climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. For climate mitigation, our revered scientific agricultural institutions should be encouraged to develop different varieties of heat, drought and flood resilient crops. This would require committed invested in the R&D sector. For climate adaptation, farmer crop failure risk should be backed up by effective crop insurance schemes. Investments in innovative techniques like cloud seeding should also be promoted in India.
- Agriculture water wastage should be taken care of by encouraging investment in drip irrigation and other water saving technological innovations.
- Lastly, water governance and management should be diligently implemented.