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Water crisis leads to call to stop sugarcane crop in Latur

Published : May 2, 2016, 1:26 am IST
Updated : May 2, 2016, 1:26 am IST

Surveys show there has been depletion of three metres in groundwater levels in Latur this year; district administration is trying to reduce land under sugarcane farming from 45,000 to 7,000 hectares


Surveys show there has been depletion of three metres in groundwater levels in Latur this year; district administration is trying to reduce land under sugarcane farming from 45,000 to 7,000 hectares

Latur has been facing one of its worst droughts this year. So, while the government has managed to ease the drinking water problem by introducing ‘water trains’ for Latur city in addition to deploying 260 water tankers to supply water to 194 villages, the unprecedented situation has led to a call for ban on the water-guzzling sugarcane crop, which many perceive as one of the reasons for depletion of groundwater in the perennial drought-hit district. According to Groundwater Surveys and Development Agency data, there has been depletion of three metres in groundwater levels in Latur this year.

Collector of Latur district, Pandurang Pol, informed The Asian Age that the district administration has been trying to reduce land under sugarcane farming from 45,000 hectares to 7,000 hectares. “Sugarcane cultivation is one of the major issues that need to be tackled if we have to improve the water situation in Latur. Though the whole of Marathwada is drought-prone, Latur faces the worst water shortage because its river originates in Beed, which is a rain-shadow region. All other districts in the region get water from rivers that originate in western Maharashtra. For sugarcane farming, there has to be suitable land as well as well water available. In Latur, there is only 7,000 hectares of land available where both these conditions are fulfilled. Till last year, sugarcane was grown on 45,000 hectares of land. This year, the same has come down to 28,000 hectares. We need to bring it down further and for this, we also need to educate farmers. I have written personal letters to 29,000 farmers explaining the situation,” said Mr Pol. The Latur collector further said that sugarcane cultivation in Latur mostly depends on borewell water, with there being 1.25 lakh wells and borewells in Latur. This year's water crisis has prompted the state government to impose a ban on digging borewells that go deeper than 200 metres.

However, this is not the first time that the state government has realised that sugarcane farming is not suitable for Marathwada. The Maharashtra Water and Irrigation Commission, in its report in 1999, had suggested putting a stop to sugarcane cultivation in Marathwada. Notwithstanding, there are 10 sugar mills in Latur alone. According to experts, a sugar mill requires 40 tonnes of sugarcane for it to remain profitable, which is why sugar mill owners encourage farmers to cultivate sugarcane even though sugarcane farming is not suitable for Marathwada. Deputy director of Maharashtra Nature Park, Avinash Kubal, is also of the view that farmers in Marathwada should cultivate crops that are suitable in dry areas. “Crops like sugarcane and banana require large quantities of water. In drought-prone Marathwada, where people are facing problems getting adequate drinking water, the use of a lot of water in farming is not advisable. Latur has two problems: One is the high rate of evaporation of water and the second is that excess water supplied to farms does not percolate into the land as the entire region sits above basaltic strata,” he said.

Despite repeated calls for ban on sugarcane cultivation, the irony is that sugar factories have played an important part in Latur's rural economy. Local MLA Amit Deshmukh’s family is associated with four out of the 10 sugar mills in Latur. A look at the balance sheets of these four sugar mills — Manjara, Rena, Vikas and Jagruti — shows that they paid Rs 371 crore to farmers, transporters, farm labourers, and factory workers. Of the Rs 371 crore, Rs 221 crore was paid to farmers alone and Rs 47 crore to farm labourers. In 2014-15, these factories distributed Rs 683 crore to farmers and others. Mr Deshmukh said, "There is no doubt that we need to conserve water. Sugar factories do not need water. Now, with advanced technology, we reuse water generated from sugarcane crushing for factories. By next year, our factories will be completely self-sufficient in water supply. But there is a need to stop misuse of water in sugarcane cultivation. Lawmakers should make it mandatory for sugarcane farmers to use drip irrigation and other such techniques. Completely stopping sugarcane cultivation will have other adverse effects. One sugar mill provides direct or indirect employment to about one lakh people. We also get ethanol and generate electricity, thereby reducing the carbon footprint.”Ashok Bhutada, owner of Kirti Oil Mill, the biggest producer of soya bean oil in Latur, echoed similar views. “If the government wants to discourage farmers from cultivating sugarcane, they should be given confidence that other produce will give them good returns. The fact is that farmers struggle even to recover their investment if they grow anything else,”he said.

Then again, farmers themselves are now worried about the feasibility of sugarcane cultivation in Latur. Balaji Magar, a farmer from Kunki village in Jalkot taluka, which is about 90 km away from Latur city, said, “I have decided to cultivate soya bean now. Sugarcane has become unreliable. Even if it rains next year and doesn’t the year after that, I will incur huge losses. Sugarcane is profitable only if you get good rain for three consecutive years.” His village sarpanch, Santosh Tikde, seconded him. “We have received below-normal rainfall in the last five consecutive years. There is a growing tendency among farmers to move to other crops that do not require a lot of water. Soya bean, pulses and mustard can be grown with little water. There will be less income but farmers are also looking at stability,” said Mr Tikde.