The Telegraph
Wednesday , April 17 , 2013
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sugarcane guzzles but cash dazzles

- Maharashtra’s drought belt caught between crop economics and fallout on water table

Think one day at a time. That’s Takviki village’s strategy to combat drought —mentally.

“We don’t want to think about what tomorrow has in store,” says young farmer Santosh Yadav as other villagers giggle nervously. “It will leave us with depression.”

The failure to think long term — the villagers’ and the administration’s — is also what has hastened their current problems.

Despite the past two years’ poor monsoons, about a fourth of Takviki’s farmland grows the water-guzzling sugarcane, a normally profitable cash crop that plays havoc with the water table in chronically low-rain areas.

Even sugar factories use up a lot of water. So, when he sensed a drought looming, Osmanabad district collector K.M. Nagargoje wrote to Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan last December recommending suspension of the Diwali-to-March cane-crushing season to preserve water for drinking.

It earned him a snub from the Aurangabad divisional commissioner for his “knee-jerk reaction”.

So, as Maharashtra crushed 80 million tonnes of cane to produce 8 million quintals of sugar in the just-ended crushing season, Osmanabad district too happily crushed over 25 lakh tonnes of sugarcane.

Now, all but two of Takviki’s power-run tube wells are dry. And the current sugarcane crop is wilting without water in the parched fields, like elsewhere in the drought zone.

Fulltime job

Making multiple trips every day to bring water from three to five kilometres away takes up much of Takviki residents’ time, energy and money.

For the past five months, Jumbar Yadav, a 40-something landless labourer, has been reporting late every day to his employer’s farm. Often he has to skip work to fetch water, forgoing his daily wage.

One person in every family every day must spend the whole day fetching water, or every member must spend two-three hours a day doing it, says Ajay Niture, 25, who says ferrying water on his motorbike has given him joint pain.

“Some others do it on bicycles,” he says. The rest, especially the women, do it on foot. For, the two functioning tube wells cannot serve a village of 3,000 where power, like water, is rationed too.

“This week, power supply is from 10am to 6pm, but next week the timings would be from midnight to 10am,” says Niture. So, some people will be spending the night dragging cans of water.

A group of women have crowded round one of the two tube wells. The village panchayat has requisitioned it for public use; so the government pays the owner Rs 12,000 every month.

The families recycle the water: first to bathe, then to wash clothes, and finally to clean the dishes. But a question hangs in the air: will the two tube wells last the summer?

Ajay’s friend Bharat Raut spends about Rs 800 a month on fuel ferrying water home from his bore well on his five-acre farmland, set about 3-4km from the village. He saves the water for drinking, letting his sugarcane and jowar crops wither.

A paradox

Going by the Maharashtra Economic Survey 2012-13, nearly 80 per cent of the state’s sugarcane is grown in acutely water-scarce areas that receive central aid for drought.

Maharashtra’s share in India’s total sugar output is about 35 per cent — which means nearly 28 per cent of India’s sugar comes from the drought zone. The shift from food crops like sorghum and millets to sugarcane and other cash crops has happened over the past 10 years.

Overall, sugarcane corners 76 per cent of all irrigation water from Maharashtra’s dams while occupying just 16 per cent of the total irrigated land, show data compiled by a voluntary organisation, South Asian Network Dams, Rivers and People.

The joke in Maharashtra is that if you see sprawling sugarcane fields, you know you are in the drought zone.

“Where people grow sugarcane,” Osmanabad collector Nagargoje says, “we are providing tankers for drinking water.”

A hectare of sugarcane consumes 70,000 litres of water per day, equivalent to the daily requirement of some 3,000 people.

“In scarcity, we take 25 litres as the per-person-per-day requirement in rural areas and 35 litres in urban parts,” says Nagargoje. “In normal conditions, a person needs 40 litres of water a day for drinking and other purposes.”

During the crushing season, each factory requires a million litres of water every day.

Groundwater drop

Across Osmanabad, the water table has dropped over six metres on an average in five years — from 10.79 metres to 17 metres. In Umarga, a sugarcane-growing block, tube wells are sliding down more than 1,000 feet without finding water. Osmanabad’s only big dam, Sina-Kolegaon, and 17 medium dams have dead storage level.

The district receives an annual average rainfall of 767mm. In 2012-13, it recorded 397mm (over 50 per cent) and the previous year, around 67 per cent. This is just enough to grow food and meet the requirements of people and livestock, but sugarcane takes up most of it.

From village councils to the Assembly, water is the talking point. The drought is on the front page of every local newspaper.

In Parli Baijnath, Beed, the Maharashtra State Power Generation Company has shut down its 1,200MW thermal plant because it has run out of water supply. The Majalgaon reservoir, which provides water to the plant, dried up like over 10,000 small, medium and big reservoirs in the state.

In the same district, a 450-year-old well has gone dry, possibly for the first time.

Maharashtra is now worried about water riots. State police chief Sanjeev Dayal has been quoted as saying he has instructed his force to be ready for any contingency but handle matters with sensitivity.

But the villages don’t want to think about the sugarcane-drought link. It’s a crop more lucrative than food crops; it powers the state’s politics and economy; it’s also one that draws a lot of state subsidies.

Ask Takviki villagers if they would still cultivate sugarcane after this year’s drought, and there is a studied silence.

“We switched to sugarcane because no other crop fetches us good returns,” says a villager. “Give us good price for sorghum; we’ll stop growing sugarcane.”