Thirsty sugarcane in dry Marathwada means a loss of 2 million farmer livelihoods

Above: Gangakhed sugar factory from Parbhani Marathwada which has crushed 7 Lakh Tonnes of cane till 21 Feb 2015. Parbhani has received a mere 346 mm rainfall this year, nearly equal to what it received during epic drought of 1972


Although Marathwada region in Maharashtra is no stranger to droughts, it’s facing a singularly acute crisis this year. Kharif crops had failed in all of the 8139 Kharif villages in the region with yields less than 50% of government standards (paisewari). Rabi is under cloud too with all 396 villages assessed for production showing less than 50% yield. And yet, area under and production of water guzzler crop like Sugarcane is going up. In 2013-14, Marathwada grew over 2 lakh hectares of sugarcane and is now crushing the cane in its 61 sugar factories using thousands of lakhs of litres water every day.

Does this make any social, economic or environmental sense? No

But do we have options? It seems so. Let us see how. 

Rainfall which has traditionally played truant in Marathwada has been even harsher last year. The overall monsoon was 42% deficit (IMD) and in 4 of the 8 Marathwada districts (Nanded, Parbhani, Latur and Beed), rainfall has been lower than the epic drought of 2012 (SANDRP, 2013). Whats more, in Parbhani the 2014 rainfall at 346.3 mm competes in scarcity with 1972 drought when rainfall was 341.8 mm. ( 1972 drought was the worst drought Maharashtra faced since independence.

Groundwater is currently in a precarious state with draft in nearly 250 villages exceeding recharge. Tanker and Borewell Mafia is flourishing in Marathwada. Reports state that more than 10,000 borewells are being sunk in Marathwada every moth, even as water levels plummet at 800 feet or deeper. (Agrowon, Feb 2015)

All precursors of a desperate situation we had witnessed just 2 years back are here again.

The Sugarcane connection As we pointed out earlier, Marathwada planted sugarcane on 2,30,530 hectares of land in the monsoon and post monsoon of 2013, which is now being crushed in around 61 (yes, 61) sugar factories of the region. Current Sugarcane crushing cycle began in October 2014 and will last till around March 2015.

To grow 2,30,530 hectares of sugarcane, Marathwada used  4322.4 MCM (Million Cubic Meters) or 4,322,400,000,000 Litres of water. This is nearly double of the Live storage of the biggest dam in Marathwada: Jayakwadi (Live Storage 2171 MCM). 

This is assuming 187.5 lakh litres water per hectare cane as per the Price Policy for Sugarcane Report of the Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices,Ministry of Agriculture (2014-15).

In addition, crushing which takes place at the height of the drought will use 23.1 MCM water more.

SANDRP has been raising the issue of sugarcane in drought-prone region in Maharashtra since the 2012 drought. Agriculture and water resource policy has utterly failed in curbing the growth of the most water guzzling crop in the worst drought hit region in the most alarming drought year.

We need to keep in mind that the sugarcane, which is being crushed in current crushing season was not planted in 2014 when the monsoon was bad, but in the monsoon and post monsoon of 2013, when rains were very good. But this long harvesting cycle of sugarcane which locks the farmer up in the cycle of irrigation at whatever costs in a terrible drought year has been highlighted before and has been put forth as one of the main reasons for moving away from sugarcane in Solapur and Marathwada. But sugar factories are only increasing as is the area under cane.

The most common argument put forth against limiting and reducing area under sugarcane is that it supports about 3 million farmers in Maharashtra. Let us look at how other regions and other farmers are suffering due to this sugarcane hegemony. The devotion to this crop is based on politics and power more than other considerations.

Total water used for growing sugarcane in Marathwada this year on 2,30,530 hectares has been 4322.4 MCM. All of this sugarcane is irrigated either by canals, or dam backwaters or wells in command or groundwater.

Although area under sugarcane forms only 9.4% of the gross cultivated area of the state, it appropriates 71.4% of all irrigation water. (CACP, 2014-15)

Now let us compare sugarcane with Pulses, whose production and gross cropped area in the country as well as Maharashtra is declining. As against sugar which contributes to “empty calories” without nutritional benefits, pulses form an important pillar of food security and are a primary and cheaper source of protein for a majority of population. Significantly, pulses enrich the soil through nitrogen fixing. Pulses occupy 16.8% Gross Cropped Area in the state and barely 9.4% area under pulses is irrigated.They claim only 3.4% Irrigation water in Maharashtra as against 71.9% by sugarcane, which is not a food grain. Incidentally, we spent about Rs. 90,000 Million in 2013-14 importing pulses from countries like Canada and Australia. (Ministry of Agriculture, 2014)

In fact, Prime Minister Modi during his address at the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) said in 2014, “The poor get their requirement of protein from pulses. Take it as a challenge that in a few years there will be no need to bring edible oils and pulses from outside. This is a national challenge and it must be taken up as a priority.”

Similarly, Oil Seeds occupy 15.2% of gross cropped area, but only 4% Irrigated of this area is irrigated and they claim mere 1.3% Irrigation water. The area under oilseeds like groundnuts is rapidly decreasing in Marathwada. In 1960-61, 10.01 lakh hectares in Maharashtra were under groundnut cultivation, mostly in Solapur and Marathwada region. In 2011-12, this region has declined to 3.02 lakh hectares, a near 70% decline. (Economic Survey Report Maharashtra, 2012-13)

The potential of 50% water given to sugarcane

Please note that the section below is looking at options and is aimed at underlining the stark contrast of growing a water guzzler in a drought-prone region which traditionally grew pulses and oil seeds. The figures given are more illustrative. The author appreciates that the real world calculations and practicalities are more complex. However, it terms of water policy, it is important to understand the potential that we are losing by hankering after sugarcane. 

If we reduce the area under sugarcane in Marathwada by half or if all existing sugarcane is converted to drip (Government is advocating this) leading to 50% reduction in water use in sugarcane crop and no additional sugar industry or more sugarcane area is allowed, water saved by last year’s area will be 4322.4/2= 2161.2 MCM. 

Kelkar Committee (High Level Committee on Balanced Regional Development Issues in Maharashtra, October 2013) has done similar calculations in its report, but has reached different conclusions. According to the standard used by Kelkar Committee on Regional Imbalance, important pulse like Pigeon Pea (Tur) requires 10 lakh litres/ hectare of irrigation to reach full potential of production at 1500 kg/ hectare (as against half this yield, if not irrigated). Incidentally, Kelkar committee assumes water requirement of sugarcane at  250 lakh litres/ha, substantially higher than CACP report which puts it at 187.5 lakh litres/ha. We are using the lower figures used by CACP Report to be on the conservative side.

This means:

  • Irrigating one hectare of sugarcane is akin to irrigating 25 hectares of pigeon pea, or more of groundnut.
  • 2161.2 MCM water saved is enough to irrigate 21.6 lakh hectares of pigeon pea (Its irrigating only 1.15 L ha of sugarcane now)
  • This irrigation will result in production of 3.24 Million Tonnes of Pigeon Pea (@ 1500kg/ha) or other pulses and an income of about Rs 141,000 Million for the farmers, if we consider the MSP given to Pigeon Pea in 2012-13 at 4350 per quintal. (Ministry of Agriculture)
  • If we assume that this area was already under rain-fed Tur with rainfed yield of 750 kg/ha, the net additional production possible with this irrigation is 1.6 Million Tonnes or additional income of Rs 70,500 million.
  • This is also close to the target of increasing pulse production by 2 million tonnes of the National Food Security Mission. (
  • Considering an average land holding of about 1 hectare (Nabard), increased area under pulses can support 2.1 million farmers. ( As against 1.15 Lakh farmers currently cultivating sugarcane)
  • In 2013-14, we imported 365,47,800 quintals of all pulses, including Pigeon Pea and lost significant Foreign Exchange in the deal.
  • Hypothetically, through efficient management only in Marathwada we can produce nearly 44.35% additional pulses that we are importing.
  • The area under irrigated pulses may spill over Marathwada into adjacent regions like Vidarbha and Solapur, which are going through unique agriculture crisis.

What is true to Pigeon Pea (Tur) is also true for many other pulses, lentils and oilseeds, which we are importing currently. Contrast this with sugarcane, wherein we have not even considered the multiple occasions when the sugar industry had to be bailed out of crisis, funds had to be released for sugar factories to pay to farmers ( in 2014 itself, Maharashtra sugar industries were to receive interest free loan of 2200 Crores to  pay arrears to farmers,  we don’t know how much of this amount reached farmers), the direct and indirect subsidies sugar factories get, like the current export subsidy on raw sugar export, etc.

Conclusion The discussion on pulses is not just conjecture. It is an estimate of the real options available to the state if it is serious about breaking its sugar shackles and benefiting more farmers rather than more sugar industry barons. We know that there are several variables in the calculations we have posed: lack of water distribution network and democratic institutions, low agricultural labour input for sugarcane, practicality of water transfers from sugar growing regions to elsewhere, groundwater ownership, dynamic market demand for pulses, volatile global prices, etc., however, apart from the problems related to water management, most other factors apply to sugarcane as well. In fact, as is demonstrated in Ujani command region, sugar industries is one reason for stagnating water distribution network.

The earlier government (Congress-NCP) was entrenched in sugar politics, with 13 of the 30 cabinet Ministers owning or controlling sugar factories. It could not take any progressive decision on sugarcane. But the current government should address this issue immediately. There is a very urgent need to put a cap on any further increase in sugarcane area, converting existing under drip (or better still, slowly phasing out the sugarcane over time from this region), providing viable options to current cane farmers and move water that is stuck in sugarcane to other productive and sustainable farming options which will benefit more farms and more farmers. As pointed out by ICRISAT, Vidarbha and Marathwada regions are ore vulnerable to Climate Change impacts. The regions have already seen a rise in extreme weather events and unseasonable episodes. In such a situation, a more diverse cropping pattern is imperative.

It makes economic, social and ecological sense. A bad drought year like now provides an opportunity to take difficult decisions like these.

Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP

[Author would like to thank Shri Nishikant Bhalerao and Shri Pradeep Purandare for helpful discussions before publication.]

POST SCRIPT: The Times of India Pune carried this on front page on March 3, 2015, with a detailed report on p 11:

PAGE 11 Report:

Mar 03 2015 : The Times of India (Pune)
Sugarcane cultivation leaving Marathwada bone dry: Study, By Prasad Joshi; Aurangabad:
Group Suggests Shift To Drip Irrigation, Growing Pulses
A recent study has found that drought-prone Marathwada region consumed nearly 4,322 million cubic metres (mcum) of water, nearly twice the live storage capacity of the Jayakwadi dam, to irrigate sugarcane standing on 2.3 lakh hectares.The study , conducted by advocacy group South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), has observed that Marathwada region cultivated the water-guzzling crop in the face of crippling drought. It claimed that if 50% of the water being used to cultivate sugarcane in the region was diverted to the production of pulses and oilseeds, it would ensure livelihood security to over 21 lakh farmers as against 1.1 lakh sugarcane farmers who are supported now.“Marathwada planted sugarcane on 2,30,530 hectares of land in the monsoon and postmonsoon of 2013, which is now being crushed in over 40 factories of the region. The sugar cane-crushing cycle that began in October last year will continue till around March 2015. To grow this much sugarcane, the region almost emptied two Jayakwadi dams,“ said Parineeta Dandekar, associate coordinator with SANDRP .

Dandekar said the water consumption calculation is done assuming 187.5 lakh litres of water per hectare of sugarcane.

The study revealed that while on the one hand kharif crops did not have the desired yield in all 8,139 villages in Marathwada with produce less than 50% of government standards (paisewari), the rabi crops too show similar poor yield in the 396 villages assessed for production. In comparison, the the area under production for sugarcane was increasing.

“We have raising the issue of sugarcane cultivation in the drought-prone region of Maharashtra since 2012. The crop is leaving Marathwada bonedry ,“ Dandekar said, adding that the sugarcane crushing taking place during the drought spell would consume an additional 23.1 mcum water.

Irrigating one hectare of sugarcane is akin to irrigating 25 hectares of tur dal or more of groundnut. Dandekar said that as per the Economic Survey Report of Maharashtra (2012-13), about 10.01 lakh hectares were under groundnut cultivation, mostly in Solapur and Marathwada region in 1960-61. This figure has dropped by nearly 70% to a meagre 3.02 lakh hectares in 2011-12. “What is true in the case of tur dal is also true for other pulses, lentils and oilseeds, which we are currently importing. Contrast this with sugarcane, where we have not even considered the number of times the sugar industry had to be bailed out of crisis and funds had to be released for sugar factories to pay farmers,“ he said.

PAGE 1 Report:

Mar 03 2015 : The Times of India (Pune)
Cane leaves Marathwada parched: Study
A recent study has found that Marathwada consumed nearly 4,322 mcum of water, nearly double the live storage capacity of Aurangabad’s Jayakwadi dam, to irrigate sugarcane crop standing on 2.3 lakh hectares, reports Prasad Joshi.

The study has observed that the region cultivated the crop in the face of crippling drought. If 50% of the water being used to cultivate sugarcane in the region was diverted to production of pulses, it would mean livelihood security to over 21 lakh farmers as against 1.1 lakh sugarcane farmers supported now, it claimed.

9 thoughts on “Thirsty sugarcane in dry Marathwada means a loss of 2 million farmer livelihoods

  1. Excellent, well researched article that exposes the hollowness and dangerous implications of our lopsided politically driven water unwise policies. Would somebody stand up and take notice !


    1. The downstream Sriramsagar reservoir with storage capacity of 2,500 mcum has not filled even by 10% of its capacity. There is no water inflows to this reservoir of Telangana state which depends on its catchment in the Marathwada region due to overuse of water in that area in excess of the allowed river water by the Godavari water disputes tribunal. Similar is the case of 80 years old Nizamsagar reservoir in Telangana state. Adequate water is not collecting in these reservoirs in three out of four years duration due to overuse of water resources in the Marathwada region.


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