Maharashtra · Marathwada

Water and Sugarcane Crushing in Maharashtra: In search of sustainability

Sugarcane Crushing is set to start at any moment now in Maharashtra[i]. About 164 Sugar factories[ii] have put up proposals for securing Crushing Licenses with the Sugar Commissionerate of Maharashtra. With crushing, will begin debates, protests and demands for well deserved Fair Remunerative Price (FRP) for farmers and soft loans, subsidies, debt waivers and monetary help for sugar factories from state and Center. Sugar factories will put up justifications on why they cannot afford FRP (yet again) this year, how financially sick they are and, at the same time, how they are the only option for drought affected Maharashtra.

Sugar Politics will be set ablaze. This has been a regular feature of crushing season in Maharashtra and everyone is used to the forthcoming rush.

Sugarcane going to the factory in Solapur. 2013 Photo. Parineeta Dandekar
Sugarcane going to the factory in Solapur. 2013 Photo. Parineeta Dandekar

But like Sugarcane cultivation, it’s crushing and processing too entails a bigger price: Water.

This year although some discussions about crushing and water requirement were initiated by the government, they were abruptly stopped without reaching any logical conclusions. The government may find the issue too difficult to be dealt with, but water availability is so precarious in most cane-growing and crushing regions that it cannot be ignored or sidelined anymore.  

Kolhapur district, which is the sugar bowl of Maharashtra from where the Cooperative sugar industry movement started, shows the highest rainfall deficit in the state this year at just 35.8% rainfall[iii]. Solapur, which has the highest number of sugar factories in the state, has received an unbelievable 193.9 mm monsoon rainfall and Ujani dam, the largest dam in Bhima Basin and supporter of sugarcane and crushing in Solapur has been at 0 live storage for many months now. Solapur has received less than half of the rainfall Rajasthan has received. Latur badly wants water from Solapur for solving its drinking water crisis.[iv] Osmanabad and Parbhani have received less than 50% average rainfalls and dams in Osmanabad are empty for long.

Sugarcane going to Factory for crushing on the background of dry Ujani Canals. Photo: Parineeta Dandekar
Sugarcane going to a Sugar Factory for crushing on the background of dry Ujani Canals. Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

The case of all of Marathwada, the strong hold of sugar factories is the same. The region has 40% rainfall deficit, made starter due to the drought last year, which lead to 42% deficit. 4 large dams from Marathwada have zero live storage, its largest dam Jayakwadi has 7% water and total water storage of Large Dams in Marathwada stands at mere 15%.[v] Groundwater in 541 watersheds in Marathwada is in “over exploited” or “critical” category according to GSDA, and is at 5 year record low level.

Even with a huge 42% rainfall deficit last year, crushing took place unhindered in more than 46 sugar factories in all 8 districts of Marathwada and 28 factories Solapur[vi]. Maharashtra produced more than 105 Lakh tonnes of sugar, a considerable amount of which lies languishes in godowns begging to get sold and bringing the prices down.

At the same time, Sugarcane crushing and processing (converting sugarcane into sugar and allied by products like bagass, compost, ethanol, electricity generation,etc) is an extremely water intensive process.

  • On an average a factory that can crush about 2500 tons of cane per day (tpcd) needs 25,00,000 liters of water per day.
  • Co-generation of electricity, which is integrated in most large factories, needs 2000 liters of water per MW per day.
  • Distillation to make Alcohol (primarily Ethanol) takes up additional water

Environmental Clearance documents of Gangakhed Sugar Factory in Parbhani, accessed by SANDRP mention that it needs a whopping 45 Lakh Liters water each day from a nearby Masoli Dam.

Considering the fact that groundwater has dipped and large projects are nearly empty, means that this massive water use by sugar factories will directly jeopardize local water security further.

In response to these facts, Maharashtra Government made an announcement in August that it may consider banning sugarcane crushing in Marathwada[vii] to protect drinking water supplies. This announcement, made by Revenue Minister Eknath Khadse was met with uproar as well as skepticism.

Although significant and needed, this blanket announcement lacked the backing of any proper plan or answers to legitimate questions like what will be happen to sugarcane that was standing on 2 lakh hectares in Marathwada and about a lakh hectares in Solapur alone.

Expectedly, the announcement turned out to be a trial balloon and was taken back. Then the Cooperatives Minister Chandrakant Patil announced that crushing will commence, but the final decision whether to allow or disallow crushing will be taken by the District Collector of a particular district after analyzing existing water storages, water availability of the region till July and the impact that water diverted for crushing will have on the water security of the district.

Although this announcement put the onus, responsibility and pressure of a politically loaded decision only on the backs of the collectors, we assumed it to be a search for middle ground. As crushing may start any day from now, we expected that formal directions to such effect would have reached the Collectors by now from the State Government and that the Collectors would be working on understand the water demands by sugar factories.

But we were in for a shock.

SANDRP talked with Collector of Parbhani Shri. Rahul Mahiwal to understand the situation. In the current year, Parbhani has received less than 50% of its annual rainfall but had planted sugarcane over 32,000 hectares and has six sugar factories. Mr. Mahiwal said no instructions giving power to the Collector to take a case by case decision has reached his office as yet.

Osmanabad Collector Dr. Prashant Narnaware said that permitting crushing will be nearly impossible, looking at the serious water scarcity. Osmanabad has received just 323 mm rainfall this year. Both its dams Seena Kolegaon and Lower Terna are at zero Live Storage. However, when SANDRP talked Collector’s office, they said no instructions has reached them from the State Government giving powers to the Collector in such a situation.

Collector of Solapur Shri Tukaram Mundhe has taken a very strong stand against diverting irrigation water to sugarcane from Ujani and has also stated that release of water for crushing will simply not be possible looking at the acute water scarcity in his district. This year, Solapur has received less than 200 mm of rain, lower than the epic 1972 drought and possibly lower in the past 100 years. When SANDRP talked with Mr. Mundhe, he reiterated that no written instructions have been received by his office.

Solapur falls in Pune Division which includes Pune, Solapur and Ahmednagar Districts. Between just these there districts, a whopping 79 sugar factories have recently submitted proposals to the Sugar Commissionarate for undertaking crushing this year (Agrowon News, 12th October 2015).

Mr. Mundhe stated in exasperation that the Collector is supposed to tackle water scarcity, has to make provisions for drinking and domestic water for her/his district, but plays no role when it comes to sugarcane planting or crushing.

Latur Collector Pandurang Pole told SANDRP that his office has not received any directions and that next year all of the factories in Latur should adopt only water less crushing. He said that sources need to be protected right now and Collector has the power to protect these sources from any other use in view of drinking water crisis.  Latur is so badly off that water conflicts are erupting between Latur, Osmanabad and Solapur only for drinking water supply to Latur[viii]. It has received less than 50% average rainfall.

However, Sugar Commissionerate’s Cane Development Department[ix], said that they had not even heard of the announcement by the Government. They firmly reiterated that all powers to grant a license lies only with the Commissionarate and all efforts will be made to maximize crushing, there was no question of limiting it. When asked if the Commissionarate looks at water issues, I was scoffed for asking an irrelevant question.

Indeed, in the sugarcane debate till date, water has been considered as an irrelevant topic. Even the CMs’ otherwise remarkable discussion[x] on farming debts and water did not even touch upon the issue of water and cane.

In the midst of this worrying reality, there are some pioneering factories in Marathwada which put to use innovative water saving measures to curtail not only water use but also effluent generated. SANDRP talked with the Directors of two such companies situated in the heart of the dry zone of Marathwada: Osmanabad. 

Shri B.B. Thombare, Chairman, Natural Sugars, Ranjani, Osmanabad[xi] is the recipient of Dr. Punjabrao Deshmukh Krishiratna Award of 2011, a highly prestigious award for achievement in agricultural sector. He is known not only as the Director of the Natural Sugars, but also for using highly innovative methods for reducing water required for crushing sugarcane. In a discussion with SANDRP, he says this year is going to be difficult, but Natural Sugars will initially use a fixed amount of water to kick start factory operations and then run the entire cycle on no external water. He says that sugarcane itself contains over 65% of water and rather than wasting this through vaporization, it is condensed and used throughout the process through meaningful interventions.

Natural Sugars generally uses nearly no external water for co generation, and as make-up water once the factory starts, but uses the water condensed from distillation process itself. The push for running factory on extremely low water came from the 2004 drought which meant that there were hardly any sources available to the factory. He stresses that it was the scarcity that pushed innovation, not government regulations. He also notes that there is no incentive or regulation for factories situated next to irrigation canals to mend their ways. According to him water conservation not only saves water but hugely cuts down effluents generated. He states that the technology is not a hurdle in saving water, nor are finances. The set up can be installed in 5-10 lakhs rupees. When I asked what about the factories which do not have this know-how, he laughs and says, “Let them come to us, we will help them, train them. In case on an urgency the measures can be put in place even in 15 days, if there is a push and a will.”

SANDRP also talked with Shri. Gore, Director of the Babasaheb Ambedkar Cooperative Sugar Factory[xii] in Osmanabad which too runs on very limited water. Shri. Gore may not be as effusive as Shri. Thombare, but is pragmatic and cautious. He says that although it is not the technology or the finance which is the limiting factor for water saving technology, it is not a quick fix. Babasaheb Ambedkar Factory has put in place the process over years of trial and error, streamlining each and every step, right from using correct lubricants which allow reuse of water to fixing each and every leakage, monitoring it closely. He says this is entirely a team effort and needs well-trained staff. Babasaheb Ambedkar Factory may not be in a position to undertake co-generation this year due to scarcity of water. He is also visibly perturbed about the image of sugar industry and sugarcane as a water guzzler.

Although welcome, examples like Babasaheb Ambedkar and Natural Sugars Factories are exceptions and not the rule. Even in drought struck Marathwada and Solapur, factories have been heavily dependent so far on dams, groundwater, rivers and canals. Pollution abatement has been lax to say the least. MPCB has failed in its duty of either checking water use or pollution. Gangakhed Sugar Factory in Parbhani was sued heavily by the National Green Tribunal[xiii]not because of the MPCB, but because local fisherfolk filed a case against persistent pollution and fish kills due to untreated effluents from the factory. Strictures have been issued against Kopargaon Sugar Factory in Ahmednagar and MPCB, in a rare move had revoked working licenses[xiv]of 17 factories in Kolhapur belt for incessant pollution of Panchaganga and Warna rivers. How many sugar factories comply by the recent MoEF and CC Notification[xv] for Sugar Factories about limiting ground water discharge and stabilizing the Effluent Treatment Plants a month before starting crushing, is questionable.

When MPCB tried to be slightly firm (in response to a PIL and High Court Orders, not suo motto!) and tried to forfeit the Bank Guarantees of 17 factories in Kolhapur region for constant violation of pollution norms, a delegation headed by former Deputy CM Ajit Pawar met Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar[xvi] to justify that MPCB should be soft towards pollution from Sugar Industries! The industry representative actually said that Factories cannot afford sewage treatment plants and should receive incentives for the same from the government. The ironic reality of Sugar Factory owners and Directors amassing wealth, while farmers and environment suffering from low cane prices and unregulated pollution is caught well in this Truth Vs Hype Episode[xvii]anchored by Sreenivasan Jain. In this, the factory owner from Osmanabad rides a Mercedes and talks about how he is financially burdened due to his factory.

Broken, unused Effluent Treatment Plant in a famous factory of Sangamner Photo: Parineeta Dandekar
Broken, unused Effluent Treatment Plant in a famous factory of Sangamner Photo: Parineeta Dandekar
fish dead photo
Dead fish in Krishna River in Karad due to pollution by a sugar factory

Maharashtra’s latest Government Resolution (dated 9th October 2015) issued by the Cooperatives Department about the conditions to be fulfilled by sugar factories before initiating crushing process has a long list of qualifications, but it does not mention any issue related to water.

Farmers from Marathwada have reported that some factories have already filled up their storage tanks with water from various sources including village tanks, to tide over any future protest.

6 inch pipeline, meant for drinking water supply of 12 villages, being diverted to Sugar Factory in Osmanabad. Photo: SANDRP Partner
6 inch pipeline, meant for drinking water supply of 12 villages, being diverted to Sugar Factory in Osmanabad. Photo: SANDRP Partner

Given all this, can this year prove to be a game changer for water use of sugar industries in drought affected region of Maharashtra? Will it push for innovation and self-regulation by factories? Even Kolhapur, the generally water rich district where sugarcane cooperative movement started out, is facing the highest rainfall deficit in the state and has received just about 36% of its average rainfall. In such a situation, lessons from Ambedkar and Natural Sugars factories are for all of the state, not limited to Marathwada. In the absence of any consistent, encouraging stand on the part of the government the initiative will have to come from the factories themselves and through peoples’ pressure.

Government has not asked for area under new sugarcane planting after the harvesting to be curbed, it has not come up in support of innovative water use techniques by sugar factories, it has not given any powers to Collectors to take decisions in light of scarcity.

Some workable steps that the Government (not the Collector alone) can put in place using its District Revenue, Agriculture and Pollution Control Machinery include:

  1. Declaring all the available water storages in all districts of Marathwada and Solapur regions, including Major, Medium, Minor, LA and ZP tanks.
  2. Declaring water balance of each district including drinking and domestic water use and cattle water needs till July 2016
  3. Declaring in each district the number of factories which plan to undertake crushing, sugarcane available and water needed for crushing, distillation and cogeneration and source of water for each factory.
  4. Each of the Sugar Factory to disclose its water use and its source of water and putting this in open domain
  5. Supporting, helping and pushing each factory to put in place minimum water use systems.
  6. Constituting a panel of experts who will visit factories and monitor processing and effluent treatment plants and fix issues asap.
  7. Capping any additional sugarcane plantation which will be underway in October-November. Push “Beyond Sugar Initiative” and empower farmers, citizens and Collectors like Shri. Tukaram Mundhe and Dr. Prashant Narnaware to work with the farmers in exploring profitable, low water intensive options to sugarcane.

Maharashtra is again at the cusp of the controversial, politics-filled volatile topic of sugarcane. Our farmers have been forced to accept that sugarcane is the only profitable option for them. Instead of bans, there is a lot the government can do to raise the morale of the farmer in drought affected area to look for options, breaking the shackles of sugarcane. Beyond Sugarcane Initiative[xviii] is one such effort. Some officials, some agencies and some farmers are already doing it and they need support and encouragement from all of us, including the government.

Parineeta Dandekar


[ii] Agrowon 13th October 2015

















4 thoughts on “Water and Sugarcane Crushing in Maharashtra: In search of sustainability

  1. Since sugar cane would have been cultivated by the farmers, not crushing it would not be a solution. In these circumstances there are two possible solutions, both of which can be implemented. (1) Use as much sugar cane as possible for producing jaggery (Gud) instead of sugar, which requires insignificant quantity of water and/or (2) Sell the sugar cane as cattle feed. The second solution will also take care of availability of cattle feed which is yet another problem that will arise in the current year due to deficit monsoon. The Price of sugar cane can be fixed so as to enable the farmer to at least cover costs.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.