Water Guzzling Crops: How Long Can Governments Afford To Look Away? 

M R Subramani

May 10, 2019, 05:10 PM | Updated 05:10 PM IST

Sugarcane being transported. (GettyImages)
Sugarcane being transported. (GettyImages)
  • If governments need to move farmers away from a particular water guzzler crop, they also need to look at alternatives that will protect growers’ interest in the long term.
  • One of the important pledges by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in its Sankalp Patra for this Lok Sabha elections is to get piped water supply to every household by 2024. Will this mean a BJP government’s return will see a change in utilisation of water for various purposes, including irrigation? In fact, it would be wise if the next government, headed by whichever party, reviews usage of water.

    A report in The Hindu BusinessLine said that sugar production has increased in Maharashtra to 10.71 million tonnes (mt) in the 1 October 2018-30 April 2019 period from 10.69 mt during the same period a year ago. Higher production comes from a rise in output of sugarcane, a crop that is water guzzler, at a time when the state is reeling under water scarcity.

    The sugar season runs from October to September and the Indian Sugar Mills Association (ISMA), the apex body for private sugar mills, has projected production of the sweet commodity to increase this season to 33.5 mt from 33 mt last season.

    An ISMA statement has said that consumption is projected at 26 mt, while 3 mt could be exported. With a carry over of 10.7 mt of sugar from last season, the country could be left with 14.7 mt of sugar stocks at the end of this season. The stocks can easily meet the consumption demand for six months.

    Ironically, at a time of water shortage, nearly trillion liters of water would have been used in Maharashtra, the second highest sugar producer in the country, to grow sugarcane. According to the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, it takes over 2,500 litres of water to produce a kg of sugar.

    The Hindu BusinessLine reports that people in rural areas of Aurangabad pay about Rs 1,000 to get 2,500 litres of water, and 26 of the state’s 36 districts have been hit by water shortage. Some seven sugar mills operate in the district.

    In Solapur, where the highest number of 44 mills out of total 195 units operate, the factories have crushed over 20 mt of sugarcane despite drinking water shortage in the district.

    Similarly, in the Marathwada sugar belt, despite storage levels in the dams being only 5 per cent of the capacity, factories there have crushed over 16 mt of cane.

    According to the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, sugarcane accounts for 4 per cent of the total cropped area in Maharashtra but it ends up consuming 70 per cent of the irrigated water in the state.

    Sugarcane is a crop that takes over a year to mature for harvest. This means the cane harvested for sugar from October 2018 would have been planted a year ago. Thus, having opted for sugarcane cultivation, growers would have no option but to continue growing it or incur huge losses.

    The ISMA statement said that in the coming season starting October, production could be lower as sugarcane cultivation has been hit owing to deficient monsoon. Post-monsoon and rainfall under the north-east monsoon during October-December has also been poor.

    Indian consumers need not worry about price spike since increased carryover stocks will take care of any production drop. Having said that, the uppermost question is, should we sweeten our dishes utilising so much water?

    Paddy is another crop that is water guzzler. But scientists in the country have come up with the system of rice intensification (SRI) method that saves water used for irrigation by over 30 per cent. Not just that, seed requirement is cut by 60 per cent. This is because paddy is grown solitarily under SRI method than as a bunch in the traditional way.

    Probably, scientists will have to look at something like the SRI method for sugarcane, if research hasn’t begun yet. Union and state governments will have to promote optimal use of water for irrigation, while also looking for varieties that consume less water.

    If governments need to move farmers away from a particular water guzzler crop, they also need to look at alternatives that will protect growers’ interest in the long term. For instance, efforts are underway to help tobacco growers shift to other crops. Similar efforts can be considered for water guzzler crops too.

    In this regard, governments can go all out to promote millets and other hardy grains that consume less water and provide more health benefits to the customer. In the case of sugarcane, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to try producing sugar from beet or stevia.

    Governments can also think of charging farmers for water as in developed countries since it will force them to use it to the optimum or look for better alternatives. Options are available but governments would have to have the will to carry out these path-breaking efforts. It’s high time to review water guzzlers as a whole rather than in solitude.

    M.R. Subramani is Executive Editor, Swarajya. He tweets @mrsubramani

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