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Rain Isn’t The Culprit In Maharashtra’s Water Crisis, This Cash Crop Is

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By Amrita Singh:

A woman carries a bundle of cut sugarcane on her head as farmers harvest a field outside Gove village in Satara district, about 260km (161 miles) south of Mumbai May 10, 2011. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash (INDIA - Tags: BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT HFS) - RTR2PEMY
Image credit: Reuters/Vivek Prakash.

It took 60,000 farm suicides for us to realise that the cause behind the drought in Maharashtra isn’t something as basic as scanty rainfall. The drought, which started around 2014, has become so grave that only 3% of water is left in 11 major dams of Marathwada, the focal point of the situation.

Statistics from a reputed organisation have helped us reach the conclusion that unmonitored cultivation of sugarcane, a commercial water-thirsty crop, is the main culprit behind most of Maharashtra’s water problems.

But there are still some aspects that don’t add up – How did we not reach this conclusion earlier? How is a region as dry as Rajasthan able to cope with the calamity better than the richest state of the country? How come the data on all government websites regarding rainfall vary from each other? We’ve tried to put all the puzzle pieces together and give you a more holistic view of the situation.

How Is Sugar Cultivation Related To The Water Crisis?

The sugarcane crop is a water guzzler, but also extremely profitable. India has the largest area under sugar production in the world and is second only to Brazil in terms of productivity.

According to the Indian Institute of Sugarcane Research, in Maharashtra – the state which produces close to 34% of sugar in India – 2,450 litres of water goes into producing one kilogram of sugar. Around 70% of the water available in the state for farming purposes is taken by sugarcane cultivators and, sadly, 80% of that water is invested in areas known for water-deficiency, i.e., unsuitable for sugar cultivation.

South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) has drawn another relation with the available figures – 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.

Why Sugarcane? Why Not Other Crops?

Due to politicians being a part of the business ever since the first sugar mill was set up in the 1950s, the sugar industry has had quite a robust and stable past. Its vices have always been ignored, therefore, farmers think of the sugarcane industry as a safe bet as far as remuneration is considered. Moreover, it’s comparatively easier to cultivate and isn’t prone to pests and diseases.

Comparison With Other States

According to the Indian Sugar Industry, comparison of crop rotation basis for a year per hectare of land, Maharashtra consumes 2800mm of rainfall per hectare of land, while Tamil Nadu consumes 1400mm and Karnataka consumes 1550mm. Not only that, the state’s average rainfall last year was more than the national average rainfall by almost 200mm.

How Come Maharashtra Is Consuming More Water Than Other States For The Same Area?

Much like every other tragedy in India, Marathwada’s crisis is a result of gross neglect. The current situation had been foreseen by an expert panel set up in 1999. Ignoring the panel’s recommendations and findings, 20 new sugar mills were still set up in the year 2012. Marathwada was still not exposed to the idea of conserving water and as a result flood irrigation is employed in most areas. No policies to shift sugar cultivation to viable regions were considered.


Action is finally being taken and a 5-year ban on setting up new sugar factories is in place in Marathwada. According to the Indian Sugar Mills Association, this won’t affect the sugar industry much, though UP might overtake Maharashtra in terms of production. Shutting down more mills at this point would result in more unemployment and indebted farmers. The Government is also considering making it mandatory to use recycled water compulsory for all industries and aiming to finish pending irrigation projects. Maharashtra’s 28 irrigation projects are included in the AIBP (Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme) scheme.

The Centre has allotted Rs. 19,551 crore under MNREGA – which isn’t considered the best move as there are regular complaints about delayed compensation and less accessibility to the scheme. Regular water trains have started reaching the worst affected areas. National Drought Relief Fund and State Disaster Relief Fund have both made hefty contributions as well.

Relief funds are definitely the need of the hour but, for long-term solutions, we need to adopt a multi-pronged approach – expand production to other crops, educate farmers about water conservation, make sure that most policies don’t centre around western Maharashtra, the most economically stable region of the state. As measures are finally being taken, one can expect that Maharashtra, and all other drought-affected states, come out of the crisis soon and that too as more thriving and self-reliant than ever before.

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  1. sumer

    selfish Pawar Sharad & family is fully responsible for this.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

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