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

Posted on May 3, 2016

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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