About two dozen\nbrand new cane harvesters are parked at the Bhageshwari sugar mills campus at\nPartur in Maharashtra’s Jalna district. Each costs about Rs 1.25 crore rupees.\n Harvesters charge Rs 300 a tonne. Manual\ncutting is cheaper but takes longer. Workers are also hard to find and harder\nto please. Machines do a neat job; the sugar recovery rate is higher as no\nstubs are left behind. They also get a subsidy. To recover the\ncapital cost of the machines, the mill will have to increase cane production in\nits vicinity. True, it is situated near the Lower Dudhana dam. Its own cane\nfields, about two hundred acres of them, are drip irrigated. Cane on drips uses\nhalf the quantity of water than if flood irrigated. That is still a lot of\nwater. Cane requires 2,500 mm of rainfall; until the third week of September\nMarathwada got 634 mm.Price Risk“Sugarcane is a\nlazy man’s crop”, says B Venkateswarlu, the energetic vice-chancellor of\nVasantrao Naik Marathwada Agricultural University at Parbani, one of\nMarathwada’s eight districts. It requires\nlittle maintenance. Farmers need to worry only about weather; the price risk is\ntaken care of as mills are obligated to buy cane at prices fixed by the state. For politicians sugarcane mills are a nice way of nursing their constituencies. The one in Partur was set up by\na former MLA in the 1990s. It has been taken over by a private group that\nexecutes public works like irrigation projects. Marathwada has fifty two operating\nsugar mills, according to Maharashtra’s sugar commissionerate. They crushed 19\nmillion tonnes of cane last year. It takes 1,500 litres to crush a tonne of\ncane. “Farmers will grow\ncane so long as they get the security of fixed income”, says Jayaji\nSuryavanshi, founder of Annadata Shetkari Sanghatana and a fixture on local television\ndebates. “I get do paise\n(metaphorically, more money) from sugarcane, but because it has shrivelled up I\nam selling it as fodder”, says Shankar Govindrao Morare, 76, a retired\npoliceman of Wanjarwadigaon in Beed district. A gunta (1/40th of an\nacre) of cane is selling for Rs 1,000.Coping up with a\nDroughtFarmers in\nMarathwada keen on growing sugarcane as it requires little maintenanceTraditional crops\nsuch as jowar, bajra, groundnut and tur were well-adapted to soil and weather\nconditionsFarmers have\nshifted from traditional to other variety of crops as they give better yieldsA variety of structures to arrest the rainwater\nrun-off have been built but their maintenance was neglectedCane area in Marathwada should be capped and\nexisting fields shifted to drip irrigationShift from Traditional Crops The crops that\nMarathwada farmers grew traditionally – jowar, bajra, groundnut and tur – were\nadapted to its soil and weather conditions. Because of stagnant yields, farmers\nhave shifted to other crops where there has been an improvement in yields. Over\nthe past thirty years, soybean has spread like an oil slick. Area under the\ncrop has increased dramatically from two lakh ha in 1990-91 to thirty-five lakh\nha in 2012-13, owing to a demand for cooking oil, and de-oiled cakes for export\nto Europe as animal feed. Soy can survive\nwithout moisture for about two weeks, but wilts under a longer dry spell,\nunlike tur, millet and oil seed which can beat the heat for about a week more.\nGopinath Vithoba Bhondve, 56, of Ukhanda village in Beed district’s Patoda\ntaluk is typical of soy farmers. He has allowed weeds to take over the field,\nrather than send good money chasing after bad. Tilt Towards\nCottonAt Hivarshinga\nvillage in Beed’s Shirur taluk, Rajendra Abaji Shinde, 41, a double graduate in\narts and physical education, could not protect his cotton crop of six acres\nfrom the dry spell, despite installing drips on half the area. The plants are\nstunted to a third of their normal height, and the number of bolls is a tenth\nof what a healthy crop would have produced. But cotton has\nbeen a profitable crop. Area in the region has stabilised at 47 lakh ha from 27\nlakh ha in 1990-91, says Venkateswarlu. The university launched an Android\nbased app on September 18, which tells farmers the quantity of chemical to use\nagainst cotton pests and diseases. The app got about\n10,000 downloads within a single day. Hopefully, it will dissuade farmers from\nliberally applying expensive chemicals to kill sucking pests, now that bollworm\ninfestation has been controlled. Climate Resilient\nAlternativesThe changed cropping\npatterns of the past thirty years have fed rising aspirations in Marathwada,\nsays Venkateswarlu, but they are not climate resilient. The university recommends\npotato and mulberry as more profitable and less water-craving alternatives to sugarcane.\nMaharashtra should\nincentivise cultivation of tur or pigeon pea, whose prices have touched record\nlevels this year. The pulse is much in demand but output is short of\ndemand because it is a nine-month crop, and farmers do not want to be exposed\nto risky weather for that long. Subsidising the\nproduction of tur and chana would not only save water but also enrich the soil\nwith nitrogen. Millet also needs a marketing boost because they are hardy and\nnutritious. They do not keep long though, unlike rice and wheat; decentralised\nprocurement and storage might help.Preventing Rainwater Run-OffThe quantity of rain\nthat Marathwada receives is not expected to decline much in the years ahead. But\nthere will be long dry spells punctuated with a few downpours. ‘We have an excess of rainwater conservation effort,’ says\nVenkateswarlu. A variety of\nstructures to arrest the rainwater run-off have been built. Maintenance was\nneglected, but the ongoing Jal Yukt Shivar programme has plugged that\ninadequacy. Breaches in dams have been repaired and silt has been removed from\nponds and nalas. This has helped recharge the aquifers. Yet there are many villages\nwhere the extraction rate is unsustainable. Even with the best\nconservation efforts, some crops will have to be dropped. Cane area in Marathwada should be capped and the existing fields should be shifted to drip irrigation. There have been public calls for\nthis from former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, the water expert Madhavrao\nChitale and the present agriculture minister Eknath Khadse. But scientists at\nVasantrao Naik University were wary when asked about sugarcane. ‘Politicians do\nnot wish to hear anything against sugarcane because they are invested in sugar\nmills,’ said one of them. It seems like Maharashtra’s\npolitics can be more scorching than the drought. (Vivian Fernandes\nis consulting editor to www.smartindianagriculture.in)This is the second and last part of a series on the drought-hit region of Marathwada. You can read first part of the series here. We'll get through this! Meanwhile, here's all you need to know about the Coronavirus outbreak to keep yourself safe, informed, and updated. The Quint is now available on Telegram & WhatsApp too, Click here to join.