Shift Towards Profitable Crops Explains the Crisis in Marathwada
About two dozen brand new cane harvesters are parked at the Bhageshwari sugar mills campus at Partur in Maharashtra’s Jalna district. Each costs about Rs 1.25 crore rupees. Harvesters charge Rs 300 a tonne. Manual cutting is cheaper but takes longer. Workers are also hard to find and harder to please. Machines do a neat job; the sugar recovery rate is higher as no stubs are left behind. They also get a subsidy.
To recover the capital cost of the machines, the mill will have to increase cane production in its vicinity. True, it is situated near the Lower Dudhana dam. Its own cane fields, about two hundred acres of them, are drip irrigated. Cane on drips uses half the quantity of water than if flood irrigated. That is still a lot of water. Cane requires 2,500 mm of rainfall; until the third week of September Marathwada got 634 mm.
“Sugarcane is a lazy man’s crop”, says B Venkateswarlu, the energetic vice-chancellor of Vasantrao Naik Marathwada Agricultural University at Parbani, one of Marathwada’s eight districts. It requires little maintenance. Farmers need to worry only about weather; the price risk is taken 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 a former MLA in the 1990s. It has been taken over by a private group that executes public works like irrigation projects. Marathwada has fifty two operating sugar mills, according to Maharashtra’s sugar commissionerate. They crushed 19 million tonnes of cane last year. It takes 1,500 litres to crush a tonne of cane.
“Farmers will grow cane so long as they get the security of fixed income”, says Jayaji Suryavanshi, founder of Annadata Shetkari Sanghatana and a fixture on local television debates. “I get do paise (metaphorically, more money) from sugarcane, but because it has shrivelled up I am selling it as fodder”, says Shankar Govindrao Morare, 76, a retired policeman of Wanjarwadigaon in Beed district. A gunta (1/40th of an acre) of cane is selling for Rs 1,000.
Coping up with a Drought
- Farmers in Marathwada keen on growing sugarcane as it requires little maintenance
- Traditional crops such as jowar, bajra, groundnut and tur were well-adapted to soil and weather conditions
- Farmers have shifted from traditional to other variety of crops as they give better yields
- A variety of structures to arrest the rainwater run-off have been built but their maintenance was neglected
- Cane area in Marathwada should be capped and existing fields shifted to drip irrigation
Shift from Traditional Crops
The crops that Marathwada farmers grew traditionally – jowar, bajra, groundnut and tur – were adapted to its soil and weather conditions. Because of stagnant yields, farmers have shifted to other crops where there has been an improvement in yields. Over the past thirty years, soybean has spread like an oil slick. Area under the crop has increased dramatically from two lakh ha in 1990-91 to thirty-five lakh ha in 2012-13, owing to a demand for cooking oil, and de-oiled cakes for export to Europe as animal feed.
Soy can survive without moisture for about two weeks, but wilts under a longer dry spell, unlike tur, millet and oil seed which can beat the heat for about a week more. Gopinath Vithoba Bhondve, 56, of Ukhanda village in Beed district’s Patoda taluk is typical of soy farmers. He has allowed weeds to take over the field, rather than send good money chasing after bad.
Tilt Towards Cotton
At Hivarshinga village in Beed’s Shirur taluk, Rajendra Abaji Shinde, 41, a double graduate in arts and physical education, could not protect his cotton crop of six acres from the dry spell, despite installing drips on half the area. The plants are stunted to a third of their normal height, and the number of bolls is a tenth of what a healthy crop would have produced.
But cotton has been a profitable crop. Area in the region has stabilised at 47 lakh ha from 27 lakh ha in 1990-91, says Venkateswarlu. The university launched an Android based app on September 18, which tells farmers the quantity of chemical to use against cotton pests and diseases.
The app got about 10,000 downloads within a single day. Hopefully, it will dissuade farmers from liberally applying expensive chemicals to kill sucking pests, now that bollworm infestation has been controlled.
Climate Resilient Alternatives
The changed cropping patterns of the past thirty years have fed rising aspirations in Marathwada, says Venkateswarlu, but they are not climate resilient. The university recommends potato and mulberry as more profitable and less water-craving alternatives to sugarcane.
Maharashtra should incentivise cultivation of tur or pigeon pea, whose prices have touched record levels this year. The pulse is much in demand but output is short of demand because it is a nine-month crop, and farmers do not want to be exposed to risky weather for that long.
Subsidising the production of tur and chana would not only save water but also enrich the soil with nitrogen. Millet also needs a marketing boost because they are hardy and nutritious. They do not keep long though, unlike rice and wheat; decentralised procurement and storage might help.
Preventing Rainwater Run-Off
The quantity of rain that Marathwada receives is not expected to decline much in the years ahead. But there will be long dry spells punctuated with a few downpours.
‘We have an excess of rainwater conservation effort,’ says Venkateswarlu.
A variety of structures to arrest the rainwater run-off have been built. Maintenance was neglected, but the ongoing Jal Yukt Shivar programme has plugged that inadequacy. Breaches in dams have been repaired and silt has been removed from ponds and nalas. This has helped recharge the aquifers. Yet there are many villages where the extraction rate is unsustainable.
Even with the best conservation 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 this from former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, the water expert Madhavrao Chitale and the present agriculture minister Eknath Khadse. But scientists at Vasantrao Naik University were wary when asked about sugarcane. ‘Politicians do not wish to hear anything against sugarcane because they are invested in sugar mills,’ said one of them.
It seems like Maharashtra’s politics can be more scorching than the drought.
(Vivian Fernandes is 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.