Mumbai: Shankar and Chandrakala Tandale vividly remember the summer of 2016. “We have three borewells and two wells on our farmland,” said Shankar, 52. “They had completely dried up. Even the queues for drinking water were longer than what they usually are in summer.”

The situation forced them to grow a different crop that year. On their farmland in Khamaswadi village in southern Maharashtra’s Osmanabad district, 10 acres of sugarcane had shrunk to two. “We replaced it with eight acres of tur,” said Chandrakala, 47. Sugarcane is a water-guzzler but tur, or pigeon pea, hardly needs any. “We did not have enough water even for our livestock... there was no chance of cultivating sugarcane.”

The agrarian region of Marathwada--in which Osmanabad falls--had been hit by two successive droughts in 2016. The region has an already scanty average rainfall of about 783 mm compared to the state’s average of 1,146 mm. Rainfall in the region had dipped further to 414 mm in 2014 and 434 mm the following year, data presented in August 2019 by divisional commissioner of Aurangabad, which is in charge of Marathwada, showed. The administration had to press into service 4,015 water tankers in 2016--the highest since 2010, when only 412 tankers had been deployed--according to the divisional commissioner’s office.

The acute water shortage compelled not just the Tandales but also a large number of Marathwada farmers to move away from sugarcane and cultivate tur. In 2016, the area under sugarcane cultivation fell to 93,000 hectares from 205,000 hectares the previous year, as per the divisional commissioner’s office.

Several experts at the time believed this could be a blessing in disguise. For years, commentators have questioned the popularity of sugarcane in arid, drought-prone Marathwada. When farmers reluctantly shifted to tur in 2016, the state government under then chief minister Devendra Fadnavis had the opportunity to promote better crop planning, said water expert Pradeep Purandare. “It was an opportunity to stress on the importance of crops that require less water and create awareness about water conservation,” he said. “But the government did not handle the crisis well.”

The expected bumper crop of tur turned into a curse when farmers had to scramble to sell it. The hardships that farmers faced, barely reported back then, has now got recognition in the Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) report released on September 8 this year.

The report details how the state government could have handled the crisis better pointing out flaws in setting up procurement centres and delay in payments to farmers. Had the crisis been dealt with smoothly, at least some of the farmers would have persisted with tur, instead of going back to water-guzzling sugarcane, experts argue.

What the CAG said

The CAG report records tur production in Maharashtra at 2,089,000 metric tonne (MT) in 2016--a 370% increase from 444,000 MT in 2015.

Although tur is harvested in November the state government introduced the Market Intervention Scheme, which protects farmers from making distress sale of their crops, months later - on April 27, as CAG noted, despite being aware of a bumper crop. “As a result, there was delay in procurement and only 37% [769,000 MT] of tur was procured,” the report said, adding that 64% of farmers had to wait for anywhere between 31 and 123 days--or one to four months--for their stock to be procured.

When Shankar Tandale reached the regional Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC)--located in Kalamb town--right after harvesting his tur in November 2016, he was startled. APMC officials were hardly prepared to register the harvest against individual farmers’ names so as to procure it systematically. “The chaos was overwhelming,” Tandale told IndiaSpend. “They did not have enough storage, weighing machines were faulty and even the gunny bags were inadequate. The farmers were in a state of panic.”

Over the next few weeks, Tandale had to visit the APMC every few days. “It was 16 km from my village and I had about 70-80 quintals of tur,” he said. “Every time I went with the hope of selling my harvest, hiring a tempo and increasing my costs.” The price being offered was around Rs 4,000 per quintal, Tandale said, well below the government-set minimum support price of Rs 5,050. “Those who could not sell their harvest at the APMC sold off their produce to middlemen. When I finally managed to get rid of the stock, I heaved a sigh of relief,” he said. His stock sold in end-December, and at Rs 4,000 a quintal.

The CAG also pointed out basic flaws in handling the crisis. Satara district had the lowest production of tur among the state’s 25 districts where procurement was undertaken. At least five districts had more production than Satara but not a single procurement centre was set up there.

More than 50% of farmers had their cheques issued four days after procurement, though the agriculture department’s Price Support Scheme guidelines clearly state that payment ought to be made within three days of procurement. The actual “time taken from the date of issue of cheque to the date of credit into farmers’ account ranged from 15 to 201 days” in 66% of the cases, CAG said.

The experience with tur was so disheartening that Tandale went right back to cultivating sugarcane as the rainfall in 2016 was much better at 879 mm. The rest of Marathwada did the same. From 93,000 hectares, the next year’s area under sugarcane cultivation swelled to 214,000 hectares, data from the Aurangabad divisional commissioner’s office, cited above, showed. In 2018-19, it increased to 313,000 hectares.

The opportunity to start a conversation around water conservation, and alter wasteful cropping patterns, had been missed, said Purandare, the water expert. (Read our stories on India’s unsustainable cropping patterns here, here and here.)

Marathwada’s water guzzler

Currently, the region has 54 sugar factories--up from 46 in 2010--that procure sugarcane directly from farmers, data from the Aurangabad divisional commissioner’s office showed. In 2018-19, Marathwada produced 14.7 million MT of sugarcane out of the state’s production of 91.7 million MT. Sugarcane occupies 5.74% of Marathwada’s total cultivable area which is also 28% of its total irrigated area. Across Maharashtra, it occupies 4% of farms and consumes 70% of the irrigated water.

In August 2019, the office of the divisional commissioner of Aurangabad prepared a presentation with suggestions for conserving water in Marathwada, which IndiaSpend has reviewed.

The presentation pegged the total drinking water requirement for Marathwada at 590 mm3 annually, and the average water consumption of sugarcane at 6,159 mm3--more than 10 times the drinking water requirement. If 50% of sugarcane area were brought under drip irrigation, the presentation said, it would save 3,080 mm3 of water, which is more than the storage capacity of Marathwada’s biggest dam--the Jayakwadi Dam (2,909 mm3).

“Sugarcane is cultivated in about 500 districts spread across 26 states. But 161 districts spread over 10 states contribute over 95% of the area,” noted the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) when it analysed sugarcane patterns across India, the world’s second bigger producer at 352 million tonnes. However, just 10 districts in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Maharashtra account for 40% to India’s total production.

The report pointed out that historically only Bihar and eastern UP were the “centres of sugarcane belt, which were in line with the water resource endowment of the region”. “But over time, preference for cooperatives took the sugarcane belt to Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, which do not have that type of water resource endowment,” NABARD’s report said. “This needs correction by suitably adjusting the price of power and irrigation water, and by promoting more efficient technologies (such as drip) for irrigating sugarcane crop in these regions.”

Heading towards desertification

If things continue unchanged, water-stressed regions such as Marathwada could be heading towards desertification, experts say.

“Water conservation does not just mean recharging and replenishing water,” said Shashank Deshpande, a senior geologist who was a part of the state government’s Groundwater Surveys and Development Agency (GSDA). “It means reducing the demand as well and that would entail cultivating water-efficient crops. Marathwada used to be a hub of lentils. It is no longer one. With sugarcane, we are extracting more groundwater than we ever did.”

To improve the groundwater situation in Maharashtra, the previous Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena government that was in power from 2014-19 had come up with the Jalyukta Shivar Scheme, on which the state spent Rs 9,674 crore. It had little impact, observed the CAG report.

More than 85% of Maharashtra’s land consists of hard rock, Irfan Shah, retired joint-director of GSDA, told IndiaSpend. “It has little water-carrying capacity and its permeability is limited,” he said. “Because we are cultivating 12-month crops like sugarcane, we are extracting groundwater through borewells round the year. Some of the borewells are drilled deeper than 500 feet. It means we are extracting groundwater that is over 1,000 years old. And it would need as much time to replenish. At this rate, we are heading towards desertification.”

Why sugarcane?

Why do farmers continue to cultivate sugarcane despite the looming water crisis? Tandale offers an answer. “If you cultivate sugarcane, you have an assured market,” he said. “The sugar factories pre-book the harvest. All you have to do is work hard for a decent crop and the rest is taken care of. There is no hassle in selling the stock or in getting paid after that. None of the other crops can promise that. You have to struggle like we did with tur. Or you have to sell it to middlemen that procure at a lesser rate than the government-set minimum support price.”

For an acre of sugarcane, farmers invest about Rs 40,000. “You harvest around 60 tonnes per acre and sell it for Rs 2,250 per tonne,” said Shankar. “The probability of making profits is far higher. Also, sugarcane provides a bit of social status in the village.”

More often than not, the crop patterns of the region change according to the market, said senior environmental journalist Atul Deulgaonkar. “The market makes sugarcane attractive,” he said. “If you want to get married, having a sugarcane crop improves your chances. How did sugarcane get that social status? It is because the sugar factories are owned directly or indirectly by people close to politicians from all political parties. The system promotes sugarcane.”

That politicians own sugar factories in Maharashtra is a well known and documented fact. Discouraging sugarcane would conflict with politicians’ interests, Deulgaonkar said. “If water conservation is your genuine worry, then make other crops attractive and lucrative in the market,” he said. “If none of our policies reflect concern for environment or water conservation, then why should destitute farmers worry about the environment and become even more destitute?”

(Parth is a principal correspondent with IndiaSpend.)

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