(Repeats earlier story for wider readership with no change to
By Rajendra Jadhav
AURANGABAD, India Oct 19 Despite pleas from the
government not to, Indian farmers like Santosh Wagh went right
back to planting sugar cane as soon as the first nourishing
monsoon rains brought water to his drought-stricken region of
For growers like Wagh, a 35-year old from the Marathwada
region in the west of India's Maharashtra state, sugar cane has
two attributes that make planting the crop lucrative - hardiness
and state policies that ensure higher returns. These farmers sow
the cane even as its outsized water demands relative to other
crops threaten to plunge this traditionally arid region back
into a drought.
"It is the only reliable crop. Earlier this year I
cultivated onions and incurred a 50,000 rupees loss as prices
crashed," said Wagh, who plants 1.5 acres (0.6 hectares) of
Four months ago Maharashtra, the biggest sugar producing
region in India, suffered the worst drought in four decades that
ravaged crops, killed livestock, depleted reservoirs and slowed
down hydroelectric power output.
Environmental activists and the government blamed the rapid
expansion of sugar cane growing for creating the water scarcity.
Cane consumes about 22.5 million litres of water per hectare
during its 14-month long growing cycle compared to just 4
million litres over four months for chickpeas, a pulse, commonly
grown in India and called gram locally.
Without government intervention to reset the revenue balance
in favour of other crops, experts warn the sustained production
of sugar cane will further deplete scarce water resources and
leave the region prone to droughts. This could create social
unrest stemming from the widening income gap between cane
growers and other farmers.
"The government asks farmers to shift to less water
consuming crops, but it does little to support those crops. It
failed to solve the problems of oilseed and pulses growers,"
said Pradeep Purandare, a former professor at Maharashtra Water
and Land Management Institute based in Aurangabad.
Erratic prices for vegetables, oilseeds and pulses limit the
incentive for farmers to plant them.
In contrast, the government requires sugar mills to buy cane
at a set "fair and remunerative price" (FRP). The government
also buys wheat and rice at what is called the minimum support
"Returns from other crops are unpredictable. This year I
allowed 5 tonnes of onions to rot. Prices were so low that my
losses would have increased by transporting onions to the
market," said Suresh Kothawale, another Aurangabad farmer.
India's government hopes higher subsidies for pulses and
oilseeds will change farming patterns.
"We are creating oilseeds and pulses as an alternative for
sugar cane by raising their minimum support prices," said a
senior official at India's Agriculture Ministry who declined to
But industry critics said the pulse and oilseed MSP only
exists on paper as the government never procures them
aggressively like wheat or rice.
"Green gram prices were trading below support prices due to
higher production. This makes the support price irrelevant for
farmers," said Nitin Kalantri, a pulses miller based at Latur in
HARDY CROP, POLITICAL CLOUT
The sugar mill buildup in Marathwada was initially pushed by
politicians in the region trying to replicate the prosperity of
mills in other areas of Maharashtra state and was focused on
areas with plentiful water, said Jaidev Dole, a political
analyst in Aurangabad.
"But later politicians opened mills everywhere, even in
areas where drinking water is not available, to build a
constituency rather than making farmers rich," he said.
Farmers sell cane directly to sugar mills, effectively
getting 100 percent remuneration, but other crops pass through
middlemen, ensuring farmers get half the price consumers pay,
said Sanjeev Babar, managing director of the Maharashtra State
Co-operative Sugar Factories Federation.
Sugar cane's sturdiness also attracts farmers because of
limited access to insurance that protects against crop failures.
Mature cane withstands heavy rainfall or dry spells and is
also less vulnerable to pest and diseases compared to other
crops, said farmer Sharad Mate, who has lost pulse crops due to
droughts and un-seasonal rainfall.
"I had taken crop insurance for pulses last year, but didn't
get compensation despite losing an entire crop," said Mate, a
farmer from Sillod, northeast of Aurangabad.
(Reporting by Rajendra Jadhav; Editing by Christian