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Better water management

In a welcome development for the drought-hit Marathwada region of Maharashtra, the state government is set to enforce a five-year ban on the sanctioning of new sugar mills. This decision is in line with the former Congress-NCP government-appointed Madhav Chitale Committee Report. “There cannot be any justification for allowing so many sugar mills in Marathwada,” Chitale said. “As a uniform rule, the government should ensure that any district with less than 700 mm rainfall should not be allowed sugarcane cultivation.”  The government has also decided to make drip irrigation compulsory for all sugarcane farms across the state. To the uninitiated, drip irrigation is a farming technique in which water flows through a filter into special drip pipes, with emitters located at different spacing. This process is a known water-saver.  As discussed in these columns earlier, the escalating water crisis in the state is primarily down to short-sighted considerations that have engulfed its politics and agriculture. Although the Marathwada region is facing a serious shortfall of water, besides suffering from a second consecutive year of deficient monsoon, the prevailing water crisis is not down the unavailability of water resources. It is all about the gross mismanagement of water.

Since its inception in 1960, the state of Maharashtra has been governed by politicians that have shown complete apathy towards water management. The reason for this is simple. Since 1960, almost every government in the state has been run by those involved in sugar-driven commercial activities that result in the gross misuse of water. Maharashtra is the second largest producer of sugar in India after Uttar Pradesh. But unlike the northern state, which has an extensive network of rivers flowing from the Himalayas, Maharashtra does not have the luxury. “Of the 202 sugar mills in Maharashtra, 40 percent are in Marathwada region,” according to a recent report in the Indian Express. In Maharashtra’s sugar belt, which includes the drought-stricken Marathwada region, sugarcane production has been on the rise. For those unfamiliar with agricultural practices, sugarcane is a water-guzzling crop. In 2014-15, a year in which the sugar belt faced a serious drought, it declared record production of sugarcane. It is baffling how a state stricken by drought has regularly promoted sugarcane plantation. The crop consumes over 70 percent of irrigated water while occupying just 4 percent of the state’s farmland. Despite the discrepancy and dire water situation, successive state governments have bailed out the sugar industry on numerous occasions with subsidies and loan waivers, instead of incentivising the production of other sustainable crops. Although these state governments have known this fact, no attempt was made to halt the mushrooming of sugar mills because they are either owned or controlled by local politicians. In the last three years alone, the Marathwada region has seen the emergence of 20 additional sugar factories, even as drinking water to its villages is delivered in water tankers and trains.   

Suffice to say, the sugar lobby and the number of local politicians beholden to it have influenced agriculture policy in the state. Even though the state has the largest amount of dams in the country, it continues to suffer from a debilitating scarcity of water. It’s a frightening scenario. “The whole game plays out like this: Politicians propose irrigation facilities in the areas where they have business interests. Be it sugar cooperatives or dairy. In rural Maharashtra, a politician’s might is measured by his or her ability to get a sugar cooperative along with facilities for the irrigation of sugarcane crop. This has, in many places, rendered agricultural land useless,” according to the Indian Express report mentioned earlier. Therefore, it is no surprise that until recently, the Maharashtra government has not really sought to implement better practices for water management.  Data from the Ministry of Agriculture shows that only 20-25 percent sugar mills have implemented drip irrigation. Reports indicate that state governments in the past have mulled over the idea of making drip irrigation mandatory for sugarcane cultivation. But it was never implemented. Most sugarcane farms continue to use an unsophisticated irrigation technique—flood irrigation. To the uninitiated, flood irrigation involves the process of flooding an entire farm with water. It’s no surprise that such practices result in extreme wastage of water. Without a change in State policy and extensive efforts at revamping the infrastructure for regular water supply, the people will continue to suffer.
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