Maharashtra received 16 per cent less rainfall last year compared to its longterm average. The impact of this on agriculture is disastrous. This goes to show how unsuccessful we have been in rainproofing or drought-proofing agriculture in the state. This is done by investing in irrigation systems, small and large dams, canals and lift irrigation systems.
Some of the irrigation projects lie unfinished for 10 and 20 years. Until the “last mile” of the project is completed, the system cannot start functioning. This is part of capital expenditure of the state’s budget. Hence it is considered less priority, or inessential. So crucial last mile funds don’t get allocated, and irrigation projects languish for decades. This causes huge cost escalation, burdening the state budget. Not to forget the allegations of kickback, shoddy quality, popularly known as “irrigation scam”.
Despite commendable initiatives like ‘Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan’ of the Chief Minister for past four years, which primarily address drinking water problems, the crops remain thirsty and parched. This past year, Maharashtra crop output is down by 14 per cent, as was revealed by the official Economic Survey tabled in the State Assembly. Overall, agriculture output, which makes up around 12 per cent of state GDP, is down by 8.3 per cent. Naturally it has pulled down the overall GDP growth rate of the state much below last year’s.
This also calls into serious question about how the government plans to double farmers’ income in the next four years.
The growth performance of various crops is quite depressing. Overall, foodgrain output, which includes cereals, is down 23 per cent. Pulses production has fallen by 27 per cent; cotton, which was affected by pink bollworm attacks, a staggering 44 per cent; and oilseeds and vegetable production 18 and 14 per cent, respectively. But, hold your breath, sugarcane production is up by 25 per cent. This is a water-guzzling crop, which is grown on less than 5 per cent of agricultural land and which consumes 60 per cent of irrigation water. Farmers sell their cane to the sugar factory that is assigned to them. They are thus captive sellers.
The sugar cooperatives have deep and historic political linkages. It is common to see patronage networks operating through the sugar cooperative factory as the focal point. Often, these factories have enough surplus funds to support schools, colleges and hospitals. But the glaring fact is that in a year that has been disastrous for all other crops, sugarcane is king. Cane is able to rule to roost. Raising cane is the most profitable activity, it seems.
Maharashtra, which is mostly drought prone, is not the most ideal place to grow cane, as against the fertile Indo-Gangetic plains. But nearly one third of India’s sugar output comes from Maharashtra. This year, the all-India sugar production is going to be a record 29.5 million tonnes, almost 45 per cent higher than last year. Naturally, the factories are worried that the glut will cause prices to crash and hence are asking central government to raise the export quota. Exporting sugar is like exporting precious water. That is a different debate, which we will not get into right now.
Incidentally, there are technologies which can reduce water consumption in sugarcane by as much as 60 to 70 per cent, but they need to be disseminated and championed. From a cradle-tograve viewpoint — i.e. cane to sugar to bagasse to fuel point of view — sugarcane does add a lot of value to the rural economy. But clearly the way it is managed in Maharashtra needs to change. Despite a good monsoon, the dams in Solapur district ran dry last year because the region has 35 sugar factories, which finished all the water allocation. Hence sugarcane is intricately linked to the political economy of the state.
While all-India foodgrain output has been good, in Maharashtra, it has been dismal. It is a matter of great concern. No wonder there is a large, silent farmers’ march making its way to Mantralaya. The award of loan waivers in the era of banking scams can no longer be rejected, even if you don’t consider the moral or humanitarian angle. Fifty-two per cent of Maharashtra’s workforce is directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture and their incomes are low. Almost half of them are either landless or have very small land parcels. They are all waiting for a decent exit. Or better standards of living by remaining in agriculture. Can we find a way?