Dry spell | An Ahmednagar mill’s usage leads to outrage among the drought-hit downstream

Yogesh Pawar

At a time when 2/3rd of Maharashtra is reeling under the worst drought of the century, sugar factories in the state have been happily lifting water from the rivers on state government’s watch. Such lifting of water by Sangamner’s Sahakarmaharshi Bhausaheb Thorat Sahakari Sakhar Karkhana Ltd in Ahmednagar district has led to outrage among the drought-hit downstream.

This factory has built a major pump house on the bed of the now bone-dry Pravara river with jackwells in the middle of the channel to suck out water. Water is also being gathered from multiple holes dug in the dry river bed. In addition, the factory uses two major farm ponds, one 25 feet deep and the other about 18 feet deep to store water when it is released in the river. These ponds have huge evaporation losses too. Factory officials themselves gloated on March 28: “Farm ponds will be filled when next drinking water rotation is released. We fill them at every rotation.”

Ahmednagar collector Anil Kawade insists water is being released only for drinking purposes. When asked whether he would initiate any action he admitted to finding his hands tied. “Orders for that will have to come from the state government,” he said.

What’s worse the factory’s defunct-for-three-years treatment plant releases effluents directly into the stream. “So they are not only lifting water from the river but also dirtying what is left with effluents from where it is picked up by farmers,” lamented Parineeta Dandekar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), who wondered why this too was being ignored by both the Ahmednagar collectorate and pollution control authorities.

Congress heavyweight Balasaheb Thorat (erstwhile revenue and agriculture minister of the state) who owns the factory wondered why it was being singled out. “Sugarcane has been grown on two lakh hectare in Marathwada and about a lakh hectare in Solapur. All sugar factories are lifting water for crushing, why am I being singled out?”

He also said that once the sugarcane was harvested no one could stop crushing or refuse to give water for the same. Confirming Thorat’s figures on the total area under sugarcane cultivation, Dandekar explained how 80% of the cash crop is grown in acutely water-scarce areas. “

While clearly specifying how Thorat’s factory has no co-generation or distillation facilities any more, she pointed out how Solapur’s Lokmangal sugar factory was also lifting water from the Lower Terna dam despite it having only dead storage water left. Dandekar underlined how water storage in the dams in sugarcane-growing areas has been poor this year because of a deficient monsoon.

“Kolhapur, a water-sufficient region, received just 35.8% rainfall. Solapur, with the highest number of sugar factories in the state, got only 193.9 mm of rainfall and Ujani dam, the largest in Bhima river basin that supports sugarcane crop and crushing in Solapur, has dead reserves.”

But wasn’t the government considering staying the water-intensive sugarcane crushing after the monsoon failed thrice in the last four years? “Revenue minister Eknath Khadse said in August that the state would consider banning sugarcane crushing in drought-hit areas and protect existing drinking water,” remembers Dandekar.

About 164 sugar mills had sought the state’s permission to begin crushing. Though the government had said the process will not be permitted in certain parts because of water scarcity no written orders were sent. A senior MWRRA official admitted that they too had red-flagged this issue with the state in September. “Politically it is not easy taking on the all-powerful sugar lobby in the state. But the government should think of the situation we are staring at,” said a senior official. Water resources minister Girish Mahajan could not be reached.

Published Date:  Apr 03, 2016