NEW DELHI -- With a humanitarian crisis on its hands, the Maharashtra government has finally acted on the advice of experts and activists to curb the setting up of sugar mills in a semiarid region of the state which is prone to drought.
Today, The Indian Express reported that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government of Maharashtra has decided to ban new sugar mills in the drought ravaged region of Marathwada for the next five years.
For decades now, experts have cried themselves hoarse over the danger of allowing the unrestricted production of sugarcane, a water guzzling crop, in drought prone areas such as Marathwada and Vidarbha. But successive governments have submitted to lobbying by sugarcane farmers and mill owners, several of whom are politicians belonging to different parties.
"There is elitism within the rural community. Politicians benefit because they are running the sugar mills," said N.C. Saxena, former secretary in the Ministry of Rural Development, recalling that he had warned against the mushrooming of sugar mills as far back as 1997.
Banning sugar mills should come with a other actions such as regulating cropping patterns and water management, Saxena added.
Maharashtra is presently dealing with a humanitarian crisis, induced by drought and severe water shortages, which is claiming lives almost every day.
Activists are asking why farmers in Maharashtra are so dependent on rainfall when the state has the highest number of dams in India, and why they don't have alternative ways of irrigating their lands. Press Trust of India reported today that only three percent of water is left in the dams of Marathwada.
When the rains fails for a fews years in a row, there is tremendous strain on groundwater. Experts have warned that sugarcane production takes a huge toll on the groundwater, aggravating the water crisis which rears its head over and over again, with varying intensity.
Writing in The Indian Express, Girish Kuber, the editor of LokSatta, pointed out that only four percent of farmed land in the state is under sugarcane cultivation, but this consumes as much as 71.5 per cent of irrigated water, including that from wells.
Out of the 202 sugar mills in Maharashtra, 40 percent are in Marathwada region.
Experts warned that banning sugar mills is not going to go down well with farmers whose livelihood depends on the cash crop, which also gives them fodder for their livestock.
Bhaskar Kolekar, an agriculture scientist based in Beed, one of worst drought-affected districts in Marathwada, said that instead of banning sugar mills, the government should focus on expanding drip-irrigation.
Drip-irrigation, which uses a special device for water to fall close to the root of the plant, is designed to save water, but it is also expensive.
The Indian Express reported that the Maharashtra government is planning to make drip-irrigation mandatory for all sugar mills across the state, and it will also seek advice from Israel's government on how to make this less expensive for farmers.
If farmers are to be gradually weaned away from sugarcane production then the government would also have to teach them about alternatives crops, said Kolekar.
Banning sugar mills and regulating sugarcane production was a key demand of Swaraj Abhiyan, a non-profit organization founded by former Aam Aadmi Party leader Yogendra Yadav, which has filed a petition before the Supreme Court, seeking relief for those hit by the drought in at least 10 states.
While welcoming the decision to ban new sugar mills, Swaraj Abhiyan's spokesperson Anupam Singh said that it was "unfortunate" that it had taken the Maharashtra government so long to make the painfully obvious move.
"We are not able to generate enough pressure on governments. It is not a priority," said Singh. "If there is a water crisis in Delhi for a single day then it is national news. But not when it comes to farmers all over the country. Now, that this is in the news, the media is covering it, they are forced to act."
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