The sugar sector in Maharashtra has already been under fire since the state has been in the grip of a major drought and cane is considered a water guzzler.
Maharashtra sugar millers are looking at newer cane varieties that are drought-tolerant and can be cultivated within a span of 8-9 months.
A delegation of the Maharashtra State Cooperative Sugar Factories Federation (MSCSFF), including the board of directors of the federation, was at the Sugarcane Breeding Institute in Coimbatore to inspect newer cane varieties that could be suitable for the state.
Sanjay Khatal, MD of the federation who was part of the delegation, said that the millers in the state are attempting to look at newer cane varieties that take up less water and could be grown in a shorter span of time. The Sugarcane Breeding Institute has been propagating some varieties that could be suitable for Maharashtra.
Multi-location trials of some of the the cane varieties are in progress and if found suitable, these could be recommended on a commercial scale for Maharashtra, he said. The Coimbatore institute has been working on several drought tolerant varieties that could find their way into the market.
The sugar sector in Maharashtra has already been under fire since the state has been in the grip of a major drought and cane is considered a water guzzler. According to the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP), sugarcane cultivation, which takes place on less than 4% of the total cropped area in the state, takes away almost 70% of Maharashtra’s irrigation water, leading to massive inequity in its use.
The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has also identified sugarcane as a major water-intensive field crop as it requires a huge amount of water to produce a unit of output. In all, 195 sugar mills in Maharashtra have crushed 951.79 lakh tonne of sugarcane to produce 107.19 lakh tonne of sugar this year, using 26.96 trillion litres of water. Marathwada dams have just 3% water and thousands of villages are dependent on water tankers. This year, 47 mills crushed 167.35 lakh tonne of cane in the Marathwada region.
While the state has made drip irrigation compulsory for sugarcane cultivation, it has not met with the desired results. Significantly, Uttar Pradesh has overtaken Maharashtra in the last couple of years to take the top slot in the country in sugar production and has also overtaken the markets that were traditionally the bastion of Maharashtra.
Nearly everything about the cane industry, from the raw material costs to sale of sugar, is controlled by the government. Therefore, millers are looking at alternatives to survive and diversify. Millers are looking at other options, including beet, sweet sorghum. In a 110-120 days’ season, June-July to October-November could be utilised for ethanol production, and sugar beet crop plantation could be taken up in October, and after four months in February-March the distillery could run on sugar beet. Sugar millers from the state are attempting to promote the cultivation of beet for sugar production for the first time. The objective is to ensure that the plant and machinery which lies idle for a better part of the year is effectively utilised and both sugar factories and farmers get an alternate revenue stream.
Significantly, in the coming season, after a couple of years of bumper sugar production, Maharashtra could be hit by scarcity in the season of 2019-20 with barely 65 lakh tonne of sugar likely to be produced during the season.
The ongoing drought situation in the state could see cane acreage shrink by at least 28% to 8.43 lakh hectare for the 2019-20 season as against 11.62 lakh hectare in 2018-19. The dip in acreage is most likely in Marathwada and Solapur regions which have been badly affected by drought.
Despite the drought situation, around 195 mills in Maharashtra crushed 951.79 lakh tonne of cane to produce 107.194 lakh tonne of sugar in 2018-19. Cane cultivation in Marathwada will be the most affected and there would be hardly any cane for mills to start the next crushing season.
Unlike the previous season, when around 54% of the available cane came from ratoon crop grown from the stubble of the previously harvested cane, this year, the portion of the ratoon crop is expected to be around 40%.