Wednesday, January 1, 2014


That India does not have a sustained agricultural policy during the last 50 years is universally acknowledged and even now Delhi does not seem to be too serious in evolving a consensus on such a nationally viable policy with far reaching vision is a great tragedy. Recent lamentations by a renowned food policy journalist that between 2005 and 2010 India saw the disappearance of 14 million farmers who quit agriculture which did not help them to keep their body and soul together! The recklessness of the rulers is reflected by the support and incentives extended to the sugar lobby by the governments, both state and center, to expand the cultivation of water guzzling sugarcane crop at the cost of more nutritious legumes and eternally short supply oil seeds! Here is a report on this tragic contradictions in the working of the largest democracy in the world!   

Sugar cane is a water-intensive crop which should be farmed in eastern UP and Bihar. Instead, Maharashtra, a water scarce state, has become the country's sugar bowl. In the fifties, Maharashtra was the cradle of the cooperative social movement, the goal of which was to give poor cane farmers an opportunity to overcome exploitation by becoming stakeholders in sugar mills. Cooperatives did not take hold in other cane growing regions. Consequently, Maharashtra became the largest beneficiary of the central government licensing policy which was ideologically biased in favour of cooperative societies. Maharashtra accounts for almost 40 per cent of the country's sugar production. Although centralised licensing was scrapped in 1998, sugar cane still covers four per cent of the cultivable land of Maharashtra, but consumes about 70 per cent of the state's irrigated water resources. Cane in Maharashtra requires twice the water and is only a third as productive as in Bihar. It is ecologically disastrous. Yet, it enjoys heavy government support because 1.2 million farmers, comprising a formidable political lobby, have become dependent on the crop. Further, the industry in the state has been corrupted, with the governance of cooperative sugar factories captured by a small number of farmers that have amassed huge wealth by stripping the factories of resources transferred from a complicit state government apparatus in the form of subsidies, tax exemptions, loans and equity contributions that have never been serviced. The state has over 200 registered sugar factories, of which 165 are cooperatives and 40 per cent of which are chronically "sick".

Interestingly traditional cultivators of sugarcane around the water belts in the country are slowly being squeezed out by big fishes with enormous resources at their disposal for exploiting ground water and deploying modern technology and this trend has resulted in sugarcane being cultivated even in areas where natural water supply is limited. It makes a lot of sense to encourage farmers to take up production of pulses and oil seeds by ruthlessly curtailing sugarcane cultivation and if such a policy is evolved India can overcome its perennial shortage of these commodities which at present are imported to bridge the gap between supply and demand. One can only hope that the new government that will be formed in a few months' time will take up this as a priority.  


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