At first glance, the move to consider a ban on sugarcane cultivation and crushing in the severely drought-stricken Maharashtra seems to like a sound idea.

In a state whose political economy has been driven by the infamous sugarcane lobby – a euphemism for a select set of large-scale cultivators, sugar factory owners who are also politicians of clout in their areas – this would also be a bold decision. It could potentially change political equations and alter the cropping pattern, enhancing the environment and ensuring more equitable distribution of the scarce liquid that is now considered "blue gold".

In the corridors of power in Mantralaya, the ban has been discussed for weeks on end now. Minister Eknath Khadse remarked to the media earlier this week that “sugarcane cultivation and crushing requires huge amount of water…it will have to be banned… (the decision) cannot wait for one more season”. Does Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis have it in him to bite the bullet?

Calamitous state of affairs

On his latest tour across Marathwada this week, Fadnavis would have had a chance to witness the utterly calamitous state of affairs in the drought-hit region. In Osmanabad, he noted the severity of the drought when he pointed out that for the first time in the history of Maharashtra, cattle and fodder camps have had to be opened in August itself, during monsoon season. Major dams across eight districts in the region have gone dry. Villages get water through tankers and that too only once a week, most crops are withering away, and suicides by farmers who see no hope at all are rising by the day.

The picture is also true of a few districts in the once cash-rich western Maharashtra, the sugar bowl of the state, with Ahmednagar and Solapur emerging as the worst-hit districts this monsoon season. Parts of Vidarbha and north Maharashtra regions have been hit badly too, but none is as devastated as Marathwada.

The severe drought has arrived on the back of a series of weather calamities over the last three years. The effects of the drought in 2012 were somewhat redeemed by relatively satisfactory rain the following year. But the hailstorms in March 2014 followed by a poor monsoon, then unseasonal rains in November 2014 and again in March this year meant that the resilience of the land and people has been relentlessly battered.

Beyond the fickle weather

The blame for the miserable condition across the state must be traced back to the changing weather patterns and unpredictable climatic conditions. But this is only a part of the narrative. The other part is the slew of policies and decisions made over the years, especially in the last two decades, about farming patterns, irrigation capacity, and the illogical and over-arching preference for the sugarcane crop in these regions.

Successive state governments ensured that their policies would privilege the sugarcane crop over all others. Large areas covered by soyabean and millets, oilseeds and other crops were diverted to cultivating sugarcane as a range of tax incentives and subsidies were extended. Sugarcane cultivation was encouraged and more sugar factories set up despite knowing that sugarcane is a water-guzzling crop and the state faces drought every few years.

Maharashtra, which produces between 35% and 40% of the country’s sugar output and ranks second behind Uttar Pradesh, displays a disturbing trend in water consumption. It takes an average of 2,068 litres of water for cultivating the crop and an additional amount for the factories to produce a kilo of sugar in the state compared to 1,044 litres in UP, according to a study done by the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. The 200-205 sugar factories that crush the cane and process the sugar use an average of 4 lakh litres per day, according to the study.

Worse, as the spread of the sugarcane crop increased and the number of factories swelled during the last 20 years, the crop ended up consuming a whopping 71% to 72% of the irrigated and well water available in the state. This becomes more stark when set against another set of facts: Maharashtra has the highest number of dams in the country and has devoted a large part of its annual budgets to increasing irrigation capacity, but less than 18% of the total cultivated area in the state is covered by irrigation even today. Of that, an abnormally huge portion is devoted to the cultivation of sugarcane.

The situation was made worse in the last few years as new factories were approved by the State Sugar Commissioner to be set up in drought-prone areas, including Marathwada. In fact, this region witnessed an exponential growth in the number of factories, going against all advice by water resources experts such as Madhav Chitale. To allow and encourage a water-guzzling crop in Marathwada was wrong policy, he repeatedly warned. But the influential and politically dominant sugar lobby paid no heed.

Sugar, sugar everywhere

Marathwada now has about 80 factories of the 200-205 across the state. Across the districts of Osmanabad, Beed, Latur, Aurangabad, Nanded, Parbhani, Jalna and Hingoli, the number of factories have multiplied in the last few years. It is a similar situation in western Maharashtra’s drought-prone districts of Solapur and Ahmednagar.

These districts have, or are at least supposed to have, their own water committees to recommend the distribution of water. But the committees are peopled by locally and nationally important politicians who also own or control factories, and who happen to divert water to sugarcane cultivation and sugar factories.

So, even as water was supplied by tankers to villages across Marathwada in the last two years and people struggled to obtain water for their and their cattle’s basic needs, nearly 20 new factories came up in the region, according to official data. Solapur district in western Maharashtra alone saw 20 new factories, five of them in Madha, the constituency nurtured by the powerful Sharad Pawar, Nationalist Congress Party president and former union agriculture minister.

Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People pointed to the amount of water that has been wilfully taken away from all other needs and diverted to sustaining the sugarcane economy. In addition to this, he said, is "the diversion of the meagre water available to power stations and other industrial needs while people in the area are struggling beyond belief to get a pot of water and are setting fire to their crops because there is no hope of irrigating them.”

The five major dams in the region  are at the “dead reserve” level. The groundwater reservoir level has sunk so low that the Fadnavis government had to restrict and regulate the digging of bore-wells. And water thefts are now becoming the most dreaded of crimes in parts of Latur, as reports have shown.

Against this landscape of water inequity and successive years of drought-hailstorms-drought in the last three years, Maharashtra has had a record production of the sugarcane crop in 2014-15. But the sugarcane farmers do not always get their share of the benefit for the factories claim low-prices and make other excuses to delay or escape payments.

After much lobbying, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre extended Rs 6,000 crore as interest-free loans in June this year to factories to pay farmers. In 2013, the United Progressive Alliance government had similarly given Rs 6,600 crore. This means the factory owners, in many cases politicians, have insured themselves against the vagaries of nature and fluctuating fortunes from sugar. It is the farmers who bear the brunt of fickle weather and failed crop, if the battle to irrigate yields nothing.

Politics of the possible ban

It is, therefore, being argued that the sugarcane cultivation and crushing certainly needs some regulation. Perhaps, even a ban at this time, given the extreme drought conditions. But such decisions are hardly driven by pure logic and argument . Also, this is not the first time that the issue has been discussed.

Back in 1999 when the situation was nowhere as grave as today, the Maharashtra Water and Irrigation Commission had recommended such a ban. Especially for Solapur, but later extending their suggestion to other districts, the Commission had stated: “It is desirable to impose a total ban on water intensive crops like sugarcane in these deficit sub basins… less water intensive crops only and less water intensive economic activities only should be permitted”.

Fadnavis has this and similar other reports, as well as studied opinions from experts, to back his decision to ban sugarcane cultivation and crushing. But he would also have a political motive.

Such a ban would go a long way in breaking the back of the powerful sugar lobby which largely, but not exclusively, comprises politicians from the Congress and NCP.  For obvious reasons, the previous Congress-NCP governments did not even consider regulating the sugarcane economy – on the other hand, they actively promoted and encouraged the sector. Nearly a third of the state cabinet at one time had direct or indirect interest in sugar factories.

Emulating the model of economic-political-social control over an area, a number of BJP politicians too have sugar factories now, including in Marathwada. This adds another layer of complexity to Fadnavis's decision-making. Can he go against a section of his own partymen, especially powerful leaders?

The political under-currents apart, a ban, at least temporarily till this year’s drought conditions abate, would be in the fitness of things. But experience shows that the ban would hit those the hardest who are the most vulnerable: the farmers.