Ask anyone in Marathwada and they will tell you the second-worst drought in living memory in Maharashtra was in 1972. The worst is the one going on now.

“In 1972 there was no food but at least we got water for drinking and for cattle,” said Chandrabhan Ture, an elderly farmer who had brought his three cows to a private cattle camp near Latur so that they could get some fodder. “Now there is no water at all.”

The Deccan is no stranger to erratic rain. One of the earliest droughts recorded in India is the Durga Devi famine of the Deccan when there was no rain between the Godavari and Krishna rivers for 12 years from 1396 to 1407. When rain finally returned, reports say, no crops were sown because everybody had either died or fled. It took the stewardship of Malik-ut-Tujar, a Bahmani nobleman, to repopulate villages after 1429. Droughts continued to be a feature of the Deccan over the centuries – and remain one even today.

So what is unusual this year is not the drought. It is that even with technology that can access groundwater – supposedly a more reliable source which is immune to the vagaries of the surface – there is still a severe water shortage. This is because this technology to extract groundwater is precisely what has caused such a water scarcity. And what is driving this technology? Sugarcane.

Sugarcane, experts say, is what has pushed Marathwada into a crisis so acute that even the reserves of groundwater are on the verge of drying up.

Sugarcane is a thirsty crop, far thirstier than Marathwada can sustain. Since it needs to be watered around the clock for a year, farmers often connect pipes to the field and leave the water running. When water from traditional sources runs out, they sink borewells at huge personal expense, in the hope that sugarcane will bring the returns to pay for them. When those borewells too run out, they go deeper and deeper. At some point, it’s inevitable that groundwater will run out.

Farmers plant sugarcane because it brings immense profits through a network of government-promoted subsidies that include a minimum support price to farmers and incentives for starting sugar factories. Marathwada has around 80 of Maharashtra’s 205 sugar factories.

Economic downturn

In recent years, a sharp drop in global sugar prices led to several factories being unable to run through the season. The surplus sugar stocks worsened this by further pulling down the prices.

Those factories that remained open said they would not be able to pay the Fair and Remunerative Price – or the minimum support price – set by the Centre for the cane bought from farmers. This, in turn, created a mountain of arrears. Of the Rs 3,000 crore sugar factories owe farmers, at least Rs 1,200 crore is owed by factories run by politicians, according to a report by the Hindustan Times.

As a way out, factories are now demanding subsidies, claiming that they will otherwise be unable to run during the crushing season which begins in November. Even if the government acquiesces, there is anyway not enough water in Marathwada for a regular crushing season.

Moving away from sugarcane

If there is a sugar factory in the area, more farmers grow sugarcane. If the factory shuts down, sugarcane acreage around it too goes down. For instance, there used to be a sugar factory near Kaudgaon (Bavi) in Osmanabad. It shut down five years ago, and since then, fewer farmers have planted the crop – though this is also because there is simply no water to grow it.

“For two years, nobody has put sugarcane because there is no water,” said Nanasaheb Pande, sarpanch of Kaudgaon. “And for five years before that, we have been getting less cane with our water. Now if rain comes, we will put soya bean, toor and harbhara.”

Last year, sugarcane production dropped by half in 8,000 villages in Marathwada, prompting many farmers to voluntarily given up planting cane. By June this year, few had planted any crops for the kharif season because there had been no rain until then. Even so, according to numbers from the Sugar Commissionerate, sugarcane acreage has increased by 6,500 hectares since last year.

Today, whatever sugarcane survives has wilted because of heat and limited water supply. There are entire fields of browning sugarcane that is too limp to be used for sugar factories and is now being converted into fodder as a last resort.

“We are now putting sugarcane for cattle,” said Lakshman Bhuvani, 70, a farmer in Gharni, Latur. “There is no fodder for them. From now on, we will not grow sugarcane. It is too much loss.”

Yet, despite factories shutting down and some farmers beginning to move away from the crop, the fields in Marathwada are still covered in sugarcane. Whether this too will fade away depends on how the government takes the issue forward.

The situation has reached such a pass that even officials don’t deny the need to reduce sugarcane farming.

Tukaram Mundhe, collector of Solapur, was categorical. “This scarcity [of water] is created by cropping patterns not meant for the Ujani dam,” he said. “This is a manmade drought. Unless we change cropping from sugarcane to horticulture, there can be no solution.”

His counterpart in Osmanabad, Prashant Narnaware, was also clear. “One of our programmes is ‘Beyond Sugarcane’. We need to move to crops that are as profitable but do not use this much water.”

With inputs from the Krishi Vigyan Kendra, the Beyond Sugarcane programme pushes farmers to move from sugarcane to soya bean intercropped with toor, flowers, silk or vegetables. Narnaware says that sugarcane sowing has come from 48,000 hectares to only 23,000 hectares in just a year.

Political shift

This might not entirely be due to the efforts of district officials, or even the closure of factories. The truth is: there is simply no water. While officials have been high-minded about lowering sugar production in the past too, it has never been politically acceptable to shut sugar factories. With the coming of a Bharatiya Janata Party government in Maharashtra, this might change.

A while ago, the state government openly announced that it was toying with the idea of disallowing sugarcane factories to run this season. This was as much a political as it was a necessary move. The BJP’s opponents in the state, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress, draw their financial prowess from ownership of cooperative sugar factories across the state. Take that financial backing away, the BJP believes, and it might be able to get a political foothold in region instead.

“Sugarcane is all about politics,” said Siddhaling Swamy, owner of 20 acres of land and a borewell requisitioned by Latur district. “The Congress owns most of the sugar factories, the BJP has one. That’s why they want to stop it.”

But Swamy, who has also planted sugarcane, argued for keeping them open.

“Factories employ 3,000-4,000 people each season,” he said. “Where will they go? The government can tell us to stop planting sugarcane and we will make do and put something else. But will we buy sugar from outside? When sugar prices go up to Rs 100 per kilo, the government will tell us to grow it again and give us loans for it, too.”

This is the second part in a series on Marathwada’s ongoing water crisis. Read the other stories here.