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Sugar lobby’s bitter tactics hurt India 

Sugar beet would be the best alternative to sugarcane—one of the thirstiest crops in the world. But there is no political will to make this change

The sugar industry is in the throes of an existential crisis and the major reason is our total dependence on sugarcane. The sugarcane industry is a powerful political lobby, and it is a moot point whether sugarcane is seen as a source of sugar or just as a political football. The extent of the crisis starts with the huge amounts of water that sugarcane, one of the thirstiest crops in the world, needs. Further, costs of production of sugar in UP and Maharashtra, the largest sugar-producing states, are over `34 per kg as against `31 per kg maximum selling price. Both UP and Maharashtra owe over `10,000 crore as arrears to sugarcane farmers, which the mills cannot afford to pay. This figure grows daily.

Every agri-based product requires a processing interface to make the product saleable in the market. Paddy farmers need a rice mill, groundnut farmers an oil crushing unit, cotton farmers a ginning mill. For the sugarcane farmer, his processing industry is a huge mechanical behemoth, in front of which he is forced to stand like a supplicant hoping to get his dues. Worse still, this behemoth is controlled by powerful people in the political and government systems, whose primary aim may not be the welfare of the farmer. Instead of the farmer being the most important player in this drama, he has to stand with folded hands in front of a mechanical and bureaucratic monster. 

One easy answer is to switch to sugar beet and stop our dependence on cane. Sadly in India the sugar lobby is perhaps the most powerful political lobby, and wanting them to change is like wanting to reform the gun lobby in the US. A significant quantity of the world’s sugar is made from beet so there is no rocket science involved. The only impediment is fear of loss of political patronage by the actors in the sugarcane drama. The criminality is evident because India’s demand for sugar is 25 million tonnes per year, but because of political brownie points involved, we have let production exceed 35 million tonnes—a recipe for disaster for farmers and India. 

Sugar beet needs only 30 per cent of the irrigation water used for cane, the crop ripens in four months compared to a year for cane, has higher sugar content than cane, the leaves and the residual pulp after extraction of sugar are excellent cattle fodder so a viable dairy and animal husbandry industry can be a part of the sugar beet ecosystem.

The spacing of the plant in the field is amenable to drip irrigation so more water can be saved and the land is free for eight months to grow other crops. Alternatively more sugar beet can be grown and the juice can be distilled to make ethanol for blending it with motor spirits as in Brazil. Imagine how much we could save in oil imports. Ethanol is also a valuable chemical feedstock—a readymade way to double farm income.

It is worth recalling the 30 per cent rule. Using 30 per cent of the water and 30 per cent of the time, sugar beet can give the same output of sugar from the same acreage, compared to sugarcane. In the now freed-up land and water, the farmer is also free to grow what he or she wants. Plus, the additional crops would give profits too.   

Irrigation uses up over 80 per cent of India’s fresh water. Farmers are given free electricity to pump out groundwater, but profligacy starts even before, when water is diverted from major rivers into irrigation canals. The Upper Ganga Canal that starts from Haridwar takes out over 10,000 cusecs from the river, and if you add the other canals in the Ganga-Yamuna system, perhaps over 30,000 cusecs are being diverted. The tragedy is that not only is most of this water used to irrigate sugarcane, it also reduces the flow in the river. This affects the rivers’ ability to carry effluent away, and reduces the drift available for navigation. A litany of self-inflicted wounds.

Sugar is extracted from sugarcane by a crushing process, the power for which is produced by burning bagasse in the mills’ boilers. India’s sugar demand is 25 million tonnes per year and the sugar content of an Indian cane is 10 per cent. India burns over 200 million tonnes of bagasse a year in the crushing season, the winter months. What this does to air pollution needs no elaboration. In comparison, the quantity of stubble burnt in Punjab is about 40 million tonnes, which leads to outrage every year. 

On the other hand, in sugar beets, a process of osmosis extracts sugar from beet, which is cut into thin slices and circulated in a hot water system. If the water is heated via solar energy, it means zero pollution. Sugar beet also needs many but small extraction units, thus giving more control to the farmer. 
Maharashtra C M Devendra Fadnavis had recently said in the presence of NCP chief Sharad Pawar that the time has come to start planting sugar beet.

These are the two major actors in the Maharashtra sugarcane hierarchy, and they can influence the future. In Eastern Maharashtra particularly, it is criminal to waste the meagre water available to grow sugarcane. The position in UP is equally bad. And while the Cauvery dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu continues, sugarcane is largely grown in the Cauvery delta.

Sugar beet has been grown in the Sunderbans, Ganganagar and as part of “experiments” the sugar industry has been carrying out in India for the last 60 years. It has been grown successfully all these years but there is no political will to introduce it. Bangladesh and Pakistan have seen the merit in sugar beet, and have started growing it. What the Americans would call a no-brainer is stuck in a political quagmire.

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