In drought-hit Maharashtra, sugar politics trumps drinking water needs

In drought-hit Maharashtra, sugar politics trumps drinking water needs
Pune:  Maharashtra is reeling under its worst drought in four decades; a majority of the state is parched and there's an acute shortage of drinking water. Though the state government has taken a policy decision that water from dams in Pune would be first used to meet drinking water needs, RTI queries have revealed that water from the dams are being diverted to irrigate sugarcane fields.

Sugarcane is the backbone of western Maharashtra's agrarian economy, but it is also a water guzzling cash crop and questions are being asked why water meant for drinking needs is being supplied to sugarcane fields.

Sajak Nagrik Manch, the NGO that obtained documents about the distribution of water from dams in Pune -- under RTI or the Right to Information - says that though the government policy mandates no more than 5 per cent of irrigated land can be used to grow sugarcane, in Pune district alone, nearly 40 per cent of the total irrigated land is under cane cultivation.

The district is the bastion of deputy Chief Minister and NCP leader Ajit Pawar. In fact, 65 per cent of the sugar produced in the state comes from drought prone western Maharashtra, the Pawar family stronghold.

Activists like Vivek Velankar, who filed the RTI query, allege that this skewed distribution pattern is because of the close connections that politicians in Maharashtra have with sugar factories and sugar cooperatives, a majority of which are controlled by the ministers in the government.

"City areas are facing water cuts as there is a shortage of water in the dams. In spite of that, water is being released from Khadakwasla dam for agriculture at the behest of politicians," Mr Velankar told NDTV.

Parineeta Dandekar, a member of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People said, "Sugarcane takes 10 to 15 times more water than traditional crops, but because 13 ministers either hold sugar factories or have major stakes in them, it has become the backbone of the state's political economy."

The Divisional Commissioner, Prabhakar Deshmukh, admitted to NDTV that it was high time the administration focussed on changing the cropping pattern -- especially reducing sugarcane cultivation -- at a time when there is no water for drinking and for cattle. "We will have to think seriously on this matter," he said.


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