Truth vs Hype: In Drought-Hit Marathwada, A Sugar Mill Owner 'Downgrades' to Mercedes

Bapurao Patil says the Mercedes is a sign of austerity, a downgrade from the imported car he wanted to buy, because of all the care he has lavished on farmers

Osmanabad: In Osmanabad, deep in Maharashtra's Marathwada region, Bapurao Patil meets us in his family compound.

Mr Patil, along with his brother Basavraj, a Congress MLA, controls the local Shri Vitthal Sai sugar mill. "These are not good times", he said.

Indeed they are not. Marathwada has reported a rain deficit of 50 per cent; in some districts of this region, it is said to be the lowest rainfall in 100 years.

But it is increasingly being argued that chronic water scarcity here is exacerbated by the relentless promotion of sugarcane, a water intensive crop inappropriate for a drought-prone region. Each acre of cane uses an estimated 10 times as much water as other traditional crops in the region, like urad dal, moong, jowar and bajra.

But despite four years of poor rain, the amount of cane planted in Marathwada has increased by 40,000 hectares over the previous season.

Many say it is because of the political grip on sugar economy, embodied by men like Mr Patil and his brother who control every aspect of it: from the sugar mill, the cooperative bank, to the mandi where the sugar is sold.

But for the first time, the state government is contemplating a ban on sugarcane crushing this season. To crush each tonne of cane requires about 100 litres of water.

This has pushed cane farmers, already burdened with debt, into deeper financial stress. In Umarga taluka, standing next to tall stalks of cane that may not be harvested, Ashok Pawar, Vaijanath Patil and Ramesh Pawar tell us how much debt they already have on their books: Rs 3 lakhs, 2.10 lakhs, and 2.25 lakhs respectively.

The government should rethink its policy, says Bapurao Patil, or his sugar factory will be in trouble.

But politically-connected sugar barons like Mr Patil seem insulated from the turmoil roiling the countryside. Behind him was parked a gleaming white Mercedes SUV, an incongruous sight in a village of tiny lanes and low-slung brick and mud homes.
 

Without batting an eyelid, he said the Mercedes is a sign of austerity, a downgrade from the imported car he wanted to buy, because of all the care he has lavished on farmers.

He explained his startling logic in this way: the Mercedes, he says, is technically not imported since it is assembled in Chakan, the automobile industry belt on the outskirts of Pune.

When we asked him the price of the car, he said it cost Rs 55 lakhs. Regardless of where the car is assembled, how is that austerity we asked? How many in this village will be able to afford such a high-end luxury vehicle?

To this he said "whether or not they can afford it is up to them."

To those who follow the sugarcane economy, this encounter will not come as a surprise. Regardless of the reason - whether falling prices, overproduction, or poor management - the sugar industry is regularly bailed out. The latest is a Rs 6000-crore package announced by the Centre a month ago.

Not all the money is spent in reviving defunct mills, or repaying farmers. An enquiry committee recently chargesheeted Maharashtra's former Deputy Chief Minister, Ajit Pawar, and a number of the leaders of his party, the NCP, for 'irregularities' in disbursing funds from the Maharashtra cooperative bank. Pawar was a director of the bank.

A good part of the case against them was the giving of bad loans to sick sugar cooperatives, often controlled by members of their own party.

Mr Patil, however, denies the charge of cronyism in the sugar economy. "The real problem," he said, "is global warming."  
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