Research and development efforts should focus on increasing productivity and reducing the cost of sugarcane cultivation in the wake of dip in sugarcane and sugar production in the country, observed speakers at the inaugural of the 41st meeting of sugarcane research and development workers of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry here on Thursday.

The two-day meet of research experts from the industry and research institutions, jointly organised by the Sugarcane Breeding Institute (SBI), Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) and Sugar Factories of Tamil Nadu, began here with a focus on mechanisation and micro-irrigation in sugarcane cultivation.

Setting the tone of the meet, N. Vijayan Nair, Director, SBI, said though the country had witnessed a surplus situation in sugar production last year, it was facing a deficit situation this year. The area under cane has come down by about 40 per cent in the country though in Tamil Nadu it was only around 20 per cent. Large-scale diversion of cane area to other crops has taken place in Tamil Nadu as in other parts of the State. Productivity and sugar recovery have not increased over the past two decades despite introduction of new and better cane varieties.

Higher cost of cane cultivation, low cane price coupled with the higher support price announced other agricultural produce was luring away many farmers from sugarcane cultivation. The primary challenge before R&D personnel was to reduce the cost of cultivation while maintaining a high level of productivity so that cane cultivation remains sustainable and remunerative.

The sector should take advantage of the a comprehensive package announced by the Tamil Nadu government, including sanction of subsidy for drip irrigation systems, precision farming and purchase of harvesters for public sector sugar mills to overcome the labour shortage, Dr. Nair said.

P. Murugesa Boopathi, Vice Chancellor, TNAU, said though Tamil Nadu stood next only to Uttar Pradesh in the country in terms of cane area, productivity remained low here. Since increasing the cane area would be difficult, increasing productivity is the only option. The TNAU and its three sugarcane research centres have released several new cane varieties. They have also come out with technologies such as ‘drip fertigation’ and double-row planting to conserve water and to improve yield. TNAU was also working on developing a salinity resistant cane variety.

Collector T. Soundiah, expressing concern at the dip in sugar production in the country, appealed to the R&D experts to devise ways to tackle problems such as low rainfall, low productivity and rising cultivation costs.

K. Ravindran, Senior Vice President (Operations), EID Parry India Ltd., the hosts, said despite an increase in the State advised price, cane cultivation area was not going up in the State. Shortage of water is impacting on yield and cane growers have also been adversely hit by the labour scarcity. Mechanisation had a critical role to play in overcoming the problem, he said and appealed to researchers to come up with machines that could be handled by women, who constitute 60 per cent of the labour now.

A. Sekar, Chief Cane Development Officer, Tamil Nadu Sugar Corporation Ltd., said the State government has sanctioned a rehabilitation package for public sector/cooperative mills to help the sector.

M.C. Gopinathan, Senior Vice President (R&D), EID Parry India, said the meeting was meant to be a platform for sharing knowledge and experience between the industry and researchers. S. Ponnappan, General Manager (Cane), EID Parry India, and others spoke.