Bilda is a shade different from other villages currently reeling under the worst drought that has hit Maharashtra in many years. Located on the way to the historic Ajanta caves, some 25 km from Aurangabad, the village hasn’t yet caved in to a calamity that is being considered as much natural as manmade. Rao Saheb Jadhar, an enterprising farmer in the village, has still been able to harvest sugarcane though the yields are down by 40 per cent. Under normal conditions, he has been harvesting as high as 130 tonnes of sugarcane from his two-acre farm.

Thanks to the Sustainable Sugar Initiative (SSI), Mr. Jadhar had the cushion to compromise with his harvest, having already attained higher than the average sugarcane harvest of 32 tonnes per acre for the region. Adopting techniques developed by SSI, a collaborative programme of sugar retailers, investors, traders, producers and the civil society, some 1,000 farmers in and around Aurangabad could more than double their yields, from an average of 25 tonnes from an acre. Mr. Jadhar had gone a step ahead in optimising water use by taking inter-crop of tomato amidst rows of sugarcane.

Bilda has been a village worth 12,000 tonnes of sugarcane each season. Located in the village is a community centre where farmers frequently meet to exchange experiences on the better management practices initiated under SSI. A series of posters on the wall depict ‘how to’ of the practices. The visuals cover subjects like bud selection and treatment, nursery raising, main field preparation, transplantation, weeding, mulching, fertiliser application, water management, earthing up, de-trashing, propping, plant protection, intercropping and harvesting.

A cocktail of 17 such practices, grouped under what has been known as ‘better management practices’ (BMP), helped farmers achieve 50 per cent reduction in seeding material alongside no less than 30 per cent increase in yield. Consequent increase in sugar recovery got farmers a better price for their produce from the sugar mills. Notable among the practices has been a shift from flood to furrow system of irrigation which could save as much as 50 per cent water. For a crop that consumes 2,500 litres water for each kg of sugarcane, the gain is indeed substantial.

Co-financed by the European Union, the three-year initiative reached around 1,000 hectares of sugarcane growing area in 13 villages before it came to a close in 2011. “Had I not adopted better management practices, my crop would have perished in the recent drought,” quips Ramdas Bolkar. Despite irrigation waters from the Jayakwadi dam reaching Bhivdhanora village, Laxmi Bai and Kantabai Chavan have persisted with growing sugarcane the manner in which they were trained by the SSI team led by the WorldWide Fund for Nature.

That only three per cent of land area growing sugarcane in the State takes away 60 per cent of irrigation water has come under scanner during the current drought. Together with the current controversy around the failure of irrigation infrastructure to supply water, the issue being debated relates to whether dry districts with low per capita water availability should have been cultivating sugarcane at all. It was in anticipation to such vexed questions that initiative to improve water productivity at the primary production level was started.

Together with paddy, sugarcane consumes maximum proportion of water utilised in agriculture, and hence also of the total water consumed, since agriculture itself as a sector consumes about 70-80 per cent vis-a-vis other sectors. Given the fact that sugarcane is grown on four lakh hectares, reduction in its water footprint can contribute significantly to reducing irrigation water consumption. Further, it is a Rs. 30,000-crore-sector accounting for principal livelihood of 35 million farmers, and 50 million others who are employed in 571 sugar-related industries.

Maharashtra has been a progressive State in terms of enacting policies and regulations pertaining to management of water resources. In such an environment, results from the three-year pilot project could have been easily mainstreamed for improving livelihoods of sugarcane growers. Ironically, when it comes to engineering water use efficiency at the farm level, the focus largely has been on increasing subsidy for drip and sprinkler irrigation and not as much on promotion of no-cost techniques like ‘better management practices’.

Had drip and sprinkler irrigation system been effective, for which the State had doled out subsidy to cover eight lakh hectares since 2005, the impact would have been visible. Conversely, the demand for irrigation only shot up resulting in absurd political statement being made to ‘fill’ the dams. It is time the value of water use efficiency through better management practices gets realised. Not only does it help increase crop harvests without additional costs, the sugar industry reportedly pays better price for such sugarcane because it reduces their processing costs!