Sugarcane farmers in UP were trained to conserve water. 275 billion litre was saved in 3 years

Sugar, which is one of the most water intensive crops, is dependent on the scarce resource for cultivation. Simple innovations in the sugarcane fields of Uttar Pradesh have produced staggering results in water conservation and also upped productiv...

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About 50 million sugarcane grower families are dependent on sugarcane cultivation and the country produces approximately 30-33 million tonne sugar annually, which makes it one of the largest sugar producers of the globe.
To create a big impact, you often do not need complex or costly interventions. Simple, low-cost techniques and methods can often lead to significant improvement.

The Indian sugar sector is very important in the rural economy. About 50 million sugarcane grower families are dependent on sugarcane cultivation and the country produces approximately 30-33 million tonne sugar annually, which makes it one of the largest sugar producers of the globe.
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The sector’s importance is further amplified as in the ambitious programme of ethanol blending by the Government of India, sugarcane is the main stake and this year the sector will be achieving about 6.5 % ethanol blending in petrol. Sugar sector supplies about 5000 megawatt clean power to the national grid and it contributes about Rs 27,000 crore to the Government exchequer annually by way of indirect taxes.


However, the sector faces significant challenges. The main challenge is stagnation in productivity in certain parts of the country, stagnation in sugar recovery, decrease in soil health, degrading water resources and of course the larger issue is how we can ensure the viability and robustness of the sugar sector.

“To mitigate these at DCM Shriram, we have made some innovations in this sector. In the company, we firmly believe that sustainability is at the core of the business and the interest of sugarcane growers and sugar business are complimentary and supplementary to each other. In this direction we have conceptualised a multi stake holder programme for sustainable sugarcane production called ‘Meetha Sona’,” says DCM Shriram, Executive Director & CEO – Sugar Business, Roshan Lal Tamak.

Water woes:
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Sugar, which is one of the most water intensive crops, is dependent on the scarce resource for cultivation. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, adequate available moisture throughout the growing period is important for obtaining maximum yields and depending on climate, water requirements (ETm) of sugarcane are 1500 to 2500 mm evenly distributed over the growing season. Generally, crops require 300-500mm of rainfall/water for their growth.

Acknowledging the need to cut down on water requirements, DCM says it has tried to address both the supply as well as demand for water under the programme in the state of Uttar Pradesh. What is interesting is the fact that these interventions are not high-tech in nature, nor are they path breaking. Simplicity is the crux of the design so that even the sugarcane farmer knows what to do and what is expected of him. “On the demand side, we have undertaken many initiatives like trash mulching. Previously burning of trash was a practice, but after our consistent capacity building programme, farmers are now shredding it and mulching it on the ground. As a result of evaporation and soil moisture loss is prevented and ultimately farmers are saving about two irrigation in the life cycle of sugarcane crop,” says Tamak.

Another simple, but extremely important initiative was to level the ground. “The ground where planting was undertaken was uneven earlier, so laser leveling was started on a large scale. The land is now leveled due to which the uniformity in the distribution of water across the field is ensured, which in turn saves water,” saves Tamak.

The third initiative centered on watering the plants. “Water is applied only where the plant is present and not in the entire field, which means flood irrigation is discouraged. And fourth, is composting, which increases the water retention of the soil as the soil is able to retain moisture longer,” says Tamak.

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The-outreach-is-as-follows_
Graphics by Ashmeet Kaur.

The company roped in the Indian Institute of Sugarcane Research, which is an apex organisation of sugar sector in the country, and as per their assessment, in the last three years the company has managed to save a staggering 275 billion litre of water in its command area. In this case simple measures created a big impact.

Other measures:
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India is a country of smallholders, where the average landholding is about one hectare, which is very small, and there is a big gap between what the practices should be adopted and the practices being currently used.

According to Tamak, productivity is at the center of everything. Increasing productivity leads to better capacity utilization of the factories and for farmers it means better income. “Under this Meetha Sona project, we have prepared a programme for the capacity building of the firms. For this we have taken help of about seven subject matter specialists, experts who are renowned specialists in this area. We have prepared the training calendar, which is now being implemented rigorously. We are covering our farmers, giving them training from time to time on all aspects of sugarcane cultivation,” says Tamak.

For example, one new practice is trench planting. “With trench planting, about 10-15% increase in yield is scientifically proven. But, previously it was not being done, but after intervention, we provided support and services to the farmers and infrastructure also, and now it is being adopted in about 70% of our planting,” says Tamak. Similarly, another practice that has led to positive impact is hydro spacing.

To address the issue of soil health the company has taken composting on a very large scale by digging almost 19,000 compost pits in the area. For mechanization, about 165 growers of that locality were identified and they are being developed as micro entrepreneurs, along with help on financial literacy and taking care of their financial linkage.

He adds that the net impact of this training is that there is about 25-30% increase in productivity.

the-outcome
Graphics by Ashmeet Kaur.

Keeping it simple:
Tamak says the entire model of ‘Meetha Sona’, which has been rolled out with support from IFC, has been modified so that it can be implemented at scale on the ground in a simplistic manner along with an enabling ecosystem. The project that started on pilot basis is now covering about 2,00,000 farmers and 3,00,000 hectare of land is covered in the company’s command area of four sugar factories.

IFC says it has trained the company’s extension workers, who further helped the farmers in seed management, soil improvement, water usage, planting techniques, monitoring, and reporting. These practices were incorporated into a manual for training the DSCL extension workers and an easy reference pictorial flipchart for farmers.

“Sustainability is in the core of the business and this is our firm belief. As far as this initiative is concerned, we have improved our capacities, capacity utilization of the plant, our sugar productivity has also gone up and above all there is a cultural change in our area. There is a clear appreciation that what is to be saved, so that you can feel it while working closely with the growers and that is demonstrated in the practices which they are undertaking,” says Tamak.

With inputs from Ashmeet Kaur.
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