Sugarcane no longer a sweet option for farmers

January 27, 2021
The Times of India |

Coimbatore district has recorded a steady decline of its sweetest crop — sugarcane. The sugarcane cultivation in the district hasn’t improved since 2017, when it had shrunk by 50% in the aftermath of the 2016 drought. Farmers cite water and labour shortage, high labour cost, and lack of sugar mills in the district as reasons for the status quo.

Agriculture department data shows sugarcane was cultivated on 792 hectares in the district in 2016. Following the drought that year, farmers had cultivated the crop only on 401 hectares in 2017. After some ups and downs, the same stood at 400 hectares last December.

An annual rainfall of 1,500mm to 2,000mm is required for the crop, says Bakshi Ram, director of Indian Council of Agricultural Research -Sugarcane Breeding Institute. The district had started receiving good rainfall from 2019 after recording insufficient monsoon for a few years. “A lot depends on farmers’ interest as well. As there are no sugar mills in the district, sugarcane cultivation is not promoted here,” he said.

Farmers said with no mills, they had to transport the produce to the sugar mills at Sathyamangalam or Amaravathi Cooperative Sugar Mills Limited in Tirupur by shelling out huge amounts. N Murugesan, a farmer from SS Kulam, says it is a labour-intensive crop. “Of late, it has become difficult to find farm workers. The willing few are demanding higher wages,” he said. According to him, a woman worker demands ₹350 per day and a man ₹600. “We are forced to spend close to ₹50,000 on manpower and manure alone per acre,” he said. Pointing out that sugarcane required more water compared to other crops, Murugesan said he had been using drip irrigation. “But rat menace has increased. I was told that I could end the menace by supplying more water, but I could not afford to do it because of the water shortage.”

With yet another harvest season around the corner, farmers are worried about low prices and delayed payment by sugar companies. A Velusamy, another farmer from Annur, said the price of sugarcane hadn’t increased in the past few years, while the transportation cost and labour charges had shot up.

While the Union government had hiked the fair and remunerative (minimum) price of sugarcane by ₹100 per tonne to ₹2,850 from ₹2,750 last August, farmers in the state say the hike doesn’t make much difference and they will get only ₹2,707.5 going by a sucrose content of 9.5%.

K Ramu, a farmer from Sivaganga, says the new fair and remunerative price of ₹2,850 per tonne was applicable only to the produce with a sucrose content of 10%. “The sucrose content of the sugarcane that we grow is usually 9.5% or less. Sugar companies deduct ₹12.5 for every 0.1% drop in sucrose content,” said Ramu, who has given up on sugarcane after 30 years of cultivation as it has become unviable. “While the current rate is higher by ₹95 from ₹2,612.5 last year, it is still ₹300 less than our minimum requirements.”

Sugar companies admit that ₹2,707.5 is low for farmers. “But sugar price is also low. We are forced to pay for at least 9.5% sucrose content, when most of the sugarcane we get has lower sucrose content than that. So, we can’t afford to pay more than the fair and remunerative price,” says a representative of a Karur-based private sugar mill.