A very delayed start to sugar season: Why some millers are happy, others are not

Parthasarathi Biswas
Millers in the sugar bowl of Sangli-Kolhapur as well as those in Marathwada have welcomed a slightly delayed start to the season.(Representational Image)

The 2019-20 sugarcane crushing season in Maharashtra will see the most delayed start in the state’s recent past. The Sugar Commissioner’s office is hopeful about the season finally beginning on November 25. While some millers are worried about the delayed start, others are relieved by it. The Indian Express explains how the political uncertainty in the state has pushed the start date back, and why millers are responding differently to the delay

How is Maharashtra’s sugar season different from those of other sugar-producing states?

Unlike states like Uttar Pradesh or Karnataka, the beginning of Maharashtra’s cane crushing season is decided by the state government and not by the industry. A ministerial committee headed by the chief minister consults with the Sugar Commissionerate and the industry, and decides the date from which mills can start their operations.

This system aims to provide both cooperative and private mills a level playing field. Mills which start their crushing operations before the start date face the risk of heavy fines imposed by the state.

Traditionally, the ministerial committee meets in September and zeroes in on a date, which is usually after Diwali. Based on the date, the mills prepare for their operations by arranging for harvesters or migrant workers, who are brought in from Beed and other districts of Marathwada.

Why was this year’s crushing season delayed?

The delayed beginning of the season is a fall-out of both the Assembly election and its results. In the run-up to the election, the committee was unable to meet as most of the ministers and sugar millers were busy on the campaign trail. While the new state cabinet was scheduled to take a decision on the start date, the failure of political parties to form the government and the ensuing political uncertainty means there is no state cabinet, and hence no start date to the crushing season.

Why are some millers worried about the delayed start?

This season, sugarcane grown over 8.32 lakh hectares is expected to be crushed, to produce 58.23 lakh tonnes of the sweetener. Sugar Commissioner Shekhar Gaikwad estimates that 161 mills will be operational and crush 570 lakh tonnes of the cane. Last season, 195 mills had taken season, crushing 952.60 lakh tonnes of cane and producing 107.1 lakh tonnes of sugar, the maximum amount of sugar produced in Maharashtra.

In Pune and its surrounding regions, however, millers and farmers are worried about the delayed start this season.

Unlike other parts of the state, mills in these regions have seen normal production of cane, unaffected by rain. Most of the adsali (cane planted in June-July and harvested after 18 months) and the pre-seasonal (cane planted in November-December and harvested after 14 months) crops are about to be ready for harvest. A delayed harvest would result in the cane losing both its weight and sugar content.

Similarly, the ratoon crop, or crop grown from stubble of previous crop, is over 14 months old and requires early harvest. Millers from these areas have urged the state administration to start the crushing season soon.

Why have some millers welcomed the delayed start?

Millers in the sugar bowl of Sangli-Kolhapur as well as those in Marathwada have welcomed a slightly delayed start to the season. Incessant rain had lashed Sangli and Kolhapur districts in August, damaging an estimated 2.16 lakh hectares of cane area. Nearly 65,000-70,000 hectares saw complete crop loss while the rest of the crop was partially damaged and needs some time to recover from the stress.

Heavy rain in October has further led to waterlogging of cane fields, making an early harvest impossible. Across the sugar bowl, farmers have pointed out that there was no ‘October heat’- the phenomenon of warm sunny days and a dip in temperature at night — this year. October heat is conducive for both growth in sugar content and increased weight of cane.

The sunny and dry phase in November has, however, allowed for some recovery in sugar content. A delayed start to the season will allow more time to the cane crop in Marathwada to recover from moisture stress.

It is estimated that Maharashtra’s sugar season may be shortened by 100 days due to lower availability of cane.

What is the final start date?

Speaking to The Indian Express, Sugar Commissioner Gaikwad said his office has forwarded a proposal to start the crushing season on November 25. The governor is expected to chair a meeting of industry and commissionerate representatives on November 19, when the plan is likely to get a formal approval.