India’s excess sugar production is exploiting groundwater

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In 2021-2022, India surpassed Brazil to become the largest sugar producer in the world, producing 359 lakh tonnes. Being a Cash Crop, excess sugarcane production has led to chronic ground water table depletion.
Sugarcane production is on rise in India:
  • India is the world’s largest producer and consumer of sugar, and thus has to produce enough to meet its huge domestic demand.
  • The Central government offers a fair and remunerative price (FRP) scheme, which mandates a minimum price that sugar mills have to pay to sugarcane farmers, ensuring that farmers always get fair profits for their crop.
  • State governments also offer heavy subsidies to incentivize sugarcane cultivation.
  • The resulting sugar surplus has led to higher exports, with a record 110 lakh tonnes exported in 2021-2022.
Impact on India’s WTO image: Brazil, Australia, and Guatemala filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization against India for violating international trade rules by offering excessive export subsidies and domestic support to farmers to outcompete other countries in the global sugar market.
  • The Organization ruled against India and India also lost its appeal.
Steps taken to overcome problem of excess cultivation:
  • To deal with the sugar surplus, the Indian government considered diverting it to the production of ethanol, an organic compound made by fermenting sugarcane molasses or sugar.
  • Ethanol is the active ingredient in alcoholic beverages and is also used in the chemicals and cosmetics
  • In the transport sector, the use of ethanol-blended petrol (EBP) significantly reduces harmful emissions, such as of carbon monoxide and various hydrocarbons, from vehicles.
  • The government also reduced the Goods and Services Tax on ethanol from 18% to 5% in 2021.
How does excessive sugarcane cultivation impact groundwater?
  • Sugarcane is a highly resource-intensive cash crop: It needs a large amount of land and water for its cultivation.
    • Normally, 100 kg of sugar is produced from one tonne of sugarcane, which consumes around 2 lakh litres of groundwater for irrigation
  • Regional concentration: India’s top sugarcane-growing states are Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat, and Tamil Nadu. The first three account for 85-90% of the sugar produced in the country.
    • The top sugarcane growing states are already drought-prone as well as groundwater-stressed.
    • Sugarcane requires around 3,000 mm of rainfall a year to be irrigated. But these three states receive around 1,000-1,200 mm a year.
    • The remaining water requirement is met by
  • Ground water is a Limited resource: Most of this groundwater resides in confined aquifers, i.e. the water is trapped between two impermeable layers of rock.
  • It can only be extracted by drilling a borewell through the upper layer. Such groundwater can’t be recharged by rainfall, so it is a limited resource.
In a 2022 report, the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) noted that a third of all its groundwater assessment units in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, and Karnataka were ‘semi-critical’, ‘critical’ or ‘over-exploited’.
Impact of groundwater extraction on the environment:
  • Weather in anomalies: The shift in the Earth’s axis could affect the distribution of heat around the planet, which could lead to changes in weather patterns.
  • Sea level rise: The study’s findings suggest that groundwater extraction is a significant contributor to global sea level rise. This is because when groundwater is extracted, it is replaced by seawater, which has a higher density and therefore contributes to the rising of the sea level.
  • Depletion of Aquifers: The excessive extraction of groundwater has resulted in the depletion of aquifers, causing irreversible damage to the underground water storage. Once aquifers are depleted, it becomes challenging to replenish them, leading to long-term water scarcity. Example: Zero water day in Cape Town(2018).
  • Land Subsidence: Over-extraction of groundwater can cause the land above the aquifers to sink, leading to land subsidence. This phenomenon damages infrastructure, disrupts ecosystems, and increases the vulnerability of coastal regions to flooding.
  • Contamination of Water: As water tables decline, the concentration of contaminants in groundwater increases, leading to water quality issues. Contaminants such as fluoride, arsenic, and nitrates can have severe health implications for the population relying on groundwater for drinking water. Example Purulia district in West Bengal (Uranium contamination)
  • Agricultural Crisis: The depletion of groundwater adversely affects agriculture, which heavily relies on irrigation. Declining water availability hampers crop yields, reduces agricultural productivity, and threatens food security in the country.
Measures for sustainable management of groundwater resources:
  • Introducing water pricing mechanisms: This will help to discourage over-exploitation of groundwater and ensure that water is used efficiently.
  • Promoting rainwater harvesting: Rainwater harvesting is a simple and effective way to recharge groundwater aquifers. The government should promote rainwater harvesting by providing financial incentives and technical assistance to farmers and households. Example: check dams, percolation tanks, and artificial recharge structures like Johads, Aharpynes.
  • Protecting groundwater resources from pollution: This includes preventing the disposal of industrial and agricultural waste in groundwater aquifers.
  • Promoting Sustainable Agriculture: Promoting the adoption of water-efficient agricultural practices like sprinkler irrigation, crop rotation, and cultivation of less water-intensive crops can significantly reduce the agricultural sector’s impact on groundwater resources. Example: PM Krishisinchayiyojana.
  • Awareness and Education: Raising awareness among the general public, farmers, and industries about the importance of sustainable water management and the consequences of over-extraction is crucial. Educational campaigns can encourage responsible water usage and the adoption of water-saving practices. Example: Jal Shakti Abhiyan.
  • Integrated Water Resource Management: In lines with Mihir Shah Committee, implement integrated water resource management strategies at the regional and national levels, considering the interconnectedness of surface water and groundwater can ensure a holistic approach to water management and sustainable utilization.

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