Environmental cost of sugar

Environmental cost of sugar

Overexploitation of ground water resources, untreated discharge of effluents and limited policy action has led to a grave environmental crisis in UP

“My paddy fields have been completely damaged. I took proper care of my crops but managed less than 50% yield,” laments Jaiveer, a farmer from Lakhimpur Kheri district in Uttar Pradesh; “The patch of field conjoining mill has turned futile over the years, I cannot grow any crop there anymore,” said another. These are few of many farmers in the state whose life has been affected by discharge of untreated effluents by sugarcane mills. Unethical environmental practices during the production of sugar—right from irrigation to manufacturing—have caused severe damage to ground and water resources in the region.

Various factors ranging from overexploitation of ground water resources, untreated discharge of effluents and limited policy action has led to a grave environmental crisis in the Northern state, found Oxfam India’s study Human Cost of Sugar.

Depleting Ground Water Resources

The unsustainable use of groundwater for sugar-cane crops and household wastage is depleting the groundwater table very fast. Recently released NITI Aayog report too paints a worrisome picture of UP where an alarming 70% of fresh water is estimated to be contaminated.

“The water is so contaminated near our village. It is difficult for families to consume it. Even animals are falling sick, my neighbor lost his cattle because of that,” said one of the interviewed farmers. There have been stray instances spanning over a period of 7-8 years in these few villages.

In the five districts—Bareilly, Saharanpur, Muzaffarnagar, Lakhimpur Kheri and Muzaffarnagar-- where the Oxfam India study was conducted, water is currently available in abundance as a result advanced methods of irrigation like drip irrigation or usage of water gun or sprinklers is not very popular.

The majorities of sugarcane farmers utilize traditional flood irrigation practices and tend to overuse water. The increased of irrigation, particularly in terms of the additional energy and labour, also impacts farm income. The majority of households now use water submersible pumps in both homes and fields, and the misuse of water has risen to alarming levels.

Farmers interviewed during the study were not aware of any water management systems that could be adopted to ensure a more responsible usage of water. “We have not known any other way to irrigate the farms, just following the age old practices,” said Jaideep. They had no orientation on water conservational practices since it is not considered to be an important natural resource in the region. No sensitization or trainings have been conducted by the agricultural department, NGOs, cane societies or sugar mills on water conservation practices as well.

Huge Pile Of Industrial Waste

Apart from lack of water conservation practices, the sugar industry—the mills and distilleries in several parts of Uttar Pradesh also threaten to pollute water bodies with discharge of waste water into ravine bodies by the sugar mills and distilleries. The state pollution control board earlier this year found that there were several sugar mills and distilleries which have not been treating their effluents and discharging them directly into the Ganga.

“Several mills often take short cuts by not treating the water effluents because that is more convenient to them,” said Anuj, a senior representative of Indian Sugar Mills Association.

Licensed sugar mills generally use electric methods to crush cane whereas a huge number of kolhus or the local unlicensed units largely depend on diesel powered generators. Fumes from burning diesel combined with smoke emitted from kolhus play havoc, people around that region have reportedly complained several times.

The situation becomes worse during monsoons. “The mills release effluents during monsoons around the period of near about flooding of the water bodies. That dirty water makes it difficult for us,” informed a farmer.

Out of 11 types of industries that are categorized as Gross Polluting Industries in India, sugar mills and distilleries are both in red category indicating their status as highly polluting industries.

However, lack of any evidence of discharge of untreated effluents from the monitoring data to CPCB, limited the possibilities of any further investigation. The official at the cane society that governs the supply of that particular mill indicated the economic dependency of the local communities on the mill.

“The locals are largely dependent on sugar production for their livelihood. It’s only obvious that they would favour any – licenced or unlicenced mill-- which has a high crushing capacity. Hence, there was unwillingness among government authorities to probe further into such stray reportage of these events,” said one of the officials at condition of anonymity.

Call For Action

For sugar industry to have a sustainable growth inclusive of the environment it is necessary for all the stakeholders to develop environmentally friendly sugar cane cultivation methods, and sugar cane factories, farmers must use waste-reducing technologies and water cycling processes in order to protect the region’s water resources.

(Names have been changed to protect identity)

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