Challenges & Opportunities in Sugarcane Sector Post Covid-19

The sugar industry requires a paradigm shift to be sustainable and profitable in the long run. There is light at the end of the tunnel, though, with many start-ups and innovations, said industry captains at a recent webinar on ‘Combating post Covid-19 challenges in sugarcane sector through appropriate technologies and approaches’.
With capacity utilisation dropping to 35-40 per cent since the announcement of the lockdown in March, the sugar mills in Tamil Nadu have been fighting hard to survive.

“We have challenges beyond Covid. There could be a second wave and that could be a real threat, particularly during peak season (December-March). We have to come to terms with the new normal — localised outbreaks and lockdown,” said SJ Lakshman, AVP, EID Parry (I) Ltd, stressing the need for a paradigm shift to remain sustainable and profitable in the long run.

“The focus should be on two-three varieties, on varieties for ethanol with higher brix and shorter duration, possibility of sugar beet as an inter-crop, sweet sorghum varieties for ethanol etc…,” said Lakshman.
“At one time, we were pioneers in yield and technology, but nature has been against us in the last five years,” observed R Varadarajan, whole-time director, Rajshree Sugars.

Production capacity

While emphasising the need to focus on sugarcane in view of the fact that the sugar recovery in TN is not only below the national average, but has fallen from 9.5 per cent to hover around 8.6 per cent, Varadarajan said, “The State’s sugar production has slid from 2.42 lakh tonnes in 2011-12 to an estimated 0.87 lakh tonnes in 2020-21. At this rate, even if Tamil Nadu is dropped off the sugar map, the country wouldn’t know.”

M Silvester, whole-time director, Kothari Sugars and Chemicals, said that only 26 of the 43 sugar mills (in the private and cooperative sector) in the State were operational, and that too at well-below optimal capacity.

The area under sugarcane has fallen by half since 2014-15 from 4.60 lakh acres to an estimated 2.30 lakh acres in 2019-20. “Rainfall deficit, depleting ground water table, delayed payment to cane farmers, lower net income (for the farmer) compared to other crops, labour shortage and increasing cost of labour, followed by Covid — which is paralysing entire activities” are behind the trend, he said.

“Around 23 million farm labourers have moved out of agriculture in the last eight-nine years. And this has further been affected in the aftermath of the pandemic. The way forward for agricultural labourers would be to face the new challenges head-on as the luxury of work from home is not possible in agriculture,” he added.

Stating that mechanisation of cane production system would be the tool to combat Covid-19 challenges, sugarcane expert K Nagendran cited success stories of cane farmers. “Innovation is the key and entrepreneurial capability of the successful farmers is visible,” he added.

Organised by the ICAR-Sugarcane Breeding Institute here, the webinar was aimed at strategising ways to tide over the post pandemic challenges.

Vendors load sugarcane onto a vehicle at a wholesale market in Kolkata

Government support

Highlighting some of the initiatives taken by the State government to revive the industry, Reeta Harish Thakkar, Commissioner, Sugar, TN government, said, “The utilisation capacity of the mills has dropped to 35-40 per cent since the announcement of the lockdown in March; we have decided to continue with the transitional production incentive, provide transport subsidy of ₹100 per tonne of cane (towards which an allocation of ₹106 crore has been made for 2020-21), disburse NADP subsidy and extend the micro irrigation scheme subsidy under Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana 2020-21.”

“The government has settled ₹169 crore to the TN Generation and Distribution Corporation on behalf of the sugar mills, so the Corporation could in turn pay the industry, which would help (the latter) settle the cane dues to farmers,” the Sugar Commissioner said.

Bakshi Ram, Director of the century-old Sugarcane Breeding Institute, spoke about the two recent initiatives such as quality seed production under farmers participatory programme (which is being pursued for the second consecutive year) and release of Co 11015, a short duration cane variety.