Sugarcane belongs to bamboo family of plants and is indigenous to India. It is the main source of sugar, gur and khandsari. About two-thirds of the total sugarcane produced in India is consumed for making gur and khandsari and only one third of it goes to sugar factories. It also provides raw material for manufacturing alcohol.
Bagasse, the crushed cane residue, can be more beneficially used for manufacturing paper instead of using it as fuel in the mills. It is also an efficient substitute for petroleum products and a host of other chemical products.
A part of it is also used as fodder. Sugarcane accounts for the largest value of production and holds an enviable position among all the commercial crops in India. Obviously, it is the first choice of the farmers, wherever geographical conditions favour its growth.
It is a long duration crop and requires 10 to 15 and even 18 months to mature, depending upon the geographical conditions. It requires hot and humid climate with average temperature of 21°-27°C and 75-150 cm rainfall.
In the latter half, temperature above 20°C combined with open sky helps in acquiring juice and its thickening. Too heavy rainfall results in low sugar content and deficiency in rainfall produces fibrous crop. Irrigation is required in areas receiving lesser rainfall than the prescribed limit. Short cool dry winter season during ripening and harvesting is ideal.
Frost is detrimental to sugarcane. Therefore, it must be harvested before frost season, if it is grown in northern parts of the country where winters are very cold and frost is a common phenomenon. On the other hand, hot dry winds are also inimical to sugarcane.
It can grow on a variety of soils including loams, clayey loams, black cotton soils, brown or reddish loams and even laterites. In fact, sugarcane can tolerate any kind of soil that can retain moisture. But deep rich loamy soils are ideal for its growth.
The soil should be rich in nitrogen, calcium and phosphorus but it should not be either too acidic or too alkaline. Sugarcane exhausts the fertility of the soil quickly and extensively and its cultivation requires heavy dose of manures and fertilizers.-Flat plain or level plateau is an advantage for sugarcane cultivation because it facilitates irrigation and transportation of cane to the sugar mills.
It is a labour intensive cultivation requiring ample human hands at every stage i.e. sowing, hoeing, weeding, irrigating, cutting and carrying sugarcane to the factories. Therefore, cheap abundant labour is a prerequisite for its successful cultivation.
India has the largest area under sugarcane cultivation in the world and she is the world’s second largest producer of sugarcane next only to Brazil. The cane production registered a dramatic increase of 93 per cent in the decade 1951-61 as a result of diversification of agriculture but this spurt slackened to 14.9 per cent growth between 1960-61 and 1970-71 mainly as a result of the farmers’ withdrawal of land under cane owing to internal market fluctuations.
However, production began looking up again with the establishment of sugar mills during the decade 1971-81 and growth rate was 22 per cent. The production of sugarcane reached an all time record 299.3 million tonnes in 1999-2000 after which varying trends have been observed. In the year 2003-04, production of sugarcane in India stood at 236.4 million tonnes.
As in case of production, area under sugarcane cultivation registered a rapid increase from 1.7 million hectares in 1950-51 to 4.1 million hectares in 1998-99 after which the area under sugarcane cultivation increased at a slow rate. In fact, area under sugarcane cultivation decreased from 4.4 million hectares in 2002-03 to 4.0 million hectares in 2003-04.
The yield of sugarcane doubled in four decades increasing from just 33 tonnes/hectare in 1950-51 to 65 tonnes/hectare in 1990-91. The process of increase in yields continued till 1997-98 when it stood at 71 tonnes/hectare. The yield remained at this high level for three consecutive years from 1997-98 to 1999- 2000. After that, the yield had rapidly declined and stood at 59 tonnes/hectare only in 2003-04.
The probable cause of this rapid decline could either be exhaustion of soils or lack of modem agricultural inputs. Our yields stand nowhere when compared with some of the best in the world. For example, countries like Indonesia, Egypt and Mexico are producing about 50 per cent more sugarcane/hectare as compared to India.
Lack of fertilizers, uncertain weather conditions, inadequate irrigation, poor varieties of cane, small and fragmented holdings and backward methods of cultivation are some of the major causes of low yields in India.