THE notorious Indian sweet tooth is on a
survation diet: red rot, an infectious
fungal disease that has devastated the
sugarcane crop in western Uttar
Pradesh, has left the nation dreadfully
short on sugar - at a time when it
should be pouring into the domestic
market to feed the line-up of forthcommg festivals.
In the past 2 years, the fungus has
knocked the farmers of this prosperous
sugar belt into the red. The damages,
emimated by various authorities like the
sute Sugar Commission, the Indian LO
buitute for Sugarcane Research (11SR) at
Lucknow and the State Sugarcane
1knearch Centre (ssjc) at Shahjahanpur,
uary widely between 20 to 70 per cent of
dw.staDding crop in the districts of
Hwidwar, Saharanpur, Muzaffarnagar,
Werut, Bulandshahar, Ghaziabad,
Ahgarh and Mathura. In fact, it is estimated that in the
Ghaziabad and Bulandshahar districts, the loss is over 70 per cent.
In 1990-91, the sugar belt in western Uttar Pradesh had
oduced 55 million tonnes (MT) ofthe national production of
0 %IT. In 1991-92, the production dropped steeply to 40 MT.
the time the directorate of agriculture comprehended the
magnitude of the problem,
the rot was well on its way
to entrenchment. Says 11SR
scientist Narinder Singh,
"Random sampling indicated the incidence of red
rot up to 80 per cent in
Daurala, Surani, Machhar,
Dantal, Dabathua and
Bulakpur villages in
The primary reason
for the e idemic was the
use of disease-prone varieties; in the absence of
research on new varieties,
vogue. The sugarcane varieties co 1148 (bred at the
Sugarcane Breeding Insti-
tute, Coimbatore) and coi
64 (bred by R S Kanwar,,director for Sugarcane Research at the
Jalandhar-based Sugarcane Research Station of Punjab
University) are the2',most popular varieties cultivated by
farmers of this region.
Till some years ago, sugarcane was only grown by landlords with sufficient financial wherewithal to leave the crop
standing for over a year. Since these landlords are relatively
few and far between, sugarcane fields were so scattered in the
countryside that they contained the spread of the infection.
But with attractive support prices for sugarcane over the last
2 decades, the crop found favour among smaller peasants,
leading to an unprecedented demand for sugarcane seed sets.
Sugarcane is planted through "sets", about 33 cm-long portions of mature sugarcane plants treated with fungicide and
exposed to heat for over 4 hours in a specially-made heat
chamber. The sets are supplied by government agencies and
sugar mills. The burgeoning demand caught both sources
napping, and many farmers planted untreated sugarcane. Red
rot, meanwhile, lay low, and untreated sets increasingly found
their way into the fields. With more areas being reserved for
cultivation, the scene was set for the sleeping scourge.
Another factor responsible for
the spread of the fungus is the continuing lack of field drainage. A sin-
gle heavy shower is enough to undo a
season's crop. Explains Prem Kant
Dubey, deputy commissioner, Uttar
Pradesh Sugarcane Commission,
"We have been told by experts to
avoid standing water, but since the
farmer is always more interested in
water for his plants than in drainage,
the policy is to provide canals."
Often enough, even fungicides fail to
act simply because they are applied
too late to combat the rot. Also, since
the sugar mills are more interested in the amount of sucrose
that can be extracted from the cane, farmers are encouraged to
grow the 2 favoured but susceptible varieties, both of which
have a high sucrose content. (Interestingly, scientists reveal
that attempts to breed varieties with a high sucrose content
invariably end up breeding a plant vulnerable to diseases, particularly red rot). Says 11SR director G B Singh, "Attempts to
increase sucrose content in sugarcane have failed as one of the
primary considerations for releasing a variety is its resistance
to the red rot."
Adds IISR biochemist V P Agnihotri, "Since no sugarcane
variety is totally immune to red rot, we have no foolproof
option to tackle the problem. Our best recourse is to depend
on varieties that are said to be resistant to the fungus. Apart
from this, the agricultural extension workers have to educate
farmers on the essentials of managing red rot."
The 2 popular but susceptible varieties have pedigrees so
long that they are-crumbling: they have been around for over
2 decades and have undergone considerable "genetic erosion"
(simply put, ageing, or entropy). Although many farmers
have begun cultivating other sugarcane varieties like BO 91,
cos 767, cos 837, cos 8315, and cos 7918, which are more
resistant to the fungus, the majority still prefers the popular
breeds. It is not just the sugar mills that eagerly accept these
varieties. Many small farmers cultivate them for the sole purpose of selling the lot to roadside cane crushers, who prefer
these varieties because of their lower fibre content and higher
The shortage of sugarcane has the sugar mills waffling
piteously. Although many of them had obtained government
permission to increase their crushing capacities, the sugarcane
they procured fell far short of their minimum requirements.
As a resullikmany mills were forced to stop production by the
end of FelTruary this year, about a month in advance of the
usual closure time. Says the procurement manager of
Lakhimpur's Bajaj Hindustan Sugar Factory, Nirmal Singh,'
"We had our crushing capacity doubled to 5,000 tonnes per
day. But we had to abort the project in early March due to the
unavailability of cane."
The mills have begun to take some initiatives on their
own. Employees of the Yamunanagar-based Saraswati Sugar
Factory have been sent scouting to villages to identify diseased
plants. The factory's cane manager, Anoop Singh Narwal, said
that once his staff spot an infected
field, they persuade the farmer to
destroy the crop. He says, "We contpensate the farmer by paying him tht
amount he would have got had he
sold the lot to us." Not always is dw
persuasion logical: NanVA
unabashedly revealed that the farw
is sometimes "persuaded" not to cultivate the crop for at least 3 years
with superstitious arguments on how
evil could befall him and his famihr
"We want to ensure that not a trace
of the fungus remains," says Narwal.
As the rot continues to blight tht
the fructifying countryside) 11SR scientists are
pathogen to evolve a strategy to counter dw
menace. According to them, the
application of fungicides is not very safe as they decimale
many other fungal spores that play an important role in mam
taining soil fertility. Jawahar Lal, 11SR's head of the departme
of crop improvement and genetics, says that breedins
programmes will have to focus on indigenous sugarcane vark
eties like Saccharum spontaneum and Saccharum robustum.
which are highly- resistant to diseases. According to him, the
3,000-plus sugarcane germplasm available with the Worw
Sugarcane Gene Bank at the Sugarcane Breeding Institute's
Cannanore station in Kerala can be exploited to breed varietm
that are resistant to red rot while providing pnough sucrose.
Interestingly, in their search for high ucrose varieties, IISR
entists have identified 2 clones of IS robustum, which have
sucrose contents as high as 11.25 and 12.53 per cent. The
compares favourably with the 11.40 and 10.65 per cent ad
sucrose in coj 64 and co 1148. 11SR kientists are currend?
studying the ability of these varieties 'to resist pests and dt&
eases. According to Singh, another. altern a-tive is to overcome
the problem of the genetic erosion'of co 1148 and coj 64 b?
breeding them all over again, taking advantage of new tecik.
niques like tissue culture.
While setting the research agenda for institutes like tbo,
11SR, the industry often had the final say in development despite the fact that the
6 contribute almost
It towards the institutes' budgets. Four years ago, the
Wstry provided a mere Rs 22 crore as research grant to
aw out of the sugar development fund (SDF), a collective
d instituted by the Union government to improve
Wcane varieties. There are allegations that instead of being
d as'a grant for the R&D agencies, the SDF is often used by
sugar industries to manipulate them through selective allocation.
Right now, the 11SR has just one scientist working on
irnous alternatives - like jaggery or gur and khandsari -
obite crystalline sugar. This is despite the fact that over
per cent of the requirement of sweetening agents in India is
1by these prod%cts. Moreover, the gur and khandsari sector
exploit every component of the crushed sugarcane juice,
ke the sugar industry that uses only sucrose.
And yet, if the government has its way, the production of
and khandsari could well be banned. The Union governit did announce a ban in July this year on their production,
later it was revoked in the face of stiff opposition. The
ision was ostensibly aimed at forcing more sugarcane to
d towards the sugar mills, given that last year, the gur and
ndsari manufacturers were able to attract more sugarcane
wers with spot payments.
Aghast at the havoc wrought by the fungus, the departim of biotechnology has provided the 11SR with Rs I crore to
By the fungus. 11SR biochemists V K Madan and Agnihotri
r already identified certain types among the fungus that are
virulent and are incapable of producing the enzyme inver!which breaks down the sucrose in the cane (See box: How
ow sets in). The scientists feel that if such a strain can be
16red with the prevailing virulent types, they might be able
me it like a vaccine against the fungus.
Notwithstanding scientific experience, the
state government's cane co,mmission persists in the notion
that the magnitude of the problem is being blown out of
proportion. The head of t 'he commission's department of
cane pests and diseases, H N Yadav, however, ascribed the
huge difference between the estimates of scientists and the
industry and the department's statistics to the lack of adequate
knowledge of the disease. "None of the department staff are
trained to recognise a diseased plant from a healthy one," he
A few farmers have found ingenious ways to suppress the fungus. Amar Pal Chouhan of Bahadurgarh village in Ghaziabad
district squeezed out 100 tonnes of sugarcane per hectare (the
average productivity is around 180 tonnes per ba), even while
the neighbouring fields rotted away. Chouhan's feat is all the
more remarkable because he grew the coi 64 and co 1148 varieties. He had resorted to the "ring method" of planting sugarcane, devised by R L Yadav, chief agronomist with the 11SR. In
the ring method, the roots of the canes are able to absorb water
more rapidly because the number of sets sown is 3 times that
sown in the conventional method. This leaves too little water
standing in the field to do much mischief.
Another method of restricting the fungus is "green manuring" - growing pulses and oilseeds till the red rot rots itself
death. If a farmer discovers an infection, he uproots the entire
crop and bungs in the "green manure"; apart from adding
nitrogen to the soil, pulses and oilseeds also extrude chemicals
fatal to the fungus. Both Agnihotri and Narinder Singh con-
firm that this phenomenon was first discovered by farmers
over years of casual observation.