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NFCSF skips manual method; uses remote sensing to gauge cane cultivation
Saturday, 31 December, 2011, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Akshay Kalbag, Mumbai
Until not too long ago, Government of India and the sugar industry manually estimated the area under sugarcane cultivation. This system involved the collection of estimates from the field and the compilation of data.

That system had a serious drawback: it was not free from human error. So sometimes it would lead to higher production of sugarcane and sometimes it would show a lower output than what had been estimated at the beginning of the season.

The manual system's other limitation, of course, was that it led to the incorrect formulation of policies at both the government and the industry level. This harmed not only the cane-growers and the sugar millers, but also the sugar consumers.

As a solution to these problems, the New Delhi-based National Federation of Co-operative Sugar Factories Ltd (NFCSF) recently decided to use remote sensing technology. This system of estimating the area under cane production had already proved effective in other sugar-producing countries, including Brazil and Thailand.

Why remote sensing?

“Inclement weather, such as heavy rainfall or sunshine, severely affect the estimates. Hence it was decided that a scientific estimation of the area under cane cultivation should be carried out using technology such as satellite mapping,” said Vinay Kumar, managing director, NFCSF.

“Many countries across the world had already been carrying out these estimations for various kinds of crops, including sugarcane. And they were successful in reducing the uncertainty due to manual estimation, which is obviously not without any flaws,” he added.

The NFCSF and the Indian Sugar Mills Association (ISMA) jointly undertook the satellite mapping of the crop area under sugarcane cultivation for the year 2011-2012. In order to conduct the satellite survey, a GIS-based agency was roped in and it was this agency that procured images from the Hyderabad-based National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA), which has now submitted its report.

A slight increase

Kumar mentioned that this was the first time the satellite mapping survey had been carried out state-wise and district-wise. So although such large-scale surveys were hitherto unheard of in the country, some corporate houses and individual sugar mills did carry them out.

“A detailed analysis of the satellite mapping report shows that the sugarcane acreage for the year 2011-2012 was estimated at 51.82 lakh hectares, which was slightly more than the acreage made manually by the sugar industry (50.79 lakh hectares), the ministry of agriculture (50.93 lakh hectares) and the ministry of food and public distribution (50.25 lakh hectares),” he said.

“Therefore, the survey carried out through satellite mapping, therefore, shows a higher sugarcane area than what the government estimated. In fact, it exceeds the government's estimate by about three per cent,” he added.

The area estimated for the 2011-2012 sugar season through the satellite mapping (51.82 lakh hectares) is about 2.38 hectares more than the actual area of 2010-2011 (49.44 lakh hectares). In terms of percentage, it has increased by about 4.8 per cent.

Not without glitches

“We took precautions to overcome the issues like mixed crop signature of lookalike crops by ground truthing reports, through physical visits or on the basis of reports from mills and GPS Point collection,” Kumar said.

“The comparison with the manual estimates at the district level was certainly not easy, because the survey and report of the district-wise satellite mapping is based on the administrative boundaries of the states in question, whereas the manual surveys are done on the basis of actual revenue boundaries for the cane collection centres of the respective command areas,” he added.

“Having said that we found out that state-level surveys are possible, as both the manual and the satellite surveys are based on the administrative state boundaries. But in order to make the district-wise comparison, the sugar industry would have to put in the extra effort to carry out the satellite mapping according to the actual revenue boundaries,” he said.

But, NFCSF's survey proved beneficial

It was strongly felt that there was a need to make sure that the sugarcane production is better estimated. It would help in the formulation of policies and important strategies to take care of both the shortages and the surpluses, as the case may be, right from the start of the season.

Kumar said, “We also realised that there were four important factors which determine the production of sugar. They are (a) the area under sugarcane cultivation; (b) the yield or productivity per hectare of sugarcane area; (c) the diversion of available sugarcane for manufacturing of alternate sweeteners like gur, khandsari, etc. and (d) the sucrose content and therefore the recovery of sugar.”
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