THOUGHT LEADERSHIP WITH

Roshan Lal Tamak

India is the second-largest sugar producer globally. As a prominent agro-based industry in the country, sugar production is the primary source of income for 50 million sugarcane farmers and 0.5 million workers directly employed in sugar mills across the country. It also provides employment opportunities in the ancillary activities along the supply chain, supply of agriculture inputs, including transport, and trade servicing of machinery. Owing to its influence on the Indian economy, the industry has constantly evolved to keep up with the developments in the sector, catering to changing consumer demands.

Read on to learn about how this leading sugar business is expanding its scope to cater to other sectors, such as green energy, and the recent trends that influence the growth of the brand, the people associated with it, and the industry at large.
In Conversation With

Roshan Lal Tamak

Mr Roshan Lal Tamak heads the Sugar and Distillery businesses at DCM Shriram Ltd as its Executive Director & CEO. He is a distinguished professional with over three decades of experience in leading large organisations towards strategic growth in the Indian Sugar Sector. He made his mark in the industry by successfully handling a gamut of assignments ranging from setting up greenfield as well as brownfield expansion projects, managing strategic acquisitions, and turning around companies during his tenure with leading Indian and multinational companies like DCM Shriram, Balrampur, Dhampur, Mawana, and Olam International.

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Agriculture as a sector emotionally appealed to Mr Tamak as he wanted to work for the betterment of the lives of farmers in India. He pursued graduation in agriculture and thereby joined the agriculture sector. He is a passionate sustainability practitioner and has been championing the cause of income growth of both small and marginal farmers by significantly improving agricultural productivity and introducing good management practices. He also brings in the experience of running multi-stakeholder partnerships with multilateral agencies, global FMCG majors, civil society organisations and development banks for the furtherance of sustainability initiatives.

His conscious efforts to embed sustainability in business strategy have led to significant achievements in agri-productivity improvement. He has spearheaded many digitisation and information technology initiatives in the entire value chain from farm to factory, like establishing the e-Suvidha Call Center, e-Suvidha farmer mobile app to act as a one-stop solution related to sugarcane farming and other areas, along with AI initiative and experimental pilot projects.

Mr Tamak’s contribution to the sugar sector has been recognised nationally and globally with many accolades. He has been actively involved in various industry forums, too.

Sugar is the second largest agro-based industry in India, involving both private sector and cooperative sector units. How has the industry transformed over the last decade? What are some of the recent trends you have witnessed?

Roshan Lal Tamak: Over the last few years, India has structurally turned into a sugar exporting nation. The Indian sugar industry is now being looked at as a source of green and clean energy, be it power, ethanol or biogas. Both these changes have given sustainability to the industry, higher and assured returns to farmers, and investments in clean energy space, leading to development and growth in rural India.

Could you tell us about the sustainable sugarcane program “Meetha Sona”? What are its guiding principles? What has been the impact of this program on farmers, the environment, and the industry in general?

Roshan Lal Tamak: "Meetha Sona” is a multi-stakeholder sustainability program with a holistic approach. Its guiding principles have been: 

  1. Training and capacity building
  2. Water use efficiency
  3. Soil health management by increasing organic carbon content in the soil
  4. Mechanisation by developing micro-entrepreneurs (custom-hiring model)
  5. Good agronomic practices for productivity enhancement
  6. Integrated pest management, including biological control
  7. Women empowerment/gender inclusion

The impact of this program has been rewarding for the farmers, the environment, and the industry.

  1. Sugarcane yields have increased substantially (20% to 25%) in the last 5-6 years.
  2. Water conserved over the last five years is 574 billion litres as verified by the Indian Institute of Sugarcane Research (IISR), Lucknow, which has been possible after proper education of water conservation practices like trash mulching, composting, etc. and capacity building of farmers.
  3. About 265 entrepreneurs have been developed in the catchment area of our four units to facilitate farmers for custom hiring of agri-machinery. As a result, smallholders get access to modern machines, which ultimately increases their yield.
  4. Three sugar mills of DCM Shriram and 5000 small farmers have received Bonsucro certification, the highest ever smallholders certification globally so far.   

What is the significance of this certification for farmers, other stakeholders, and consumers?

Roshan Lal Tamak: Bonsucro is the global sustainability platform for sugarcane. It aims to:
 
  1. Create value across the supply chain;
  2. Improve the environmental impact of sugarcane; and
  3. Strengthen human rights and decent work in sugarcane farming and milling. 
A Bonsucro certificate is internationally recognised and respected. It demonstrates the commitment to environmental and social sustainability in sugarcane. By achieving this certificate, we are able to achieve sustainable procurement goals and build partnerships to tackle sustainability issues together.

“Meetha Sona” also encourages farmers to adopt climate-smart agriculture practices. How willing are they to adopt these new scientific practices? Does technology play a key role in aiding faster adoption and impact measurement?

Roshan Lal Tamak: Growers certainly adopt climate-smart practices if the capacity-building initiatives are carried out consistently and the value proposition is demonstrated to them. Definitely, technology is a great enabler and helps in the fast adoption of practices. In partnership with IFC and Solidaridad, we have engaged with the farmers and explained the benefits of climate-smart agricultural practices by using conventional methods and new-age technologies. These initiatives have led to the adoption of new scientific practices by the farmers.

Technological adoption is no longer an option in today’s competitive market and to meet consumers’ high demands. How is the sugar industry benefiting from technological advancements? What is the way forward to address some of the current productivity and sustainability challenges?

Roshan Lal Tamak: The sugar industry has evolved well in terms of technology developments and we can proudly say that India is a leading machinery and technology supplier to many countries across the globe. Over the period, there has been significant development in the reduction of steam consumption by the introduction of Falling film evaporators, Vertical continuous pans, etc.

Besides this, with the High-pressure boilers, there has been a significant increase in power production per ton of bagasse. Similarly, by using VFDs (variable-frequency drives) and other power-saving devices, there has been a reduction in power consumption per ton of cane. Now, the industry is in the process of adopting AI/ML tools as well.

On the farm side, there has been wide-scale adoption of good practices like wide row spacing in planting and trench planting methods. Now Agtech like remote sensing, satellite imagery, sensor, and other AI tools have also been introduced in various agri operations.

Ethanol has gained popularity as a renewable biofuel, and Brazil, the largest producer of sugarcane globally, has mandated a blending of 27% ethanol with gasoline. It allowed them to save about 0.5 million barrels per day of gasoline and $13 billion in imports in 2019 alone. The Government of India seems to be following Brazil’s example with its recent Ethanol Blending Program. There are many evident benefits to this program and we would like to learn more about them. Could you share with us your thoughts on this?

Roshan Lal Tamak: The Ethanol Blended Petrol (EBP) programme was conceptualised with multiple objectives in mind:

  1. Promoting environment-friendly fuels
  2. Reduction of crude import
  3. Injecting liquidity into the sugarcane sector
  4. Generate employment

The 2018 National Policy on Biofuels broadens the scope for raw material procurement for ethanol production. The policy targets a 20% blending percentage by 2025. 

This decision of the Government will not only help in reaching the target objectives of the National Policy on Biofuels but also help in reducing excess sugar inventories by diverting molasses and sugarcane juice for ethanol production. This move will greatly help the sugar industry during surplus years and improve the liquidity of sugar mills.   

What is your vision for the sugar industry for the next decade and what critical role would technology play in achieving this vision?

Roshan Lal Tamak: The sugar sector is on the cusp of transformation as it shifts from sugar to bioenergy space. To sustain this, work needs to be done on both the input and output sides.

On the input side, we need to work on research/breeding of sugarcane varieties to meet futuristic requirements and promote mechanisation, soil health improvement, and water conservation techniques. 

On the output side, sugar needs to be repositioned properly. There are immense opportunities for diversification like Bio-CNG (compressed natural gas) and ethanol generation. 

The sugar sector is uniquely placed and can play a pivotal role in providing impetus to the food processing sector of the country. It has the following inherent advantages:

  1. Sugar complexes are located exactly at the origin of agri-produce. All sugar factories have a well-oiled extension network that can be used for educating growers for the production of other crops as well and the supply chain linkage is well established. 
  2. Sugar factories have the basic infrastructure readily available for food processing, such as power, manpower, machinery and production capabilities. The industry produces excess green power that can be used for setting up cold chain infrastructure and warehousing facilities adjacent to the existing mills. 
  3. On the market side, the fundamental market linkages for selling processed food are available, and selling other products will be an adjacency only.
The sugar industry is well poised and can support Indian agriculture by turning sugar complexes into bio-energy hubs and agri-processing hubs in the times to come.
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