Planting fuel

Jatropha, a humble plant that can survive in some of the most difficult conditions, was tipped to solve India’s soaring fuel demands. Indian scientists allege faulty policy for the failure of this ambitious scheme and pitch for national level discussion on the issue, Team R&M reports
Planting fuel

India’s surging fuel demand has remained a major concern for the government. As per the government data, India imported close to 35 lakh barrels of crude oil per day from various oil producing countries in 2011-12. Environment activists as well as scientists are voicing for alternative options that should be environment friendly as well as less expensive to meet the nation’s huge energy demand.

Keeping in mind, the then NDA government led by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced a national bio-fuel policy to address the issue. However even after a decade, India is still lagging behind and yet to start producing alternative fuels like bio-diesel. The policy that was drafted in 2003 was reframed in 2009 and many blame the government for not taking the issue seriously. The debate is on whether India should go ahead with production of Jatropha, a plant that was hurriedly taken into consideration to solve India’s energy demands.

But the change in the guard marred this ambitious biofuel programme and since then the scheme is stuck in the political tussle of India’s two leading parties. According to some experts, Indian government hastily adopted the scheme and that’s why it has failed to kick-start. The plan of blending of diesel with biofuel derived from Jatropha remained a non-starter right from the very beginning, admixing petrol with ethanol – which took off after several hiccups – has failed to go beyond an admixture level of five per cent. Even this is getting harder to sustain.

There are other concerns as well. Many of the experts have expressed their concern that larger plantation of Jatropha and other non-edible oil rich plants can lead to food scarcity in the country. However, these concerns remain with few and Indian government in 2009 reframed the existing National Biofuel Policy. The government’s ambitious plans of reaching 20 per cent figure in the production of bio-diesel by 2017 is certain to be missed as disappointed companies are abandoning these projects. The debate is ongoing and masses have to wait for some concrete action in this regard.

Science vs Policy
The Jatropha curcas from the very beginning remained an issue of debate in the country. Experts allege that policy makers did not consider views and concerns expressed by scientists and drafted a faulty policy. The policy paralysis led to the collapse of this entire ambitious plan as many companies that initially participated in the programme are quietly opting out from it.  Promode Kant, Director of the Institute of Green Economy in New Delhi and co-author of a report titled The Extraordinary Collapse of Jatropha As a Global Biofuel says, “The policy makers didn’t realise the importance of research and drafted a policy without taking available information into consideration. The results were in the form of complete failure of the scheme.”

Sandeep Chaturvedi, president of Biodiesel Association of India has a very critical view on the issue. He alleges faulty policy for the present status of biofuels in India. “It is inefficiency of the policymakers who didn’t consider suggestions of scientists and drafted a policy without proper research.” But he’s hopeful that India will start producing biodiesel by 2015. However, the situation doesn’t seem favourable to the claims. Even after a decade, the barren lands that were given to the marginal farmers and landless poor masses are lying vacant and there are no takers for it. The failure of the scheme is not largely reported as the tracts of barren land were given to farmers were free and they were happy that at least they got the land in return. The quiet scam is building since then and millions of rupees and many million hectares of land have been given away on the name of this
humble plant.

The failure was due to government’s enthusiasm on to adopt this plant, which was originally grown in America for past four centuries. Sandeep Chaturvedi adds that the failure was due to lack of attention given to research. The plant was termed as a ‘miracle plant’ that can survive in some of the most rough conditions and policy makers were convinced that it would suit India’s diverse weather conditions. It was true that Jatropha can survive in difficult conditions but it couldn’t produce any yield. Government was also happy as the FAO and other agencies believed that the plant can be grown in the barren lands and that could prove universally benificial ..

So, in 2003 the Planning Commission of India decided to introduce mandatory blending over increasingly larger parts of the country and reach countrywide with 30 per cent blending status by the year 2020 and opted for non-edible oilseed species of Jatropha curcus raised over lands unsuited to agriculture as it was considered to be high in oil content, early yielding, nonbrowsable and requiring little irrigation and even less management. In a massive planting program of unprecedented scale, millions of marginal farmers and landless people were encouraged to plant Jatropha across India through attractive schemes. So, what led to the failure of this scheme? Experts say that decisions that were taken in Delhi were never discussed with others and were largely resulted in the failure.

Since 2003, both government and industry have spent millions of precious dollars in growing Jatropha but no visible results are out there. In fact, the programme itself has given an opportunity to siphon off money and grab India’s wasteland. In his research paper, Promode Kant has written, “The Planning Commission of India, the powerful apex body that decides national priorities and allocates funds for them, before taking up such a continent sized program involving millions of low income farmers. But the Commission may have relied too heavily on the opinion of one of its top functionaries, who expected an internal rate of return ranging from 19 to 28 per cent across India. National planners’ enthusiasm for the new species rubbed off easily on research organisations and Universities that rely heavily on the Planning Commission for funding and some of these institutions themselves became partners in raising Jatropha plantations.”

Dr. Vijay K Gour, associate professor with J N Agricultural University says, “I see only promise in the present context. The policy change disheartened many of those who were growing Jatropha. And in such a scenario, nothing is going to come out of Jatropha.” His utter frustration is due to ‘lack of government support’ to the scheme and he does not foresee any future for Jatropha unless proper research is done.

Food vs Fuel
India’s vanishing agricultural land has also intensified the debate for food security in the country. During his speeches at different venues, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has repeatedly directed the scientists to develop technology to meet the pressing demand for food-grains in the country. Experts like Kant are of the view that India should not grow jatropha and other oil-rich plantations on the agricultural land and his reasoning behind his argument seems right. Jatropha plantation, which was done on millions of hectares over the past few years, biofuel critics have argued that investments in biofuels will affect food security in developing nations where there are already many people who cannot afford to buy food at
current prices.

Experts fear if the government diverts production of food-grains and other staple food then food prices are certain to rise and it will be a problem than a solution for energy crisis. The United Nations Development Programme’s estimates till 2008 shows that 27 per cent of Indian population lives below the poverty line and lack access to enough calories per day to sustain a healthy lifestyle. India in 2006 alone imported 2.2 million tonnes of wheat in order to ensure food availability and this is happening due to erratic monsoon in the country. This year too monsoon has picked up late and at least six states of the country are declared drought hit.

Dr. Gour said that India has spent more than Rs 1200 Crore on the ambitious plan and ‘money is siphoned off’ on the name of research. But Jatropha plants were planted in the ‘wastelands’ in the country have hardly produced any yield and experts fear that food security would be an issue if farmers start growing Jatropha on agricultural land. Experts say that sugar cane can be one option for bio-fuel production but if sugarcane is used for production of these fuels, India will certainly fall short of its demand for sugar. India is the largest consumer of the sugar in the world. Usage of edible oil seeds like palm can also be discarded as India is already under strain in the production of edible oil.

Room for debate
There are several concerns that need to be debated and without giving attention to them, the mission bio-fuel cannot be achieved. There are some noteworthy developments by industry and there’s a hope that India will be able to produce bio-diesel on its own in the coming years. Experts like Dr. Gour are of the view that Indian government should organise a national level brainstorming session headed by experts. “We need to have such discussions at the national level, if we want to produce bio-fuels in the country. We can’t sideline the concerns of many millions.”

There’s always room for the debate but in the past decade, the issue has remained more political than anything else. Many experts have termed Jatropha as complete failure and have advised for alternatives like algae and madhuka Indica. But policy support is also very necessary if we want to see some hope in the production of Jatropha and other alternatives. Unless those in the industry are assured of returns, investment will not start flowing in and any assurance from the government will work as a booster for both farmers as well as industry.

The government should also address the demand for proper research. In the previous instance, India has lost millions of rupees and its valuable time due to lack of attention being given to the research for the plant. People like Promode Kant who want to see India a pollution free nation are hopeful that something at the end, policy makers will be able to change the scenario. He says, “India can’t afford to give agricultural land for bio-fuels and biomass can be an answer to India’s energy woes.”

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