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The government of Chhattisgarh is on a mission to promote jatropha. It has planted 6 lakh saplings in the last six months and has requested additional funds from the Union government to plant more jatrophas. On face of it, promoting the plant makes good sense: jatropha has medicinal uses and biodiesel can be extracted from its seeds. But the Chhattisgarh government has forgotten that jatropha is also a very poisonous weed: many developed countries today spend huge sums of money to eliminate it.
The plant is actually native to tropical America and today occurs in most parts of India. In Chhattisgarh, people use its wild varieties for making fences to keep out animals. Traditional healers in the state also use parts of jatropha for making medicines, but they concede that this is a very recent usage. More importantly, these healers also admit that jatropha outcompetes other plants in its vicinity. One shudders to think what ecological mayhem might ensue once the government's large jatropha plantations come into their own. Introducing this plant without conducting proper feasibility studies has put Chhattisgarh's rich biodiversity in serious jeopardy.
But the Chhattisgarh government has little time for such arguments. Every department is under the jatropha fever. Panchayat members have been roped in to plant saplings around village ponds and even the railways have taken to cultivating the plant in its wasteland. This is not all: schools have also been targeted for plantation -- this, when local people live in perpetual scare of their children falling sick (even dying) after consuming the sweet but poisonous jatropha seeds.
And who exactly has prospered from the government's frenetic zeal to promote jatropha? The biggest beneficiaries have been the few suppliers who deal in the plant. These suppliers sell a jatropha sapling for Rs 6, sometimes, even Rs 10 although ideally one sapling should cost only Rs 0.50-Rs 0.90.
This is not to say that Chhattisgarh's farmers have shown no enthusiasm for the 'wonder plant'. In fact in Tilda district, there are jatropha plantations over 40 hectares of land. Many in the state have prospered and are now supplying the herb to different parts of India. But the question remains: is the venture sustainable?
Already, many exotic plants such as eupatorium, eucalyptus, lantana and water hyacinths have caused enough damage to Chhattisgarh's biodiversity. The government should not compound matters any further. If the government is really keen on promoting biodiesel it should consider locally available plants such as the karanj (Pongamia).
Pankaj Oudhia is covenor, International Parthenium Research News Group and a member of Global Invasive Species Information Network