When Gond tribals of Chalpadi village in Adilabad district, Andhra Pradesh agreed this April to export 900 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in emission reduction little did they realise the impact their action would create. The news was splashed in local newspapers. Neighbouring villagers and government officials came to witness K Marubai sign the agreement on behalf of her fellow villagers in Chalpadi.
The certified carbon emission reduction was sold to 500ppm, an environmental group from Germany. The reduction comes from replacing diesel fuel with natural oil extracted from the seeds of Pongamia pinnata (karanj) found abundantly in forests in the vicinity of Chalpadi. Recognising the uniqueness of the project and its benefits, Ingo Puhl, managing director of 500ppm, purchased ten years' supply of emission reduction -- 900 tonnes of carbon dioxide emission reduction from 140,000 kilogrammes of Pongamia oil, worth $4,164.
This environmental stewardship by the Gonds happened almost by serendipity. Around January 2001, I was looking at alternative, but reliable sources of energy that villagers could operate on their own. Professor Udipi Shrinivasa of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore had convinced me that biofuel from Pongamia was a better substitute for biogas from dung and woody residues. Chalpadi -- a village that has longed for electricity for years -- was selected for the experiment.
Four months later, in April 2001, K Govindrao, the Gond chief of Chalpadi, watched with satisfaction when a government dignitary turned on the switch to light village homes. The energy came from a 7.5-kilo volt-ampere generator powered by pongamia oil. Since that time, Chalpadi generates 10 to 12 kilowatts-hertz of energy every evening from 5 to 6 litres of pongamia oil. It cost Rs 3 lakhs to install two generators (one is on standby), wire each household, establish a local grid and maintain six months' supply of oil. The state government's Integrated Tribal Development Agency (itda) paid for the infrastructure and contracted Professor Shrinivasa's Su tra group to install the system and provide technical assistance to the villagers.
The system has worked well for two years and has served to inspire other remote villages, which get no power from state grids, or suffer from power shortages, blackouts and power surges. No one steals electricity in Chalpadi. The women of the village run the system. The tariff is in kind: 1 kilogramme of Pongamia seeds per family per day and five rupees in cash per month. To ensure their own supply of local fuel, Chalpadi planted some 20,000 saplings of pongamia along agricultural bunds.
Pongamia has become the basis for a new livelihoods' strategy. If 110 trees are planted per hectare along bunds in 8metres x 8metres spacing, financial analysis indicates an increase in average annual household incomes by Rs 12,500 after the fifth year. For Chalpadi's poor, surviving on annual incomes below Rs 10,000, the Pongamia tree offers a way out of the poverty trap.
Not surprisingly, other villages have begun to take note and the Pongamia revolution is spreading fast in Adilabad district as local people begin to learn the benefits of this neglected tree. Villagers in Powerguda planted 20,000 saplings of the tree last year. Another cluster of three villages, less than an hour from Powerguda, is getting new power grids run on Pongamia oil. Even if 10 per cent of the district's 6 lakh hectares of agricultural land gets the Pongamia treatment, there will be rapid financial, social and environmental transformation of the district, long regarded as one of the poorest in Andhra Pradesh.
The itda has supported the initiatives of the tribals in Adilabad.
The Forest Department is however, yet to evince interest. Meanwhile, a private group in Hyderabad is planning to test Pongamia -based biofuel in old buses, trucks and three wheelers on the premise that fuel substitution is a cheaper option to engine replacement. The Global Environmental Facility and other donors have also shown interest. Stay tuned.
Emmanuel D'Silva has spent four years working at the grassroots in Adilabad, Andhra Pradesh. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org