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Now it is the turn of the Rajasthan government to be bowled over by biofuel. At a press meet in Jaipur on January 11, 2007, parliamentary affairs minister Rajendra Rathore relayed the decision of the Rajasthan cabinet to allocate 48.5 million hectares (ha) of "culturable wastelands" for planting ratanjot (Jatropha curcus) and other biofuel crops, as part of its new draft biofuel policy. But civil society organisations working on land reforms in Rajasthan consider this policy as a possible ploy to grab village commons, and scientists fear that lack of technical knowledge may render the scheme unsuccessful.
The Rajasthan biofuel policy, still at the draft stage, will bring almost 45 per cent of the state's 10.56 million ha of "wastelands" under jatropha cultivation.Thirty per cent of the land will be given to private and public sector companies, while 70 per cent will be allotted to self-help groups (shgs) with members from below the poverty line (bpl) families, landless farmers, gram panchayats, cooperative societies and government-run institutes.
A state biofuel authority--the Bio Fuel Development Authority (bda)--has already been instituted under the District Poverty Initiative Project, looking into making jatropha a viable non-edible cash crop. According to bda general manager R K Nag, the process of identifying the land where jatropha can be grown has begun. "District collectors have already been instructed to give us a village-level breakup of the wasteland in their respective districts," he says.
Delineating the policy, Nag said land will be leased out to companies for 20 years, after which leases would have to be renewed. Companies allotted land would have to plant jatropha or other biofuel crops on at least 50 per cent of the area within two years, and on the rest the next year. Other allottees landless farmers, shgs and panchayats, will be given land under the gair-khatirdari, or untitled system, in which a villager or a village can utilise land but can't own it, for it belongs to the government. The state government has calculated an average investment of Rs 30,000 per ha; it will provide initial assistance of Rs 7,500 per ha to all categories of cultivators except private companies. Another Rs 2,500 will be provided by the National Oilseeds and Vegetable Oils Development Board.
"Private companies (registered under the Indian Companies Act of 1956) and national undertakings can be allotted up to a maximum of 1,000 ha with the approval from the special committee headed by the state's chief secretary," says the draft biofuel policy. For all other categories, land up to 100 ha may be sanctioned by subcommittees the district collector will head.
The policy also stresses the private-people partnership it is mandatory for companies taking up 500 ha or more of wasteland to set up research and development facilities; knowledge from this must be shared free of cost with the other categories of biofuel cultivators. The policy also envisages setting up processing plants and refineries around plantation sites, and maintaining a nursery to develop high quality seeds. The government will also set a minimum support price (msp) for seeds of jatropha and other biofuel crops. Currently, it purchases jatropha seeds at Rs 7.20 per kg.
The policy is not yet open for public scrutiny, but the ngos in Rajasthan are already fidgety about the manner government will lease out land. The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (mkss) has already filed an application under the Right to Information Act to ascertain the exact nature of the policy. mkss founding member Nikhil Dey says that even in the past private companies have tried to grab village commons and grazing lands. "The special economic zones the government initiated in the state were nothing but an excuse to grab pastureland by calling it wasteland. The new biofuel policy may open up new opportunities to grab more common land in the villages," he says.
The Society for Promotion of Wasteland Development (spwd), an ngo headquartered in Delhi, had released a study, Promotion of Biofuel in India Issues and Prospects in August 2006. The study was carried out in six states, including Rajasthan, where it found that most of the actual wasteland rocky barren lands, ravines and deserts was unfit for cultivation, while the remaining wasteland grazing land was heavily encroached upon. "Hence if rocky barren lands, ravines and deserts, which are actual wastelands, are removed from the list then the only land remaining is the panchayat land or village common land. The status of most of the revenue common lands is heavily encroached. Will these encroachments first be cleared? Will electoral politics let it happen?" the study inquires.
Further, Viren Lobo, spwd's western region programme director, questions how the government plans to make jatropha a profitable venture for both farmers and private companies "The market price of seeds in Rajasthan is around Rs 7. Taking an average of 25 per cent oil content per seed, 4 kg of seeds would be needed to produce one litre of bio-diesel; this makes the cost estimate for only the seed at Rs 28." He adds "On this price a further cost of Rs 6 for seed extraction and transesterification will be added, raising the cumulative cost of producing a litre of biodiesel to a prohibitive Rs 34. This cost is Rs 9 higher than the price fixed by the Union ministry of petroleum and natural gases, which is Rs 25." Rs 25, the ministry says, is the limit for economic viability.
The government has talked about allotting culturable wasteland, but Lobo feels pastoralists will be badly affected. "In Rajasthan pasturelands account for as little as 2 per cent of the total land, and grazing is mostly done on the land belonging to the revenue department." He also points out that 90 per cent of the 10.56 million ha of wasteland lie in Jaisalmer district. This region also has catchment areas that help irrigate rabi crops and provide water for humans and animals. If this area is cultivated, the catchments areas would be clogged, creating drought-like conditions.
The Central Arid Zone Research Institute (cazri) in Jodhpur has two ha of its nursery under jatropha plantation. It is yet to harvest any seeds. "Our efforts to cultivate the seeds of jatropha has been quite futile in the last three years. Even with irrigation and added fertiliser, we have not been able to grow seeds on these plants," says L N Harsh, a cazri scientist. Harsh believes the soil and climatic conditions of only southern Rajasthan can be used to grow jatropha. In western Rajasthan, the state government should propagate more local plants such pongamia (karanj) and salvadora (pilu).
"cazri has been successful in extracting not only oil from pilu seeds but has managed to make wine from the fruit," Harsh adds.
Moreover, the government has announced land allocation to grow jatropha but is yet to come out with a concrete plan to process and refine seeds. R L Srivastava, director, Arid Forest Research Institute, Jodhpur feels unless the government ensures proper backward and forward linkages for cultivators, the policy will become a disaster. "The government has to ensure that benchmark quality seeds reach cultivators at the time of sowing, as seeds of varying quality are floating in the market today. Because the raw produce of the plant is perishable, the government must also ensure it can create a market ready to absorb these seeds as soon as they are harvested." Ominously, he adds "The shelf life of these seeds cannot be extended beyond a month after which the quantity of oil in these seeds diminish." Also, there is no provision for crop insurance to small farmers.
Finally, if the government's intention to consider bpl families for land allotment under the policy was to win brownie points among civil society organisations, it may be in for a huge shock. Asks Kavita Srivastava, general secretrary of Public Union for Civil Liberties "Which bpl census will the government follow? The census of 2002 had grave anomalies in the methodology with which it undertook to calculate the number bpl families and had deleted the names of more than 300,000 families; the number of bpl families came down from close to 2.1 million to 1.7 million. The anomalies were so grave that families of schedule castes and schedule tribes were deleted from the list while names of dominant castes figured in the list." "If the government accepts the 2002 bpl census for allotment of land, then there will be widespread protest in the state," she adds.