Jatropha fever

Why is the Chhattisgarh government promoting a poisonous and invasive plant?

Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Jatropha fever

-- 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.
It's not even cheap Moreover, where is the potential market for jatropha-diesel? The government claims that its low cost will draw enough buyers. But is such biodiesel really cheap? No. In fact, at Rs 150 (or even more) per litre, it is nearly five times the cost of conventional diesel. The Chhattisgarh government is perhaps oblivious of the experiments of some African countries with jatropha. A few decades back, governments of these countries had promoted jatropha as a biofuel yielding plant. Did these projects have any success? No. These countries continue to rely on coventional diesel.

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?
All is not lost If the Chhattisgarh government is really serious in promoting jatropha over the long term, it should conduct feasibility studies. A pilot project should be undertaken in areas that have natural jatropha population; at the same time, the exotic varieties should be weeded out. The use of endemic plants will provide employment opportunities to local people; rooting out the exotic species would give much needed relief to the native flora. Moreover, if the Chhattisgarh government is so confident about using jatropha as a biodiesel, it should start a scheme to buy back the plants from the farmers. Only unscrupulous suppliers stand to lose from these moves.

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

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