Biofuel dreams for wastelands

Centre now has a policy¤ but where’s the wasteland?

By Savvy Soumya Misra
Published: Sunday 31 January 2010

Aiming to reduce India’s dependence on fossil fuels¤ the Centre gave its nod to the national biofuel policy last month that the ministry of new and renewable energy (mnre) has developed. The policy sets a 2017 deadline to achieve blending 20 per cent home grown biofuel with petrol and diesel¤ 70 per cent of which is imported at present.

The policy states production of biofuels will be on degraded wastelands that are not suited for agriculture so that there is no conflict with food production. The policy also encourages industry with subsidies to boost biofuel processing.

The Confederation of Indian Industry (cii) finds the blending target unrealistic; the feedstock India produces now can meet the demands of only small biofuel processing plants. “There is need for a roadmap for the industry to produce second and third generation biofuels¤” said Suprotim Ganguly¤ deputy director¤ Biofuel and Energy Efficiency in India¤ cii.

First generation biofuels are derived from jatropha¤ corn¤ cassava¤ sweet sorghum¤ sugar beet¤ sugarcane. Second generation biofuel comprises cellulose and lignin derived from plants and third generation biofuels are extracted from algae. There is a mention of these advance biofuel technologies only in research and development proposed in the biofuel policy¤ Ganguly added. What he was more concerned about was the stress on wasteland for first generation biofuel plantations: “This will make the land vulnerable leading to grabbing.” What the government claims is wasteland are in most cases grazing land¤ common land for villages or land that has been diverted for other use by villagers¤ said Pramod Tyagi of the Society for Promotion of Wasteland Development. “The policy in a way ensures that farmers will be pushed out of their land eventually¤” Tyagi said.

Biofuel development in India centres mainly around jatropha¤ a non-edible oilseed¤ and bio-ethanol derived from sugarcane. Currently¤ five per cent blending of bioethanol is mandatory across India; there is an optional target of 10 per cent. Sugar mill owners say raising the target to 20 per cent will be difficult as alcohol and chemical industries too are dependent on them.

The other biofuel crop is jatropha. Experiments with jatropha plantations have failed in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. “You need contiguous land for a plantation whereas the wasteland is available in patches¤” Tyagi said.

To encourage feedstock plantation for biofuel¤ the policy proposes a minimum support price on the lines of statutory minimum price for sugarcane.

Is jatropha the right choice?

“Jatropha is promoted because it grows fast. But it is not an indigenous plant and its oil yield is also overestimated¤” said D K Mishra¤ scientist at the Arid Forest Research Institute in Jodhpur. There are other plants like karanj (Pongamia glabra)¤ but they take time to grow and are prone to pest attack. But Pongamia’s plus point is that it is leguminous and therefore good for the soil health¤ Mishra added. Jatropha is non-leguminous.

A food-fuel conflict may be imminent as biofuel crops are also known to consume plenty of water¤ he added. In that case¤ why not grow food¤ asked Shalini Bhutani of the non-profit grain. If the government can provide irrigation for biofuel¤ it could promote pulses and edible oilseeds.

“In the past communities have opposed land diversion for biofuel¤ this will be the case even now¤” pointed out Nikhil Dey of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan¤ a non-profit in Rajsamand district in Rajasthan.

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