May 15, 2009

Jatropha seeds fuelling another scandal?

Another dream is about to go bust. I am talking about India's oil dream from jatropha seeds. The dream was oiled on hype, and of course business interests. The Planning Commission triggered it, and like much of what it does, it actually relied on industrial projections without ascertaining whether biofuels could actually be produced on a scale to make any significant contribution to the country's evergrowing fuel needs.

In April 2003, the Planning Commission had initiated a proposal calling for a major multi-dimensional programme seeking to replace 20 per cent of country's diesel requirement. In March 2004, the first instalment of Rs 800-crore for the National Programme on Jatropha was released to 'support cultivation of jatropha in 200,000 hectares'. Under the programme, a total allocation of Rs 1500 crore to cover 400,000 hectares was envisaged for the next five years.

A total of 13 million hectares had to be brought under jatropha plantations by 2013.

To know about the potential of jatropha plants as biofuel, I had travelled sometimes back to the Directorate of Oilseeds Research in Hyderabad, a premier research centre of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research. My colleague, Dr G V Ramanjaneyulu of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, also based in Hyderabad, accompanied me. Talking to scientists, what we learnt was simply shocking. They were researching on the potential of jatropha for a number of years, but had for some 6-7 years now abandoned the research project. The conclusion: it was not a plant suitable for India.

And yet, the Planning Commission launched a kind of a national mission on jatropha. I am not the least surprised, knowing what India's Planning Commission is capable of doing. But what certainly I don't understand is what refrained the enlightened members of the Planning Commission to talk to DOR scientists before accepting the industry claims. If I and Dr Ramanjaneyulu could talk to the scientists concerned to know about its potential, why couldn't these members do the same? If the dream fails, as is becoming increasingly evident, shouldn't the Planning Commission be held accountable? And why not? After all, it is the tax-payers money that is being squandered, and someone should be held accountable.

And what about large tracts of land that the State Government's have transferred to the private companies at a throwaway price? Isn't that another scandal?

Read the news report below --Jatropha seeds yield little hope for India's oil dream -- and you will understand why I am asking for accountability in the planning process. The Chief Ministers of the States which went out of the way to allocate lands (in the garb of wastelands) too should be held accountable. We cannot let the bigger fish go scot free.

Jatropha seeds yield litle hope for India's oil dream

By Richard Orange
The National, May 11

Back in 2005, Professor RR Shah sent a team to Navsari Agricultural University’s most parched and desolate strip of land, a farm in the Vyasa district of India’s northern state of Gujarat. Their instructions: to set up a model farm for Jatropha, the hardy shrub with oil-rich seeds that were then emerging as one of the most promising alternatives to crude oil.

At the time, Jatropha’s promise seemed boundless. APJ Abdul Kalam, the president, even used his presidential address that year to extol its virtues. Jatropha can survive in the most arid wastelands, the story went, so vast barren swathes of India could be put to productive use. It is inedible so it would not cause a backlash by competing with food crops. The government announced a scheme to plant 13 million hectares, enough to generate nearly 500,000 barrels of Jatropha oil per day.

But as Prof Shah’s project in Vyasa nears its end this month, the dean of agribusiness at Navsari is sceptical. “There is no yield,” he says. “The literature said that with dry land, after four years’ growth, you can get a yield of 1kg per plant. For us, it is hardly 200g per plant.”

Navsari is not alone. As the findings come in from pilot schemes at 22 different agricultural colleges across India, the central claim of Jatropha’s evangelists, that it thrives in barren land, is looking threadbare.

And that is even before you study the difficulties Jatropha faces competing with crude oil at today’s prices. According to Dharmendra Parekh, the managing director of Aditya Aromatics, a Jatropha pioneer in Gujarat, oil from the shrub now costs more than 100 rupees (Dh7.5) per litre to produce, compared with 34 rupees per litre for normal diesel.

Suman Jha, a researcher on Prof Shah’s team, shows me patches where he is growing the plant with fertiliser, intermingled with other crops and trees. Even here, it is a dull and unremarkable green shrub, but at least it is thriving, producing as much as 4kg per plant.

“This is not a wasteland crop,” Dr Jha says. “It needs fertiliser, water and good management. Yes, it grows on wasteland, but it doesn’t give you any yield.”

Dr Jha says companies such as D1 Oils, the London-listed biofuels company, which has planted about 257,000 hectares of Jatropha, mainly in India, moved far too early.

“What we did with this crop is that we distributed it everywhere without having any patience, before finding out which genotypes are high-yielding. If we want, we can get a good amount of profit out if it, but we need to have patience.”

D1 is also having some nasty surprises on yield. It said in 2006 that it aimed to produce 2.7 tonnes of oil per hectare from areas planted with its new E1 variety, and 1.7 tonnes of oil from normal seed. That is equivalent to about 8 tonnes and 5 tonnes of seed per hectare respectively, or 3.5kg and 2kg a plant.

Pradip Bhar, who runs the company’s D1 Williamson Magor Bio Fuel joint venture in India’s north east, admits he has yet to achieve a fraction of that.

“Hitting 500g is the challenge,” he says. “Mortality is quite high. But if we can reach 500g in two years’ time, after that the bush will continue to grow. Our expectation is that after the fourth year we will hit 1kg. The 1.5kg mark we haven’t touched as yet.”

Those are the results from the fertile state of Assam. The yields in other, dryer states such as Jharkand and Orissa, he says, are much worse.

But he still believes D1 was right to forge ahead with early planting because it will be at least an eight-year wait before varieties with good yields on wastelands are developed. Even D1’s E1 variety is not yet available in sufficient quantities.

Mr Bhar intends to hold the area under cultivation steady at about 132,000 hectares this year. As his plantations account for more than half of D1 Oils’ Jatropha crop, the company’s goal of planting 1 million hectares by 2011 looks like a tough one. He is concentrating instead on ensuring his small contract farmers continue tending it for the two or three years needed before it becomes profitable.

This challenge is one of the reasons why Prof Shah doubts the 500,000 hectares of Jatropha the Indian government estimates has been planted so far. Only last month, he unsettled an annual meeting of the universities researching Jatropha and India’s National Oilseeds and Vegetable Oil Development Board by reporting that only 5,000 hectares was actually under plantation in Gujarat, half the official estimate.


Anonymous said...

To the best of my knowledge, very little work is done on Jatropha so far and we have not reached a stage to say whether Jatropha is suitable or not suitable.

We are domesticating a wild plant and there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns. The cart is put before the horse in many of the current projects and state supported programmes. The processing plants are being established without feedstock and plantations are being established without research. We need to conduct research, establish trial plantations, expand it to large scale and then set up processing plants.

We have been working on Jatropha for the six years and observed that there are many issues, in terms of inputs and output, that makes their cultivation risky at the moment. We need to adopt a conservative and cautious approach so that no body is put to loss or money is not wasted.

Our focus is on sustainability, biodiversity, ecological balance, optimum utilisation of natural resources, rural energy, livelihoods, food and fuel and low cost and low risk integrated tree based farming. We have incorporated all these elements in our project and established R&D farm of non-edible oil bearing trees such as Jatropha and Pongamia in 2003. We would like to approach farmers, only after we achieve meaningful outcomes at our farm. We produced reasonable results as of now and hope to reach the target very soon.


Sreenivas Ghatty
CEO, Tree Oils India Ltd.

Shyam said...

It is unfortunate that we always try picking faults in anything and this Biofuel species - Jatropha - seems no different. The basic being clear - that it is a biofuel species - the rest of the technical information need be thoroughly searched, discussed, consulted prior to consolidating the right information on the species.
Agricultural / horticultural practices have their inherent limitations as well which, need be compensated with appropriate measures applicable even in the case of Jatropha.
When there are no substitutes for fossil fuel at this juncture, is it any harm trying out a candidate which has some credibility ?