Emphasis on promotion of biofuels can be useful for solving rural energy problems.
India is a country in transition with recent high rates of economic growth propelling it towards being a global economic power. The sustenance of this economic growth would depend on how the country is able to take the fruits of development to the deprived sections of society. Deprivation is borne out by the fact that over 50 per cent of the households in the country are yet to be electrified. These households depend on subsidised kerosene for lighting. The kerosene is bur nt in highly inefficient devices that do little for illumination and contribute more towards increasing health problems. Similarly for meeting cooking energy needs, over 80 per cent of the rural households directly burn biomass. Meanwhile, the relatively affluent — particularly 25 per cent of urban households — garner 80 per cent of the subsidy on LPG. The scenario demands a path that is distinctly different from the current approach to solving rural energy problems. It is to this end that the emphasis on the promotion of biofuels can be useful.
While the debate continues on the benefits and impact of Jatropha plantation, there is close to 24 million hectares of culturable fallow land that is lying unutilised. The ownership of this type of land is often with marginal and small farmers. Lack of a proper income often traps these farmers in a vicious circle of debt and poverty. In such cases, the issue of the impact of Jatropha plantation on food security becomes meaningless. Further, the debate on the production of biodiesel for blending with petrodiesel has overlooked the possible use of Jatropha seed oil for meeting energy needs at the local level. Straight vegetable oils (SVO) are used in several countries in Africa and South East Asia for meeting local energy needs. SVO-based generators that produce electricity and cookstoves that operate on plant oils are already being used. Engines based on SVO for operating irrigation pumpsets are also available and being used. Thus the plantation of Jatropha has the potential to contribute significantly to the creation of a local economy based on the production and use of SVO for meeting decentralised energy needs.
One hectare of Jatropha plantation would provide at least 1.5 tonnes of oil per annum. Farmers can individually use the oil at the household level or can join hands to find productive use of oil for meeting collective energy needs. They can further market the excess oil either for local consumption or for the production of biodiesel. In this context the focus needs to be on promoting plantations on the boundary, fallow land and in inter-crop mode. In these modes, the plantation would minimally interfere with the existing cropping pattern. In such a scenario, rather than conflicting with food security the effort would strengthen and enhance the current production. The farmer’s income from the sale of oil or enhanced economic opportunities through energy production will be ploughed back into improving the production of regular crops.
The winds of change that the effort on biofuels production are bringing can help in blowing away the scourge of poverty, including deprivation of modern energy, for the rural masses. Hope is reflected by the amazement and pride with which Appa Rao, a marginal farmer in a remote village of Andhra Pradesh, looks at his lush green agriculture field of one hectare in which Jatropha curcas has been planted. Not long ago, it was barren and Appa Rao used to bemoan his luck for having a useless piece of land. The land had been lying fallow for quite some time due to low productivity of soil and lack of irrigation facilities.
There are hundreds of such farmers who have adopted the initiative for Jatropha plantation in the West Godavari, East Godavari, Khammam and Krishna districts of Andhra Pradesh. The farmers have entered into a buyback arrangement with Project Green, a joint initiative of The Energy and Resources Institute and BP. They are being provided elite planting material, technical help and training. They are also being organised into groups for local decentralised expelling of oil. The oil is proposed to be used both locally and for the production of biodiesel. By the third year of the project, close to seven million plants have been planted and a decentralised expeller is all set to produce oil. Such efforts would require support and incentives from the government. It is to this end that some of the subsidy of close to Rs.30,000 crore on kerosene and LPG can be directed. Currently, the subsidy is largely appropriated by the relatively affluent and a significant part is diverted for the adulteration of diesel with kerosene. The use of subsidy for sustainably resolving energy problems and contributing to the economic uplift of the poor would lead to the optimal utilisation of resources. The initiative would also require facilitation in making available low-cost SVO-based cook stoves, generators and pumpset engines that small farmers and other rural households can afford. Since it is still early days for biofuels and the Jatropha-based biodiesel programme, the constraints with regard to production and direct use can be further resolved. Specifically, effort is required to make the small-scale production processes first secure their own energy interests and then enter into a partnership with large-scale producers.
6 months ago