In a country where 319 million people still live on less than Rs40, or about $1, a day, Dina Nath Tiwari believes that a gangly green shrub growing in the rural countryside can eradicate poverty and remove regional imbalances.

A former Planning Commission member, Tiwari headed the committee on biofuel development in 2002 to encourage cultivation of Jatropha curcas, a sturdy plant bearing oil-rich seeds, with wider possibilities of making biofuel if blended with diesel.

The committee report suggested forming a biofuel mission and funding a Rs1,500 crore demonstration project to counter rising oil prices and domestic energy demand. But the recommendations, made during the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rule, were not accepted by the current Congress-led UPA government.

Now, as oil consumption soars, crude oil prices near $100 a barrel and the government aggressively explores alternative energy sources and environment-friendly policies, a group of union ministers is expected to revisit jatropha this week.

By now, Tiwari has a track record to back up what his committee said some five years ago.

On a mission: The vice-chairman of the Chhattisgarh Planning Board says the jatropha cultivation programme in the state will lead to greater energy security and help improve the living standards of the poor by 2012.At a time when oil is nearing $100 a barrel, Tiwari’s idea of a biofuel revolution is generating interest in the government as it looks at alternative sources of energy.

“We are aiming this at the poor, who spend an average Rs1,500 every month on kerosene and diesel. We want to make them self-sufficient in energy, which can be used in irrigation pumps and electricity," says Tiwari, who entered the forest service in 1960.

Chhattisgarh was the first state to announce a biodiesel policy with a jatropha planting initiative in fallow land and free distribution of 500 plants to every farmer. It has also announced a minimum support price of Rs6.50 per kg of seeds.

The state now operates the largest jatropha cultivation programme and, according to Tiwari, it will generate income, lead to greater energy security and push up people’s living standard above poverty margins by 20% in 2012.

Tiwari spent the first decade of his life in Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati and Wardha ashrams to escape police harassment as his freedom fighter parents, Vishnu and Purnima Bhaghwan, went in and out of prison. He then went on to write two dozen monographs on plants and trees, and some 102 books that have been translated into 10 languages.

His 250-page book, Jatropha and Biodiesel, on how to engage village communities in the effort, has a message from former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and a foreword by Tata group chairman Ratan Tata.

With three PhDs—including one in biochemistry under Nobel laureate Erik-Nils Nilsson in Sweden—Tiwari says India’s independence struggle has had a deep impact on his life’s work. “It taught us dignity of labour."

An affinity for tribal communities led him to write a report in the 1980s for the government on the lack of amenities in 5,000 forest villages. That led to the government allocating Rs20 crore for improvements.

In the early 1980s, as he toured a village in eastern Madhya Pradesh stricken by water poisoning, Tiwari noticed how jatropha seeds, stuffed and burnt inside bamboo hollows, provided light in villages where no electricity existed. About 200 people of the Baiga tribal community had died and Tiwari, trying to reach the inaccessible village of Chadha, turned to villagers to escort him some 12km after sundown.

“There were two torches," he recalls. “One in the front leading the way and one following behind. The light lasted the entire journey."

On his way back, he packed some seeds and passed them onto the Kanpur-based Harcourt Butler Technological Institute. But, not until he became the head of the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education, and chancellor of the Forest Research Institute, did Tiwari begin serious efforts to collect jatropha seeds, engaging alumni students posted in different parts of the world.

“Beggars are sometimes at an advantageous position," he quips. “They are loyal students, and all you needed to do was to ask." At last count, he has obtained seeds from 31 countries, including several in Africa such as Tanzania, Kenya and Nigeria. He says his first experiment with planting jatropha was near Allahabad, in 1995. Brick-making activity on the banks of the Ganga had ravaged the area and he suggested planting jatropha to control land erosion.

After retirement, he and his wife have been involved with his non-profit Uthan Centre for Sustainable Development and Poverty, to which the Sir Tata Dorabji Trust donated Rs2.2 crore in 2003. Uthan now raises jatropha saplings for distribution and has involved 700 farmers under the programme around Allahabad.

With the Tata trust funding, Uthan set up an oil-extracting plant. Uthan also owns a mobile van with an oil expeller installed, which tours 96 villages around Allahabad so that people can extract oil for free. In return, Uthan keeps the oil cakes and the residue, which are then passed on to some four dozen institutes for research and development work, including the Central Food Technological Research Institute in Mysore and the Indian Institutes of Technology in Kanpur and Delhi.

“Whoever requests for it, we give them on the condition that the results are shared with us," says Tiwari. “One of my major responsibilities was not to disturb the food security and grow something that is hardy in non-crop areas."

Jatropha and Tiwari’s methods are not without critics. Some have been quick to point out Chhattisgarh’s project is more hype with little happening on the ground. They say fallow land cannot produce sufficient yield of seeds and is commercially unviable.

The huge expense—about Rs100 crore every year since plantation by various government agencies started—is also being viewed as a huge waste. Others say a multiple-crop policy would have generated more income for the rural community than depending simply on jatropha.

Tiwari’s response is that wastelands have to be rehabilitated first to retain moisture, before introducing a multiple-crop system.

He points out that about 300 people will be employed per hectare during the plantation stage in the first year alone and about 40 workdays throughout the 45 years life of each plant. Villages will be able to earn from the first two years, with each tree generating about 2kg seeds per year, he predicts.

Apart from improving the economy of local communities, high volumes of jatropha could address other environmental concerns, such as allowing vehicles to use more biodiesel. And residue from the crop can be used as compost and biomass for cooking, apart from having the potential for making glycerol. Tiwari says India has 65 million ha of wasteland and, even if jatropha cultivation is introduced in half of this area, it may one day no longer need to depend on crude oil imports.

“A clean energy revolution can never take place without the support of people," he says, insisting the programme will reduce the poverty and malnutrition rates. And he is pragmatic enough to say that his ideas aren’t necessarily going to eradicate poverty. “I don’t think poverty will be entirely removed in my lifetime."

Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world, a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to