Jatropha may secure energy, but planting schemes fail to bear fruit

Jatropha may secure energy, but planting schemes fail to bear fruit

Kesla Gaon, Chhattisgarh: Every week, Sumit Sarkar and his sport utility vehicle cover 3,000km across Chhattisgarh in search of the perennial green bush, jatropha—the seeds of which might help guarantee the country’s future energy security.

But the “green gold", as the dark berry-shaped seeds that are crushed to help produce biofuel are called, remain very difficult to find.

“We will be lucky if we get 2,000 tonnes of seeds this year," says Sarkar, the 36-year-old regional manager of D1 Oils Plc., a biofuel firm listed on?the?London?Stock?Exchange.

D1 Oils, in which BP Plc. has recently picked up 50% equity, has set up a 21,000 tonnes-a- year biofuel plant in the western Tamil Nadu town of Coimbatore in a joint venture with Mohan Breweries & Distilleries Ltd.

D1 Oil is scouring for seeds in different parts of the country, including Chhattisgarh. The new partnership firm, D1 BP Fuel Crops Ltd, plans to spend Rs50 crore to set up eight more expellers, or oil extraction plants, in the state where the government’s much-hyped jatropha plantation drive was launched two years ago.

In a symbolic statement of Chhattisgarh’s support to promoting both the cultivation and use of alternative energy, chief minister Raman Singh’s official car runs on biofuel. But elsewhere, the hunt goes on for jatropha, locally known as bagaranda.

Last year, daily wage earner Santosh Yadav, who lives in Garka village in central Chhattisgarh, assisted in planting 4,000 saplings along a 2km stretch of the national highway known as Singanpur. Today, only half the saplings survive.

“We’ve heard these plants will give us petrol and diesel. But we can’t see it," says Yadav, who earned an average Rs67 a day for the fortnight he worked through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS).

About 290 million saplings have been planted by separate government agencies across the state’s fallow land, covering roughly 1.6 million hectares (mha). Under NREGS, about Rs55 crore was spent to plant jatropha.

Of these, one-fourth was planted in 2005, in anticipation of the plants bearing fruit this season. But poor survival rates and diversion of seeds to cater to larger plantation efforts by the government left several companies scrambling.

While the government has announced a minimum support price of Rs6.50 a kg, market price has hit Rs30-50 a kg with growing demand.

Companies, such as D1 Oils and Reliance Life Sciences (Pvt.) Ltd, part of the Mukesh Ambani-promoted Reliance Group, are turning to women self-help groups and other networks to procure seeds .

Emami Group—which has set up a 100,000 tonnes biofuel plant in Haldia, West Bengal—was the first company to approach the state for contract farming three years ago, but has not heard from the government yet. According to a company official who did not want to be named, Emami now plans to import palm oil to make biofuel.

Reliance Life, meanwhile, entered an agreement with the local farmer-led Agricon Entrepreneurs Ltd to purchase seeds. Reliance did not reply to email queries, but Sanket Thakur, Agricon’s managing director, said it plans to procure seeds from 10,000ha with the help of village communities in the southern district of Bastar.

On a recent afternoon here, Sarkar pulled his jet-black Bolero on the roadside to survey a 10ha plantation in Kesla, 50-odd kilometres from the Madhya Pradesh border. He says he’s on a mission to create “enthusiasm" among villagers. Planted by the village watershed committee with free saplings from the government last year, some 30% of the 10,000 plantings have died due to lack of attention and water.

At the nearby village, he meets self-help group members, who are collecting seeds for a profit of Rs1.5 a kg. “You must build awareness and spread the word," he urges them. Within a year, D1 Oils has engaged 25 such groups to collect seeds, covering 22,570ha.

While there are sporadic reports of seeds being exported to African countries, companies say part of the problem lies with the Centre of Biodiesel Development Authority, the overarching agency promoting jatropha in the state, failing to set up collection centres as planned. On Monday, the authority signed its first deal with Indian Oil Corp. Ltd to form a company to raise crop and procure seeds.

Experts say the state’s jatropha programme, which employs at least 200,000 labourers, took off before the Centre’s approval of the National Biofuel Mission, which calls for Rs1,500 crore spending on jatropha cultivation. A group of ministers, expected to meet last week, has postponed to mid-December.

According to an official in the rural development ministry drafting the biofuel policy, it’s too early to enter commercial production when little is known about the plant’s genetic make-up or appropriate agricultural practices.

Yet, Hindustan Petroleum Corp. Ltd, which conducted field trials on buses, Volvo trucks and forklifts three years ago, notes?a?decrease?in?air?pollution. The tests, according to C.S. Krishnaswamy, the company’s general manager for research & development, show emission rates down by 7%.

Even so, the company still finds it tough to procure seeds. Six months ago, the company signed a memorandum of understanding with Govind Ballabh Pant University of Agriculture & Technology in Uttaranchal for large-scale cultivation and funding of a tissue culture project. “Supply is negligible. Even if we were to blend 5%, we will need at least 13 million tonnes of biofuel," says Krishnaswamy. Recommendations for blends range from a low 5% upward, the percentage referring to parts biofuel mixed with enough diesel to power an engine.

While Chhattisgarh is focusing on fallow land to raise plantation, the larger problem, says Padam Bhojvaid, a senior fellow at The Energy Resource Institute (Teri), is that jatropha cultivation presents a direct conflict with food security. “Growing it as pure crop will affect social effects of food security as people will grow what gives them money."

But unlike rice and wheat, jatropha is not prone to drought, said Shailendra Shukla, executive director of the Raipur-based Central Biodiesel Authority. “A jatropha plant can provide income for 50 years and input costs are negligible," he said.

Teri’s Bhojvaid, who is assisting BP to grow jatropha on 8,000ha in coastal Andhra Pradesh, says the deciding factor will be how much seed is available in the market.

“It’s a simple demand supply calculation."