Home / Opinion / Views /  The right and wrong in Nitin Gadkari’s ethanol push

Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari is not a patient man. Not that that’s a bad thing. This impatience has massively ramped up the rate of highway construction in India, which has grown more than 15 times under his tenure, from an average of 2 kilometres a day to over 40 kilometres a day. The target for FY23 has already been stretched to 60 kilometres a day and the minister has said he wants to take it to 100 kilometres a day.

The same impatience has been visible in his other remit, transport, where he has been pushing targets forward and outward in multiple ways. From ramrodding the industry to switch directly from BS4 to BS6 emission norms–without passing BS5 and two years ahead of schedule at that–to pushing for electric vehicles to warning cement producers that he will set up cement plants under his ministry if industry cartels did not supply adequate cement at the right price for road concretisation, Gadkari has time and again conveyed that he prefers action to plans, and will brook no opposition when it comes to executing his vision.

This is a refreshing change in a country where both decision-making and execution in the government tend to take place at glacial speed. Gadkari’s latest bee-in-the-bonnet is speeding up the switch from hydrocarbon fuels to ethanol-blended fuels to, eventually, wholly bio-ethanol-based engines for transportation.

Gadkari has been batting for agriculture-based energy sourcing for some time now. He reiterated this again on Sunday. Addressing the 61st convention of automakers body Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers, Gadkari urged automakers to start making flex engines, which can run either on fossil fuel or ethanol, while promising to set up ethanol filling stations within six months in the country.

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It is clear that Gadkari wants to see things moving on ethanol-powered vehicles. He has already, like he did with emission norms (and manufacture of compliant fuel) been sharpening the target. Originally set for 2030, the target for producing ethanol-powered engines was first advanced to 2025, and then even closer, to 2023. Meanwhile, Gadkari has also pushed the target year for blending 20 per cent ethanol with fuel–known as E20 fuel–down to 2025. India currently blends 10 per cent ethanol with fuel.

Gadkari’s argument is that this is a double win for India. On the one hand, it will cut India’s dependence on imported fossil fuel–India currently imports 85 per cent of its crude oil. At the same time, the switch to bio-ethanol will boost farmers income and stimulate growth. “Over-production of sugar is a problem for the economy; we spend Rs. 15 lakh crore/year for import of petroleum products, hence we need to diversify the agriculture sector towards energy and power sectors." Gadkari said at the SIAM meet. “While our requirement was 280 lakh tonnes of sugar this year, the production was more than 360 lakh tonnes; this could be utilised due to the situation in Brazil. However, we need to divert production towards ethanol as the ethanol requirement is very high."

Gadkari is both right and wrong in urging farmers to diversify away from growing food to other products. But he is wrong in assuming that growing sugarcane for ethanol instead of sugar would address the twin challenges of ensuring enough availability of ethanol for his ambitious blending targets, while at the same time solving the problem of overproduction of sugar.

Gadkari’s home base is in Maharashtra, which has a powerful lobby of sugarcane farmers. However, growing sugarcane comes at a huge cost–massive depletion of water resources. Sugarcane is an extremely water-intensive crop. Maharashtra, despite suffering from acute water shortages–the ‘water trains’ to Latur are a recent memory–nevertheless diverts a disproportionate part of its water assets to sugarcane, which is planted on around 4 per cent of the state’s cultivable land but consumes 70 per cent of the state’s irrigation water.

India’s lopsided food policy, which incentivises the cultivation of water-intensive cereals like rice and wheat over more water-frugal grains like millets, has worsened the problem. Indian farmers use 15,000 litres of water per kilogramme of paddy, although crop scientists say 600 litres would be enough with scientific irrigation. A staggering 80 per cent of India’s water used for agriculture is for growing rice, wheat and sugarcane, which together account for 40 per cent of all cultivated land.

So yes, Gadkari is right in urging Indian farmers to diversify their crops. But this has to be to less water-intensive crops, not a water-guzzler like sugarcane.

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